When Heather Young, her husband Ben, and their twins Esme and Alfie moved into their 1970s house in Wokingham five years ago, it was in serious need of renovation. All of their time and money went into the interior of the house. Creating a new open-plan kitchen diner, with patio doors leading out to the side return area of the garden prompted the couple to do something with the neglected exterior space, so they built some raised beds. “We grew vegetables for one season,” says Heather. “But then life got busy, and the weeds and nettles took over.” The couple added a mud-kitchen in one of the raised beds for the twins to play in. “All I could see when I looked out of the window was mud, kids’clutter, and junk,” Heather says. “There was also a hideous 1970s concrete screen wall that I hated. We’d worked so hard to get the interior of the house looking just how we wanted, and the garden let it down so badly.”
PAINT IT BLACK
Having added a black feature wall to their living room, the idea of black garden fencing became the starting point for the design of their space. Heather considered doing a short garden design course. “I’m really confident when it comes to interior design,” she says. “But my knowledge stops at the back door. Designing the garden from scratch seemed so daunting.” Then Ben discovered a website called www.floorplanner.com where he could play with layouts, and a design slowly came together.
“We wanted curves that would gently lead you out to the garden”
The first task was covering the concrete screen wall with timber planks for a modern take on standard fence panels. Ben fixed wooden batons to the concrete, then mounted the timber panels, leaving a gap of about 1cm between each one. Heather painted them in Nevermore exterior paint from Valspar. “The space instantly felt a million times better – calmer and more intimate,” Heather says. “I couldn’t stop looking at it through the living room window, and I loved the way it mirrored the black wall we had inside.” Ben had already built a banquette (a built-in bench along a wall) in the family’s kitchen diner, so the couple decided to construct something similar outside. Ben built a wooden frame, and then fixed timber planks to it to form the seat itself.
The flow through the space was determined by the pathway, which Ben built using decking boards. “We decided we wanted curves that would gently lead you out to the garden at the back of the house,” says Heather. The couple took their time laying out the boards in slightly different arrangements until they were happy with the way the path flowed.
To construct the pathway, Ben sank posts into the ground which he set with concrete. He ran joists between the posts, the tops of which were at ground level, and then he fixed the decking boards to the joists. He left gaps between the boards which would later be filled with white pebbles to give the feel of a boardwalk. All of this activity happened in early summer, but then busy family life took over, and work on the garden slowed to a near halt. Every so often Ben would come home with a couple more bags of white pebbles but, other than that, the work was paused. The fire pit was always on Ben’s wish list as the family do a lot of camping, and he loves cooking over a fire. “We also felt that it would encourage us outside in the colder months,” Heather adds. “So it would extend the time that we can enjoy the garden.” The untreated steel fire bowl was an Amazon find and, to keep costs down, Ben bought some old block paving on eBay which he used to build the base. With the fire pit finished, the last bit of pathway could be positioned, and the whole area was given a thick covering of mixed white pebbles and cobbles. Heather made a late request for a vertical wall garden to grow herbs near the kitchen door, and Ben knocked this up from some of the leftover timber from the seating and painted it in Nevermore to match the fence.
It was time for Heather to get planting. “This was the bit I was most nervous about. My outdoor plant knowledge is limited. Originally I’d planned to use grasses to create a beach feel, but then I visited a garden that was full of the most beautiful ferns, and I was sold!” Hardy ferns were a good choice because the garden is mainly in shade, especially in winter. On a visit to B&Q, Heather spotted the Astelia ‘Silver Shadow’ and its architectural leaves caught her eye. It’s also evergreen and hardy, so Heather decided to mix these in with the ferns. “I wanted quite an informal feel,” she says. “So I added some plants in pots – mainly alpine succulents. Again, these are hardy so won’t need lots of maintenance, plus my house is full of indoor succulents, so I couldn’t resist having some outside, too.” The family’s dustbins are stored by the side gate. “They were an eyesore, so we were keen to screen these off,” says Heather. Ben built a fence along one side, and then constructed a simple wood store at the end. “We have logs to hand for the fire pit now, and I really love the rustic look of the stacked logs against the smart black fence,” says Heather.
Heather loves strings of festoon lights and she couldn’t resist finishing off the garden with lights (from www.lights4fun.co.uk) strung along the black fence. “I love the interest they add during the day, and they’re beautiful when they’re lit up at night. We have them on whether we’re outside or not, as I can see them glowing through the living room window.” The whole family is thrilled with the transformation, and relishes the thought of cosy evenings around the fire, wrapped in blankets. “Ben is loving cooking on the fire pit,” says Heather. “And, obviously, we always have to finish with toasted marshmallows! It’s become one of our favourite spots to hang out together.