10 quick and easy garden projects

Matt James shares his top 10 suggestions to transform your garden with a simple weekend project.

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1. Try a green-roofed shed

As well as looking beautiful, green ‘living’ roofs help improve biodiversity, insulate and cool buildings, improve air quality and absorb heavy rain. Although usually included at the planning stage, you can still retrofit a green roof onto an existing shed, bin or bike store, reinforcing it by bracing the frame inside, or supporting the roof from the outside with timbers. You can buy the different layers in kit form, together with sedum or wildflower turf to unroll over the top like a carpet.

Green ‘living’ roofs have become popular as part of the sustainable living trend

For advice on timber sizes and plants, read Small Green Roofs: Low-Tech Options for Homeowners by Nigel Dunnett, Dusty Gedge, John Little and Edmund Snodgrass (£16.99, Timber Press), or see Livingroofs.org

2. Plan new beds and borders

Reshaping a lawn, making new planting beds and borders in the process, is an easy way to redesign your garden. Use builder’s merchant spray paint or dry sand to mark out patterns on the grass until you find one that works. Thin borders don’t allow for deep multilayered plantings, so go as big as possible, keeping shapes simple; overly complicated curves are tricky to look after. For crisp, straight edges, cut alongside a wooden plank using a spade or edging iron, and for curvy lines, use a hosepipe or extension-lead cable as your guide. Skim off the turf and dig over the soil to the depth of a spade, mixing in a bucket full of compost every few paces. Break up any large clods before raking level. Now you’re ready to plant.

Introduce colour and structure with a range of summer-flowering border plants from Dobbies

Crumbling lawn edges spoil a manicured look. Special metal strips such as Everedge and Rite-Edge will keep a keen edge for years and make trimming easier. For inspiration and advice, visit a local nursery or garden centre, or engage a garden designer to plan your planting scheme.

3. Upcycle salvage

Whatever item of architectural salvage you find that can hold compost has the potential to be used as a garden pot. Reclaimed wine crates, butler sinks, agricultural objets d’art, metal saucepans, Victorian chimney pots, tin baths and even giant olive oil cans all bring unique personality to your plot. Before you buy, make sure drainage holes can be made in the base. Reclamation yards, particularly those in urban areas, offer slim pickings nowadays unless you’re willing to fork out for items. Instead, charity shops and recycled furniture warehouses are better places to look — all you need is a little lateral thinking and imagination.

Planting up architectural salvage is the same as planting typical pots and planters. Clean the inside before lining the bottom with broken terracotta chunks or coarse gravel (to one-tenth the height of the pot), then add compost and plant as normal. Fill your new pots with whatever you fancy – herbs and colourful summer bedding plants always work well — and don’t be afraid to cram in plants.

4. Create a formal herb garden

Informal herb gardens are always popular, but formal displays based on geometric patterns are particularly appealing. Symmetrical paths edged in box, lavender, low hazel hurdles or ‘step-over’ apples lead to a central feature such as a statue or colourful container. Formal designs are ideally suited to small front gardens, where a touch of formality helps to forge links with the architecture of the house.

There are many herbs to choose from, but keep maintenance to a minimum with a tapestry of perennial thyme, rosemary, lovage, lemon balm, curry plant, marjoram, oregano, chives, sage, bay, caraway and fennel, which all need little TLC once established. While herbs such as mint and sorrel tolerate a little shade, a sunny spot and free-draining soil is preferred by everything else, and thick, heavy soils need lots of horticultural grit and well-rotted compost. And if you decide to add some fruit and vegetables, you’re halfway to a stylish potager, the formal French kitchen garden revered by garden designers everywhere.

5. Plant contemporary container pots

Containers are key design details and help to define or reinforce a style or theme. The key to a cool contemporary container is to pare it back; less is most definitely more. For semi-permanent displays that don’t need repotting every year, mix ornamental grasses with hardy semi-evergreen perennials such as Heuchera, Ajuga, Euphorbia, Stachys and Liriope. Or, go it alone with sculptural topiary balls, Phormium, palms or bamboo.

Flared square fibreglass planters in Lime, with a gel coat, from £54.99 for (H)60x(W)34x(D)34cm, Primrose

The pot style is particularly important — there are lots to choose from, with Cor-Ten steel cubes, coloured glass, reinforced plastic bowls, ceramic troughs, powder-coated steel columns and polished granite planters all currently on trend. For a contemporary look, use each one on its own, or space identically planted pots equidistantly apart like soldiers on parade. For suppliers, try Iota, Posh Patio, Passion for Pots and Bright Green.

