12 ways to re-design your garden on a budget
Flo Headlam suggests 12 simple ways you can give your garden a makeover in 2023, without splashing the cash
We are living in hugely challenging times right now. Money is tight and this means some of those larger aspirational projects may have to be shelved for a while… the kitchen refit, the bathroom, the garden. The garden’s always the last thing, right? Inside out, as the homeowners’ adage goes. Well, the good news is there are many things you can do on a budget to give your garden a low cost and instant glow-up. Some simple embellishments here and there, key statements and focussed treatments can elevate your garden, taking it from the mundane view you’ve grown tired of, to the starting point of every conversation with your visitors.
But don’t dismiss the ‘on a budget’ sticker. Even doing a little can make a huge difference, including having one feature as the main focus, a less expensive or smaller version, and crucially as we’re all about upcycling now, reusing materials where you can.
Here are a few suggestions to give your garden some love in 2023, without breaking the bank.
More money-saving ideas:
Plant a tree
Planting a tree or large shrub with seasonal and wildlife interest adds immediate maturity. Try lifting some paving stones and planting a multi-stemmed tree for an instant transformation. Multi-stemmed trees grow slower than single stem ones and some never get bigger than large shrubs, eg 2-3 metres. Consider where you’ll get the best view of it, from inside the house as well as in the garden. Deciduous trees and shrubs are generally cheaper when bought bare-root, rather than in a pot. Bare-root plants are available December-February, so now's the cheapest time of year to add a new tree or shrub to your garden – plus it'll have time to establish its roots before summer, so there's less chance of it dying and needing to be replaced.
Introducing three large containers with bold planting combinations is a simple way to transform your outdoor space. Odd numbers always work better visually. Upcycle bins, barrels, sinks, or even give new life to old pots by painting them. As well as buying plants (buy small ones as they establish quicker), don’t forget you can split plants you already have or ask for donations or cuttings. Go all out with your selection or keep it very simple, which is in itself a design choice. Give your containers pride of place.
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Painting a wall, shed, bench or trellis is a cheap and easy way to freshen up your garden. I love block colour and think every garden should have some. It doesn’t have to be a big expanse, but the right colour instantly refreshes your space and adjusts how you feel in it. Think about what you want to evoke with colour: a wooden bench in a sunny spot could be crying out for a pop of colour, whereas you may want a darker colour for a shed or fencing so it recedes.
Plant bulbs for seasonal surprises. The blossoming of bulbs is always joyous in the garden and a harbinger of spring. Whether in spring, when we traditionally want to see bursts of colour, or later in the season when most of the herbaceous flowering has ended, bulbs bookend the flowering season in the garden perfectly. Planting spring bulbs also allows you to project into the following year and stay connected with your garden. If you shop around online, and check out supermarkets and discount stores, you can buy inexpensive bulbs.
Make a small pond
Introducing water into your garden is an excellent way to increase biodiversity and, very quickly, you’ll be noticing pond skaters, water boatmen, dragonflies, maybe even frogs. Save money by creating a ‘no dig’ pond using something you have around the house, such as an old washing up bowl, tin bath or even a ceramic sink. Include aquatic plants and some oxygenating plants to help control the algae build up. Place a brick above the water surface so birds can land and drink. In a matter of hours you can create a new ecosystem.
Place a mirror strategically, out of direct sunlight, but where it can pick up light and make the space look bigger. Use it to accentuate, i.e. where the house ends and the garden opens up, a nook or cranny, around a seating area, at the back of the border to reflect foliage or you walking past. Why not recycle a mirror from indoors? Treat with exterior paint for longevity. Large mirrors look great half concealed, peering out from behind foliage. Always ensure garden mirrors are positioned where birds are unlikely to fly into them – adding plants or trellis in front will help, as will using a mirror with an antiqued effect.
Put up a pergola, even a small corner one, or trellis for height and vertical planting to create some privacy. By adding height you change your view in the garden, a simple but very effective way of re-engaging with your space. Looking up rather than always at eye level makes the space feel bigger. Plus you can green the structures with climbers for colour and scent, and add festoon lighting for night time appeal. Instead of buying a ready-made trellis, save money by fashioning your own rustic structure using hazel poles and rope.
Plants with structure
Add some formal evergreen structure – circular, conical, square or columnar plants. You can’t underestimate the visual excitement in adding a bit of geometry or clipped plants to the border or in pots. They help to anchor the planting scheme and are a real attention grabber. I think of them as punctuation – if you imagine the other plants as the sentence, or the paragraph. Plants that are ready-topiarised can be expensive to buy, but if you buy plants that aren't clipped into shape it's simple to create your own with regular trimming over time. And why not try taking cuttings, many evergreens such as yew, are easy to propagate.
Climbers can scramble up a wall, hide a plain fence, green and screen an unsightly view, or blur the boundaries making you feel enclosed. There’s a climber for every situation – for north facing spots (Hydrangea petiolaris), for adding some real height (such as Clematis armandii, Campsis radicans), for beautiful scent (jasmine, honeysuckle), for winter flowers (Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’), and more. Work out what you want it to do, where it will go and get researching. And always, always check (and then double check!) the height and spread. Many climbers can be propagated by layering, meaning you can make new plants for free.
Ornamental grasses are a valuable investment. Plant them for their abundant sensory value – variety of textures, romantic movement in the wind, seedheads, autumn colours and winter structure. Whether you want tall, well behaved grasses like Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’, the frothiness of Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ or the lushness of Hakonechloa macra, there’s a grass to suit everyone’s whim. Whether in borders or in pots, they bring new energy to a space. Many grasses can be divided to give you several plants for the price of one, and spring is the ideal time to divide grasses.
Plant large ferns in cool, shaded gardens, where you may have difficulty finding the right plant to thrive. They can become real stars of the show with the dramatic unfurling of new fronds in spring. Even just one, placed strategically, will add a touch of extravagance. Go for Matteuccia struthiopteris (it produces small colonies, so more plants!) Polystichum polyblepharum or Dryopteris filix mas – a UK native fern, which grows to over one metre! By choosing plants that suit your conditions, they're more likely to thrive and give you years of enjoyment for your initial outlay.
Change your borders
If you have lawn and straight borders, consider pulling the borders out into the lawn, creating curves and adding some dynamism to your traditional shape. It's a relatively inexpensive task but will be hugely impactful on the feel of your space. Choose one side of the garden, the most reliable border, and extend your planting scheme. You could consider taller plants in this section to act as screening or add an obelisk planted up with a rose or other climber for vertical interest.