We live in Islington and have a small back garden that needed a serious overhaul after turning into a bit of a jungle over the years. The grass was struggling to grow and most of the ground was just mud.
We specifically wanted a garden that would be low maintenance and require no lawn to mow. Most of all, it was important to me that our garden be eco-friendly as we really love nature and wanted our little urban space to a be celebration of it.
Personally I love lawn and had confidence that we could get our struggling lawn to thrive, but as we planned to rent our flat out we really needed this garden to be as simple as possible for tenants, while also being a beautiful space to enjoy in summer.
I’ve always loved gardening but had never designed a garden before. My partner kindly gave me permission to design whatever I wanted (yes he was very brave!). Although he didn’t set a limit on our budget, the whole cost of the project came in at just under £1000. We are so thrilled with the final result and how relatively easy it was to do ourselves. When doing my original research on urban eco-friendly gardens it was surprisingly hard to find any inspiration or advice for doing it yourself.
I hope very much that this might inspire others like you to create your very own backyard oasis, and maybe help reconnect you with nature. It truly makes you feel like home.
In coming up with the design I had to consider the irregular shape of the garden. None of the walls are perpendicular to each other so I felt that if we were going to create a space like a patio for entertaining, it would look best if it was an organic, flowing shape to complement the harsh angles and lines of the various walls. We just needed enough space to fit a table and 4 chairs in case of entertaining friends in summer.
I designed a teardrop shape for the entertainment area, which I felt was a natural evolution away from a traditional square or circle shape for a patio. It also adds a bit of a contemporary feel to the otherwise natural garden.
We said NO to:
We said YES to:
- Bark chipping
We have several different species of animals who enjoy our garden every day. Their visits have become something we cherish, and we were mindful that they need space too. Having peeked over our fences we could see that most of our neighbours had paved over their gardens leaving little space for our animal friends.
- The squirrels need somewhere to bury their nuts;
- The foxes & cats needs somewhere to roam through;
- The birds, bees & butterflies desperately need more trees & flowers.
Paving & Astroturf were out of the question as they are ecologically damaging. They prevent water draining into the soil. This causes problems with London’s water table, which basically means it contributes to flooding in the city. There is so little green space in our cities as it is. I personally do not understand why we would want to suffocate the earth with concrete anyway.
Timber decking looks beautiful for about a year but is actually high maintenance as it is exposed to weather and deteriorates over time. It’s also not great for the squirrels either who are not able to hide their food for the winter. I lived in a house previously where decking had been freshly installed, but within 3 years it all had to be ripped out because it had rotted completely.
I chose gravel/pebbles because it allows water to drain while giving us a clear space to use. Although it was the most difficult thing to plan, it was all surprisingly easy to install. I wanted the pebbles to be natural colours and small so that if leaves and other garden debris fall on it, it won’t look very messy. There are some fashionable, contemporary pebbles that are so clean and big, but look messy once some leaves fall on them.
To keep the gravel in the place, I needed borders so I ordered flexible steel edging from EverEdge and gravel mats from Homebase which I then cut to shape. The EverEdge borders are so easy to install, all I needed was a mallet and a block of wood to bang into place. I put weed fabric under the borders and gravel to help prevent weeds growing through, but this is the only part of the garden that we applied weed fabric to.
For the rest of the garden, I chose bark for the ground cover as it is aesthetically pleasing and also helps protect the plants. It will decompose and can easily be topped up or simply just blend in with the garden plants.
I did not put weed fabric down under the bark because we wanted the squirrels to be able to continue to bury their nuts somewhere. Weed fabric is really just a short term solution, eventually weeds will grow above the fabric amongst the composting material anyway.
Also, one of the things that baffled people most when I told them is that:
We have no objections to weeds!
People have such strong negative feelings about weeds and I’m not entirely sure why. In our case, we were not trying to create a manicured, pristine garden. The whole point is for our garden to thrive as it would naturally with minimal human interference. Less work for us and a better balance for nature.
