How to revamp your winter garden for summer:top tips on transforming neglected outdoor spaces in time for BBQ season

A completely new garden can take a couple of years to settle in so try to salvage something from an old one to help keep the character in your outdoor space... 

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When creating a new garden, it’s a good idea to see what can be salvaged from the old one. “I always like to keep a few elements if I can, because you just can’t buy a garden with character,” says garden designer Dan Bristow, better known as Propagating Dan.

“A completely new garden always takes a few years to settle in.”

Prime example of rescuing plants  — and upgrading them — is in this Peckham garden. It needed a total renovation after the owners had an extension added to the back of their home, which left a mass of builders’ rubble as well as neglected shrubs and trees.

“There was an overgrown myrtle, an elder against a wall, a silver birch and a huge fuchsia, four metres wide, and you can’t find that size for love nor money.

We topped the silver birch, fan-trained the elder and cloud-pruned both the myrtle and the fuchsia. The myrtle now makes a great evergreen sculpture and when the fuchsia blooms, the flowers look like pink rain, and the beautiful peeling coppery bark is on display.”

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On the jetty: the limestone patio is raised by one foot, Japanese style, to give a more interesting view of the planting (Marianne Majerus)

Along with the garden’s contemporary glass-walled studio, these plants are now star features that underscore the Oriental design Bristow proposed to the owners.

One of many interesting ideas was the way he linked the extension to the studio: with two levels, and a staggered path of limestone paving surrounded by dark basalt chippings. “There had to be hard standing, so people weren’t walking down the garden on soggy plants. 

“We made the patio area into a jetty, simply by raising the area by one foot, so you look down on the planting as they do in Japanese gardens, which is rather lovely.

The basalt chippings make all the greens stand out, and this garden is all about texture. Leaves can be just as exciting as flowers.”

The raised stepping stones are edged in blue engineering bricks that chime with the blue bricks on the extension, and discreet lights at each step skim across the stone, making a safe journey.

Two integrated oak benches, simple but sociably placed, and with lights set into the legs, make an architectural feature. “When you sit on them, you feel enclosed by the garden,” says Bristow. 

Here and there, among the plants, slabs of reclaimed Westmoreland stone add to the naturalistic feel. “Rockery stone is deeply unfashionable,” says Bristow, “but if you know how to lay the stone showing the strata, it can look like there are smaller areas of rock peeking out from a bedrock beneath.”

His aim was to create a topography so there isn’t one flat level, which invariably makes for a dull garden. “We also planted in mounds, slightly raised, so that the dark basalt looks like a dry lake, Japanese style.”

The planting needed to soften the lines of both buildings. Bristow achieved this with layers of textural greenery, using decorative grasses and woodland native plants such as Solomon’s Seal, Iris foetidus and pretty, shade-loving evergreen Disporopsis pernyi.

He also included the stunning foliage groundcover Trachystemon orientalis, which he says thrives in the deepest shade and reliably produces early borage-like blue flowers. 

A purple Japanese maple creates a feathery cushion by the studio entrance and a wall of bamboo against a boundary wall provides stature as well as screening. In late spring, two Crambe cordifolia burst into billowing flower — Bristow calls them “firework clouds” — while Iris sibirica and aquilegia are scattered all over the garden.

Tiny-leaved Corsican mint does a great job of carpeting awkward sloping areas. “The idea was to have a changing tapestry beneath the official planting,” explains Bristow, who achieved the effect of plants flowing one into the other by giving common creeping oxalis and herb robert their head, showing delightfully that one garden’s weed can be another garden’s treasure.


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