The great outdoors

Don’t forget the garden when it comes to doing a refurb. You don’t need green fingers to create something special


Take a peek out your kitchen window. If the view makes you wince guiltily and want to yank the blinds firmly down, then I’m guessing you’re not a natural-born gardener. But the beautiful truth is that you don’t have to be green fingered to own your own lovely, leafy, tranquil outdoor space. Instead you just need some expert help.

How to begin? If you can afford it, seriously consider hiring an experienced garden designer, landscape architect or landscape contractor. The best will bring talent, knowledge, inventiveness and expertise to a project in a way that will not only save you time and much possible heartache but also a considerable sum of money.

You may not know that as a result of campaigning by the Association of Landscape Contractors of Ireland (ALCI), garden renovations and improvements also come under the Home Renovations scheme introduced in last year’s budget. This provides for tax relief for homeowners by way of a tax credit of 13.5 per cent of the qualifying expenditure, where the work is carried out by a qualifying contractor.

The minimum spend is €5,000 (ex VAT), and goes up to a maximum of €30,000. For details of the scheme, as well as a list of ALCI members, see The Garden and Landscapers Association ( also gives full contact details of its members countrywide, most of whom will be happy to send you photos of their work. Keep in mind that some talented Irish garden designers operate independently of these two organisations.

If you don’t want to hire a designer, then my advice is to begin as the professionals would, with a site survey. Write down everything you like about your garden, even if it’s just that “borrowed” view of your neighbour’s ancient apple tree that you’d like to highlight. Now write down everything you hate, from the lack of privacy from overlooking houses to those ugly bare concrete walls, the stained paving and the ill-positioned shed that hogs the last rays of evening sunshine. Don’t forget the balding lawn and the supposedly “rotating” washing line that has remained at the same drunken angle for as long as you can remember. And, while we’re at it, the dingy set of garden furniture and those ugly wheelie bins.

It might cheer you up to know that any good garden designer will laugh in the face of such obstacles. Those ugly concrete walls? Paint them. Not a bright colour (hard to live with and quick to date), or a pale colour (difficult to maintain) but a dark colour, to make them visually drop back. Make them “disappear” by planting a mixture of climbers and wall shrubs, and a few well-placed small trees will help screen off the neighbours. The staff of good garden centres such as Johnstown GC ( will give expert advice on plant selection.

Darach La Grue (tel: 087-2263909) of the Decking Depot carpentry company in Co Kildare will also do a first-rate job of concealing ugly walls behind handsome, hard-wearing cedar cladding for a sleek, contemporary effect, and can build you an elegant wooden screen to conceal those ugly wheelie bins. The company also supplies decking, garden gazebos and cedar glasshouses.

Which brings us back to the sunshine-hogging garden shed. Empty it and move it to a shady corner of the garden, which is where it belongs. Don’t position it so that its door faces the house, but turn it sideways, and make it “disappear” it into the garden with a well-placed trellis and some clever planting. Alternatively, replace it with a garden shed of such smart good looks that you’d be happy to make it a key garden feature. Formality in Glasthule do a very handsome range (

Get rid of the rusting revolving clothesline also, and replace it with a wall-mounted, retractable one that can be discreetly hidden when not in use. Then replace that jumble of broken plastic containers with some big statement pots that will create far greater visual impact. The Dublin garden shop Howbert and Mays online garden shop,, stocks giant terracotta pots that are large enough even for the root balls of small trees. If you live in the Dublin area, not only will they deliver them but they’ll also fill them with top-quality garden compost and plant them up for you (about €300).

Revive old wooden garden furniture with a lick of linseed oil or with a coat of Teknos environmentally friendly, water-based outdoor paint, a German brand that designer Karl Barnes swears by for use on garden furniture (

Stained paving can also often be revived with careful use of a pressure washer (some types of paving aren’t suitable, so test it first on a small patch in an out-of-the way-corner) and thorough re-pointing, but if not, then lift it. Where the budget doesn’t allow for replacement, ornamental pebble is a good, affordable alternative. Avoid the gaudily-coloured kinds and go for something classic like the creamy-hued Ballylusk (, from €5 per 25kg bag, €45 per tonne).

If your lawn is more mud than grass, consider replacing it with ornamental pebble. You’ll need to lift the sod and lay a layer of hardcore and then a weed-suppressant membrane such as Mypex before spreading it. That pebble will also need to be neatly contained, using timber, brick, granite setts or a metal edging such as Everedge.

If you decide to keep your ailing lawn, remember that it will also look smarter and be far easier to maintain with its edges sharply defined. Revive bare or compacted patches in late spring by raking out any moss and then carefully spiking the surface with a garden fork to aerate it it, before generously sprinkling lawn seed over the bald patches.

As for those tatty shrubs, they’re probably just in need of a hard prune and manure, but don’t keep any plant that you heartily dislike. Dig it up and dump it on the compost heap to make way for something more interesting, such as your very own patch of annual wildflowers, reminiscent of the gloriously beautiful London Olympic Park wildlife-friendly pictorial meadows designed by Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough. All you’ll need is a packet of their specially mixed seeds (

Or you could create a mini potager garden, with raised timber beds filled with fresh salad leaves, herbs, edible flowers and tasty vegetables. Not only will Sligo-based company Quickcrop ( build the beds on-site for you, they’ll also fill them with the best Envirogrind compost and then plant them if required, so that within a few short months you’ll be able to harvest homegrown organic food.

Oliver Schurmann
Award-winning garden designer; owner of Mount Venus Nursery;
“Design your garden with the emphasis on multiple and more diverse habitats for a wider range of plants, with the right plant in the right place. Reduce the size of your lawn or get rid of it altogether, and bring planting right up to the modern glass extension so you enjoy proximity to the plants without having to go outside.”

Karl Barnes
Award-winning garden designer; owner of Formality design studio;
“Don’t over-embellish or rely on gimmicks. Quality materials and finish win out every time, so do less but do it well if on a tight budget, and add to when the finances allow.”

Patricia Tyrrell
MGLDA, landscape architect, garden designer and horticulturist;
“If you’re going to the expense of buying a large specimen tree, choose one that’s naturally slow-growing, such as a Japanese maple. With ground-cover plants, plant in multiples for a more natural effect, and don’t forget bulbs which give such great value.”

There’s been growing interest in garden studio spaces, many of which are suitable for even the smallest gardens and whose compact size generally makes them exempt from planning permission.

Podology ( supplies fully customisable, low-maintenance garden pods made from Norwegian spruce and stainless steel and with tinted windows. Powered by solar panels or hooked up to the mains electricity, prices (incl VAT and installation) start at €8,950 for the Rotating Seater and go up to €21,950 for the Deluxe Summerhouse (pictured above).

For something larger, the Shomera range ( includes the high-spec Me Pad, which has an external footprint of less than 10sqm (from €10,500). But keep in mind that if used as a commercial, staffed office rather than as a home studio, planning permission is required.

The Westport, from Formality’s Hoard range ( is another handsome option, from €15,000.