We looked at what plants we already had. Most of the bushes that had originally been planted years ago had completely overgrown so we decided to trim them back completely to open up the space and create more light in the garden. We wanted to avoid removing plants because it felt best to honour the ones that have thrived there for so long, especially as we knew the wildlife love them.
As we were surrendering much of the failed lawn area back to the garden, I had room to plant more things.
- I was looking for plants that would not grow very tall and if left without trimming, would look lovely.
- I wanted them to be good for birds, bees and butterflies.
- I also wanted splashes of colour and fragrance which is a given when choosing bee/bird friendly plants anyway.
After some research, I chose:
- Lavender – Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote
- Echinacea – Echinacea purpurea Magnus
- Natural grasses – Stipa tenuissima
- Cherry Blossom – Prunus Accolade
- Japanese Maple – Acer palmatum Garnet
- Lilac – Syringa Red Pixie
When planting them all I was careful to leave lots of space between everything. When plants are still so tiny, it’s too easy to make the mistake of planting things too close together which leads to overcrowding. Right now it might look minimalist, but in a couple of years it will be thriving and very green.
THE FINAL RESULT
We finished the garden in winter 2018 and it’s going to take at least a year to see it flourish in it’s full colour and glory, but already it has made a huge impact. We had the walls & fences repaired and painted which really made the space regain it’s vibrance.
- Stylish Stone Golden Gravel Large Pack £7 each x 35 bags = £245
- Arthur Bowers Bark Chips – 100L £8.95 each x 10 = £89.50
- EverEdge Classic 100mm high 5m pack £40.80 each x 2 = £81.60
- Alveplac Gravel Stabilising Mat £20 per mat x 8 = £160.00
- Sprout Garden Weed Control Fabric Membrane – 15 x 1m x 1 £9.95
- Various Plants from RHS Plants £182.79
- Wall Paint, Fence Repair etc Approx £200
Total Cost: £968.84
UPDATE May 2022:
It’s been over 2 years since I landscaped the garden and I’m pleased to report that it has thrived. It has proven to be low maintenence, requiring only some trimming and pruning about once or twice a year to tame the roses and pyracantha which are all in full bloom at the moment.
As I write this, I am sitting near the door that looks over the garden. We can smell the sweet fragrances of the flowers all day long, the sound of birdsong is so beautiful and loud in the evenings, the bees love it, as do the occasional squirrel and neighbourhood cat.
The decorative grasses and echinacea didn’t survive, I believe it was because planting them in winter was not ideal. I have recently replaced them with Cosmos flowers and a Peonie bush which are loving the sunshine.
This garden has the exact spirit that I wished for it – it’s a place for nature to do her thing. And it’s better than TV, because we can watch the garden from our sofa inside.
We’ve been having hot days this week so we have the right balance of sunlight and shade to enjoy the outside space.
Here is how it now looks:
Do you have an eco-friendly garden? I’d love to see what you’ve done. Or feel free to ask me questions about what we did, I’d love to help inspire others to create your own eco-friendly space.
Firstly I have to say congratulations on designing and completing your garden makeover!
I was really surprised that you didn’t find much info available for your research on planning your garden in an eco friendly way. I am looking at information on this for a business I am starting, so it was good to get this feedback! It seems that this may change, while the need for your type of solution will increase as the need to conserve and protect our natural resources increases.
Thanks for putting it all out there and I hope your enjoy your garden in the winter as well as the summer!
thanks for your comment, if you are starting a business involving eco-friendly gardens then yay! We need more of them. It’s not that I didn’t find any information at all, but nothing comprehensive and it was all to do with upcycling materials to create cool garden furniture or something. No one was really explaining the importance of the choice of materials or plants for the environment, local wildlife etc. I see a lot of people promoting the use of Astroturf which I think is the biggest bad idea in gardening ever. I live abroad now so I haven’t seen the garden since then, but our tenants have said the love it which makes me happy. I can’t wait to see it again when it’s a bit more established.
Good luck with your business, I’d love to see what you do.