How we turned our squalid courtyard 'garden' into a low-budget urban idyll

·9 min read
The bistro area -  Andrew Crowley
The bistro area - Andrew Crowley

It was the most rancid little garden we’d ever seen. When my friend’s family bought the flat, the estate agent hadn’t even mentioned it. No wonder – it was vile. It was worse than having no garden at all.

The three of us – me, the friend, and another friend, the three of us moving into the new place – looked at it from our second-floor window. There was a rusty bridge from the back door of the block to said garden; it crossed an open basement that might once have been a delivery entrance to a below-ground store room.

It looked more like an open sewer. The children in the flat below us had for years been hurling litter into it – sweet wrappers, toys, kiddie bikes, even a Samsung tablet. Beyond the bridge was a dense forest of head-high weeds and broken glass. Beyond that was more litter, a bin that had been used as a fire pit, and a bunch of broken bicycles discarded by the Domino’s takeaway on the ground floor. 

There’s a part of Stranger Things where the US military sends terrified, PPE-clad soldiers, two at a time, to scope out a horrifying portal into a dark parallel universe, and of course they’re dead as soon as they’re out of sight. Our garden was like that, but worse. It looked unsalvageable, we agreed. A write-off – leave it to the rats.

The litter - Tom Ough
The litter - Tom Ough

However, living above a busy road made us desirous of some private green space. We’d moved in on a warm June day, which had since metastasised into a very hot summer. We took a look at the garden again, and we wondered how hard it would be and how long it would take to make it at the very least non-lethal. 

“It’s going to become an infinite sink of time and money,” warned Romilly, the second housemate. She was not wrong, as it would turn out, but the other housemate (Augustine) and I overruled her. We would regret this at several points in the year that’s passed between now and then, but the three of us leapt into an ambitious project of making the “garden” into a garden. There are three flats in our block, and we hoped to make it into the kind of outdoor space that the three households, stuck in a very busy part of Hackney, could harmoniously share. Even those horrible kids in Flat 1.

First things first

We started swiftly. We petitioned the building management company, a shining beacon of incompetence, to arrange for the rubbish to be taken away. The waste disposal men took away the litter, the vegetation, and indeed everything they were able to lay their gloves on, except the Domino’s bikes and a single sapling that had nosed its way out of the concrete.

The ground they’d exposed was a mixture of concrete slabs and dirt, and now that we could see to the end of the garden, we could see its dimensions, which were roughly those of a tennis court cut in half lengthways. The open basement was cleared for all of a few hours until the horrible children of Flat 1 resumed hurling their possessions into it.

Still, the garden was an otherwise blank canvas. Adolfo Harrison, a garden designer who has won the Judges’ Award at the Society of Garden Designers Awards two years running, came to give us some pro bono advice. Together we stood in the wasteland, examining the solitary sapling.

Harrison - Christopher Pledger
Harrison - Christopher Pledger

“This is actually a very exciting space,” Harrison said unexpectedly. As we talked, he conjured a blueprint. At the far end, a barbecue area. In the middle, a “bistro” with a little outdoor table surrounded by plants. Closest to the open basement, a play area for the horrible children of Flat 1.  “It’s engaging with them, giving them something,” he said. (And drawing them away from the plants and the barbecue.) Imperative to the project, he told us, was leadership – “it’s about motivation, but that comes from good organisation”.

True to Harrison’s instruction, we drew up a thorough plan. We measured the garden’s dimensions, sketched a layout, checked it with Harrison, received a far superior version in return and got to work. We had concrete slabs to smash and dispose of, broken glass to gingerly remove, and the occasional mislaid turd, courtesy of the horrible children of Flat 1, to deal with too. The plants, which would have to be appropriate for a generally shaded garden, would come later. “Design it for people first,” Harrison had said, “and the plants can work around that.”

Lockdown calls

The concrete-smashing took an entire weekend. Having dragged the bikes back into the Domino’s moped yard whence they came, we blocked them off from us with the large pile of rubble we’d created. Once we'd assured the angry manager, who had overseen years of treating our garden as a tip, that the rubble pile would be removed at a non-specified point in the future, we bought a bamboo screen to screen their yard – and our rubble – from our garden.

Now the concrete slabs had gone, we had access to the layer of dirt that had languished beneath. This dirt, we realised, would never be able to sustain the grass we’d hoped for. Harrison recommended some recycled plastic artificial grass, of which we misguidedly ordered twice as much as we needed.

