Real Renovations: Garden Rescue!

Good afternoon readers! This afternoon we have to long awaited return of Jess, continuing her Real Renovations series… if you missed the first 4 instalments, you can catch up here. Jess has been absent whilst studying for her final postgraduate exams and because she hasn’t tooted her own trumpet enough here, I want to say a huge Congratulations to her for passing and finally having an exam free future! Thats not the only thing congratulations are in order for here as you’ll read… so I’ll hand you over to see what really is a real (and budget) makeover that I think you’ll all identify with.

So, it’s been quite a few months since my last post on Florence Finds, and Dan and I have been pretty busy, although I have to confess that not all of it has included DIY and house renovation. In November Dan and I got engaged while we were on holiday, and since then, instead of planning a wedding, I’ve been working and studying for postgraduate exams. So work on the house hasn’t been as extensive as I would have liked, although we have taken the opportunity to do some of the easier room makeovers which I’ll share over the next few months.

However, there is a ‘room’ that has changed dramatically in the last year, and that is the garden. Before we moved to the house, we lived in a flat with no outside space, and I really longed for a garden. Even as a child I have always enjoyed gardening, and it was always me, rather than my brother or sister, who wanted to help my parents in the garden or the allotment. I learnt then the satisfaction from seeing something grow that you have looked after, and I remember being especially, if not a bit inappropriately, proud when I grew cacti from seeds when I was about 7 years old!

But as is so often the case, the reality has been a little bit different from our expectations! We knew when we bought the house that the garden had been neglected and was quite overgrown, but hadn’t appreciated just how much work would be involved in sorting it out. There were two ancient ivy plants at the back of the garden that had been left to run wild, as well as a honeysuckle that had become so overgrown that it was taking up about a third of the garden and had ripped a fence panel down. To add to that was a strange raised gravel area and a thorny pyracantha bush with its inch long spikes that was out of control.

So last summer, I took a week off work and enlisted the help of my mum to tackle the jungle that was our back garden. I don’t know how many bags we filled, or how many trips to the local rubbish tip we made, but it was a lot! We snipped, chipped, pruned, sawed and dug out just about everything that week. The pyrancantha didn’t give up without a fight either, as its parting shot was a thorn through my foot reminding me that real gardeners don’t wear flip flops whilst digging! Dan spent most evenings for the rest of the summer digging out sand and gravel from the raised area in order to level it with the rest of the lawn. The ivy was about the only survivor that week, but its time came too and Dan has been tackling it in stages over the last few months.

By the time October came we were looking out over a very bare garden, and just about the only pretty thing in it was a David Austin rose called ‘Darcy Bussell’ that friend had bought us as a housewarming gift, and I had planted in a big pot. So with winter approaching, we decided to go with a quick fix and sow grass seed across the bare soil. We hoped it would avoid the garden becoming a mud pit over the winter. I think the neighbours all thought we were mad at this point because the garden looked more like an agricultural field than a suburban garden. And when we returned from our holiday in mid november and saw a greenish tinge over the soil, we had to look closely to see if it was moss growing on the boggy soil, or actually tiny grass shoots. Thankfully it was the latter and we were just as surprised as the neighbours that our thrifty B&Q value lawn seed had actually grown!

We didn’t really touch the garden over winter, instead watching anxiously as those little green shoots grew taller and thicker. As spring arrived we started to make some changes and I was eventually able to start planting. Dan was keen to have a vegetable patch so we took up the grass along one side of the garden and prepared the ground ready for some vegetables. In march I bought lots of vegetable seeds, and raised some in seed trays in the kitchen, and put others straight out in to the soil. Our mini allotment has now got peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, beetroots, courgettes and squash. It would also have lots of cabbages and broccoli if it wasn’t for the nicely fattened up wood pigeon that has been having dinner parties with all his wood pigeon friends in my vegetable patch!

It is expensive starting garden from scratch, so to save money I’ve bought smaller plants for the borders from supermarkets as well as garden centres, and friends and neighbours have given us cuttings too. I’ve grown some flowers from seeds and its been really satisfying seeing them now are in full bloom! We also haven’t changed much of the hard landscaping, instead working with what we already had. It means that we have to be a bit more patient and there is no instant garden makeover, but it has been worth the hours we have spent on it. And over the last few months it has been a great break from revision/revision avoidance tactic to go into the garden and titivate!

I’m a self confessed novice when it comes to gardening, and just because you can grow a cactus aged 7 does not mean you will make all the right choices when it comes to planting your own garden aged 30! But I love the anticipation of seeing what thrives and grows and what doesn’t. Despite never normally eating radishes, I loved eating one that had been grown in my own garden, and I’m patiently awaiting the taste of one of my home grown tomatoes too. I have made plenty of mistakes in the garden this year (like leaving my cabbages uncovered for the wood pigeon!), and I’m pretty sure I’ll make many more. But all in all, I got exactly what I wanted from my garden this year, which is a space where I can sit when the sun shines (or even when it doesn’t), and a relaxing outside space where we can entertain family and friends. A home grown tomato that actually tastes good will just be a bonus!


Spring has Sprung!

