Get into the garden: eight ways to tackle the outdoor space

Sort It: Spring has sprung, it's time to transform that neglected outdoor space

If you want your garden to look its best, you need to be prepared to work on it for at least a couple of hours every month

Make a list of needs and wants

Do you have small children that need a space to play or kick a ball? Do you want a space to dine and entertain? Do you plan on cooking outside? Compile a list of priorities and roughly sketch out how you would like to use the space.

Plan for change

How can you plan a garden that will easily adapt over time without incurring a huge expense? “Keep it simple,” says Column Sheanon, landscape architect and partner at Murphy + Sheanon. “You can achieve a simple multi-functional and elegant garden by doing as little as installing a central rectangular space that can be adjusted and adapted over time, planting the borders with trees, low shrubs and herbaceous perennials.”


A central space can be grass, paved or covered in a play-friendly surface, or, depending on size, a mix of all three. These can easily be changed as your needs change over time without touching the surrounding planting scheme, allowing it to mature nicely.

Be realistic about how hands-on you want to be

“There are many ways to create a low maintenance space, but if you want your garden to look its best, you need to be prepared to work on it for at least a couple of hours every month,” says Sheanon. For low maintenance avoid herbaceous planting and opt instead for feature trees, and ground covering shrubs. Artificial grass is an excellent option if you are not keen on mowing lawns. Think about your hard finishes: “Avoid softwood decking,” says Sheanon. This kind of surface requires a lot of upkeep to prolong its lifespan.

Think carefully about your orientation

Consider your orientation, wind direction and the times that you are most likely to use or be in your garden. Note where the sun hits in the morning and the last place it lies in the evening. By spending a little time looking at this you will start to discover that there are specific areas where you want to sit that might not have been apparent at first.

"Ireland traditionally has no culture of sitting out in the front garden," says Sheanon. Often by planting mature hedging you can quickly create a more private space in the front garden.

Don’t ignore the practicalities

The location of washing lines, garden sheds and other non-decorative essentials need to be factored into any plan. If you don’t have a home for things like bikes, lawn mowers and somewhere to hang washing, not only will your space not look great but it won’t function well either. “Consider using a temporary or retractable washing line to dry clothes,” recommends Sheanon.

If budget allows, treating your shed as an extension of the garden with a material that ties in with the wall covering, for example, will mean that the shed blends into the fence. Painting a shed to blend in with the surrounding boundary walls is a more cost-effective way make it less obtrusive.


“Steer clear of vibrant tones or colours for paving or surface materials,” says Sheanon. “It should complement the style of the planting and the colours and aesthetic of the surrounding buildings.”

Concrete pavers are a great budget alternative to granite. Both Kilsaran and Tobermore stock excellent reconstituted granite products, essentially concrete slabs that closely resemble granite.

“A very underrated surface finish is a striped lawn,” says Sheanon. “If you enjoy mowing the lawn why not invest in a lawnmower with a weight on the back,” he suggests. Having a striped lawn creates a lovely feature in a garden and gives a high-end finish to the lawn. “Be sure though to mow in different directions every time. Exposed block walls or mismatched fencing will take away from a newly completed garden. Dark greens and greys work well as a backdrop to planting and suit a more contemporary scheme. A simple way to cover walls is to plant some flowering climbers or trailing ivy.

Planned planting

“Your planting scheme should be planned in advance,” says Sheanon. If you are unsure about a colour scheme consider layering with greenery. “Varying shades of dark greens look great together,” he says. When it comes to colour he says whites and reds, or all pinks and blues are classic combinations. Use tall plants against buildings or walls to draw the eye through the planting. Make sure to repeat some elements, whether it’s a certain plant, a common colour, or even a shape, to create a sense of cohesion. Create a focal point. It may be a tree, a striking plant, or a series of shrubs.

Take your time

Plants need time to establish and may behave differently in different locations so start with what you already have. Some existing trees or shrubs could be given a new lease of life with pruning. Consider lighting the tree from below with a simple light and what was once an overgrown eyesore is now a stunning feature.

Keep it simple, be patient and most of all have fun.

Denise O’Connor is an architect and design consultant @optimisedesign