Augustine, left, and Romilly attempt to squeeze some morsels of life from the fallow land - Tom Ough
Augustine, left, and Romilly attempt to squeeze some morsels of life from the fallow land - Tom Ough

No matter: once we’d laid a weed-proof membrane over our flattened lawn area, we were able to lay the turf, and at last the garden became a conceivably not-unpleasant place. It was difficult to co-ordinate weekends when all four of us flatmates (Augustine’s boyfriend, Francis, had moved in) were free but, over autumn and winter, we painted the fence and the concrete path that leads up the left-hand side of the garden to the barbecue area. We bought a little metal table-and-chair set. After some discussion (“It’ll be disgusting!”), we bought a compost bin, too. We strung up metal wire over the bistro area, and added solar-powered fairy lights, bought for a song online. We cadged some beautiful plants, worth somewhat more than a song, from Simply Go Gardening.

It was the day of the plants’ delivery that the building management company chose to respond to our request for the bridge to be repaired by simply locking the door to the garden. Disaster! Not only were the plants sealed in our dingy entrance lobby, they were also vulnerable to the horrible children of Flat 1. After days of desperate pestering, the company deigned to unlock the door, allowing us to give the plants some much-needed sunshine. They still haven’t fixed the bridge.

We had a lot left to do: building raised beds, planting the plants, sorting out the barbecue area, painting the bit of pathway that was daily soiled by an overflowing drain. Lockdown arrived, and we were suddenly confined to our household. The garden was nowhere near finished, but it became a sanctuary. Every morning, I sat out there with a coffee or herbal tea, enjoying what scraps of sun came my way.

The garden - Tom Ough, Christopher Pledger and Andrew Crowley
The garden - Tom Ough, Christopher Pledger and Andrew Crowley
Moving on

By the beginning of summer, Augustine and Francis decided they wanted the place to themselves. Romilly and I arranged to move out, but I wanted to see the project through, partly because I had this article to write, and partly because it felt wrong to leave this little slice of barely tamed nature, the product of so much work and planning and wholesome shared purpose, unfinished.

We blitzed our way through the remaining tasks, and at last it was done. For now, anyway. “They’re funny things, gardens. They’re never really completed,” Harrison said. Our garden, he observed, gave us as much pleasure as a more expensive garden would have. In its spirit, he said, it reminded him of the community gardens that sprung up in the New York of the 1980s.

Before I moved out, I had a blissful fortnight spending as much time in the garden as I could, sipping tea in the mornings and hosting barbecues in the evenings.  I was leaving the flat, but I was taking with me the knowledge Harrison had imparted, the experience of putting it into action, and a nascent interest, via Sue Stuart-Smith’s The Well-Gardened Mind, in the fascinating neurological mechanisms by which casual garden-botherers like me end up finding these projects so nourishing and enriching.

I’m also taking some of the nicer plants, to be clear, but it still gives me pleasure to imagine the garden being enjoyed by the present and future inhabitants – even the horrible children of Flat 1.

Virginia creepers - Andrew Crowley
Virginia creepers - Andrew Crowley
Five tips for a bargain basement garden

By Adolfo Harrison

  1. Once you’ve worked out how the garden will serve the people who use it, start thinking about the plants. If you’re buying them, work out how much light they’ll be getting and their soil depth. Some city gardens don’t get much light, so be sure to choose shade-lovers.

  2. A low-cost option that immediately transforms a garden is to paint it – furniture, flooring, and walls. Plants look great against bold colours, but also painting fences deep, dark greens with espaliered fruit trees or climbers in front can add real depth and make the space feel larger.

  3. Separate the garden into areas to make it feel larger and more dynamic. You could have different surfaces for each – gravel (perhaps inlaid with stepping stones), bark mulch and decking are your low-cost options.  

  4. Make it efficient to maintain. Water is essential and if there is no possibility of a tap, then explore if a water-butt can be attached to a rainwater downpipe. Green waste can be kept on site with appropriate-sized compost bays. Once this has broken down, it can be used as an organic mulch over the planting areas each year.

  5. Enclosure is a vital element in all gardens. This could be trees to introduce shade or provide privacy, but in narrow gardens it could be wires or ropes attached across the width of the garden supporting festoon or fairy lights and climbers. They will add a sense of spectacle.

Supplies and materials for your own garden project

Wickes is your best port of call for most of the things you will need, whether it’s sledgehammers, drills, trowels or compost.  Large supermarkets are likewise handy for compost and barbecue equipment. Here are some larger items I’d recommend:

  • Decking for building planters (Wickes, from £3.75 per board)

  • Mpow LED solar-powered fairy lights (Amazon, £17.99) 

Fairy lights
Fairy lights
  • Large compost bin (via Amazon, £38.95) 

  • Shrubs in pots (Various kinds, including Japanese maple, from Simply Go Gardening)

Acer palmatum 'Dissectum Viride' 
Acer palmatum 'Dissectum Viride'
  • ‘Stockholm’ eco-friendly artificial grass  (£31.99 per square metre, Grass Direct)

  • ‘Bistro’ metal table and chairs (Argos, £50)

Bistro table and chairs
Bistro table and chairs