Last week’s weather (I hope it was equally lovely where you are!) had me getting that feeling that I get every year as spring arrives, desperation to get into the garden. It’s been a while since I’ve covered any garden tips on the blog but that is definitely going to be changing over the coming weeks. There is loads to do right now and lots to think about in preparation for the (more consistent) warmer weather coming, so have a read and start thinking about what you want from your garden this year.

Today I’m focusing on the back (or front) garden and some spring plant suggestions as it’s a little cold to be getting stuck in at the allotment still, but keep your eyes peeled for more on that soon.

  • Now is a good time to have a really good clear out in the garden. Clear away any leaves from your flower beds and pack into bags or even better start thinking about making a compost heap for all your garden waste. Leaves make fabulous compost so it’s worth doing.
  • Lots of people prune in the autumn but I love seeing the frost on the dried seed heads and leaves so leave them. I also think it protects the plants well over the harsher winter months. Now however you should be starting to see signs of life out there and can tidy the plants too. Pull away the dead leaves from the bases of perennial plants, taking care not to damage any new shoots and leave them looking bare apart from the plants ‘crown’ – the base of the plant with its shoots etc. It will soon come to life with new growth.
  • Pruning is a bit of a mystery for some people, but it’s really not difficult and it’s hard to damage the plant unless you’re too aggressive. Remember, the plant always needs new leaves to start collecting energy to grow more so if you cut it right to the ground and all the new shoots are gone, it will struggle to re-grow. Always cut away any diseased or dead branches first.
  • Top Tip: If you’re not sure what is dead, (and let’s face it everything looks like that right now,) try bending the stem or branch. If it cracks easily and is dry inside it’s dead. If the branch is bendy and feels soft or starts to split but with green inside then it’s just dormant waiting for spring.
  • When you are pruning look at the stem or branch first. At intervals along its length you will see pairs of buds. Look for a really fat healthy pair and using secateurs, cut a couple of centimetres above the buds diagonally. You can trim most plants this way now with a few notable exceptions. Hydrangeas, some early flowering Clematis and Buddleias flower on ‘last year’s wood’ which means if you trim them now you’ll miss out on this year’s flowers. Wait until after they have flowered and tidy them up then. I also do my roses, including climbing ones, and anything that is getting out of hand really. Don’t be scared of pruning – as long as there is always a bud below where you have cut, the plant will come back. At worst you’ll miss a season’s flowers.
  • Lastly, get planning. Spend the few remaining dark nights with a book or the internet as a reference and start thinking about what you want from your garden. Will you be building a patio? Where is the best place for it? Or maybe you’re thinking about vegetables, patio varieties (more to come on that soon) or a whole allotment. Maybe you’re planning a cutting patch or new flower bed? Sit down, make lists and draw it out. It’s tempting to just get going but you’ll benefit from a bit of planning now.

Plants for spring.
Now is a great time to think about plants to give colour in the early spring months. Buying them now may seem boring as they often don’t have much to show for themselves, with just a few bare branches, but it gives them time to settle in while the ground is wet before the summer. You might get a few flowers this year but the real benefit will be next year and you can see where the colour is missing from your garden as you plant them.

As I get older I feel I’m turning into my Dad… my only interests in years gone by were big showy flowers and shrubs were considered boring, but now I see they form the backbone of a well stocked garden, provide shape and colour when the summer flowers have died back and are also usually low maintenance. I’ve compromised here with some favourites that also provide flowers and colour if you’re looking for some spring additions to your garden.

For early colour and spring time cheer you can’t beat a Forsythia. A hardy shrub, the flowers come before the leaves in February to April, providing much needed garden colour. Another really beautiful flower, although far more showy is the Camellia.

Forsythia bush and Camellia flowers.

One of my favourite flowers, the Magnolia is actually a tree and a large one at that. One of my pet hates is people chosing plants they like that are too large for the space and Magnolias can really take over, albeit over many years. If you have a small garden try the Magnolia Stellata instead – more of a bush and not quite as pretty, but still spectacular in its own way.

Magnolia and Magnolia Tree

I saw my first bit of blossom bursting forth on the trees last week and immediately wanted some in my garden. If you would like some blossom in your garden, it’s possible to time it right so that you have a succession from now right through to early May by using different trees.

Images via

Try looking at fruit trees, hawthorn, ornamental cherry, (in a smaller garden look for a weeping cherry,) and crab apples.

Acers are known for their fiery red leaves and vibrant autumn display but one variety wows me year after year in spring when its new leaves emerge a vibrant shrimp pink colour before turning their usual pale yellow for the rest of the year. Look for Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’. Pieris is another one that rather than being known for its pretty bell flowers that appear in summer, its main display is the pink leaves that precede it in April. It’s quite compact and perfect for a smaller garden

Images via

More to look at…

  • Flowering currant – a good shrub with pretty pink hanging clusters of tiny flowers in April/May.
  • Ceanothus – a larger shrub that can be trained to climb up walls, along the floor or just as a normal bush, this becomes covered in cornflower blue blossom in late April/early May
  • Philadelphus – a white flowered shrub with fragrant flowers, Philadelphus is another garden standard, also known as ‘mock orange’. This and the Ceanothus grow fast, so are great for filling an empty space in a few short years.

I hope I’ve got you thinking about all the things you’ll be doing in the garden this year. I’ve got loads of posts coming to share with you on everything from pots for your front step or patio vegetables, to my allotment diary and back garden tidy up.

What’s your garden project this year?


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