6. Make gravel paths

Cheap and easy to use, gravel is the perfect option for paths where a solid stable surface isn’t necessary. Choose natural-looking gravel, sympathetic to plants and other features, and pick an aggregate size that’s easy to walk on, ideally between 5mm and 20mm. Dig out the soil to a 50cm depth then firm over the top. Lay permeable landscape fabric over the top and cut to size. Overlap any seams by 30cm to stop weeds growing through, pin down using large wire staples, then fill with gravel.

Compass stepping stone in Cotswold, (dia.)57.5cm, from £7 each; Rope top edging in Autumn Cotswold, (W)16x(L)45cm, from £9 each, both Bradstone

A gravel path needs edging to prevent it spilling. Granite setts, clay tiles or bricks laid in a saw-tooth pattern all look good, but will need cementing. Where plants are wanted over the edge, use inexpensive treated timber battens, and for large areas sink oak railway sleepers every 40-50cm or so to provide a firmer footing and to direct where you walk.

7. Build oak raised beds

Favoured for growing vegetables, raised beds are good for drainage and ideal for raising crops, irrespective of soil type or quality. But, when planted with eye-catching ornamentals, they are used by designers to divide one space from another — such as the patio from the lawn. Raised beds can be made from anything, but wooden beds are easiest to build. For a vegetable patch, old scaffold boards are ideal, and oak sleepers weather beautifully, suiting both modern and contemporary designs.

Timber grow bed made from pressure-treated softwood, (W)120x(L)126cm, £44.99, Waitrose Garden

Building them is straightforward, although you will need a circular saw to cut some sleepers to size. Bed width should be no more than 1.5m, unless you can access the bed from both sides. Secure the sleepers together with flat steel plates and corner brackets, and if stacking one on top of the other, stagger the joints like traditional brickwork for added strength. Fix subsequent layers to the previous one using 20cm Timberlok screws that need no pre-drilling, and use ground pegs for support if on a sloping or uneven site.


8. Sow a mini meadow

If you’re tired of mowing a large lawn, fancy a sea of summer colour, or want to attract wildlife into your garden, consider a mini meadow. Letting part of the lawn grow long won’t get many wildflowers, so instead use a specially blended mix of seeds on a prepared site. Perennial meadows last longer, but are trickier to establish and manage. Annual meadows need re-sowing each spring, but mature rapidly and are easier to grow.

Image above: Passion floral meadow seeds, with 30 different sumer-flowering varieties, from £5.99 for a pack that will cover 3m2, Meadow In My Garden

A bare, weed-free site is essential. After skimming off any existing turf, dig, rake level, firm with your feet to stop subsidence and rake level again, aiming for a fine breadcrumb-like finish. Sow the seed according to the instructions, but do not fertilise, as most meadows hate nutrient-rich soil. You can buy seed mixes from Meadow Mania, Emorsgate Seeds, or, for meadows like those at the Olympic Park, sow a specially blended Pictorial Meadows mix.


9. Build a wildlife pond

Create a wildlife pool in the garden and you’ll be amazed at the number of birds, mammals, insects and invertebrates it attracts. Ponds are cheap to build too: all you need is a liner, a few bags of sand and some muscle power to dig the hole.

A spot near, but not shaded by, trees is best. Don’t forget to allow ample room around the outside for marginal plants, grasses and shrubs, necessary for animals seeking refuge. To maximise biodiversity, create shelves around the inside edge to different depths, especially shallow areas no deeper than 10cm, as these will support the most wildlife. And ‘puddling’ thick clay soils means you won’t need a liner. For detailed advice on how to build a wildlife pond, see the Royal Horticultural Society website (Rhs.org.uk).

10. Choose decorative trellis designs

Trellis doesn’t always have to support climbing plants. The French have used it unadorned, as decoration, for centuries. Bringing textural contrast, trellis is ideal to mask unsightly walls and boundaries, and fixed between freestanding posts is useful to divide the garden into a series of rooms. The French tradition of treillage is too ostentatious for most, and is out of place in a 1970s semi-detached home, but many companies offer subtle decorative options inspired by the French tradition, yet more in keeping with modern gardens.

Western red cedar slatted screen, from £80.67 (excluding VAT) for a (W)183x(L)183cm panel, Silva Timber

Try The Garden Trellis Company, Lloyd Christie or The Bespoke Trellis Company. Alternatively, to make your own try western red cedar slats from Silva Timber. For a contemporary metal trellis, I love Susan Bradley’s Outdoor wallpaper. It might not be dense enough to cover an unattractive wall, but it makes a beautiful focal point nonetheless.

Have you recently completed a garden design project? Share the details with us in the comment box below.