Riverside garden rebuild

Nicola Stocken explains how she managed to rebuild and replant her riverside retreat on a budget after it was destroyed by severe floods

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When the swans from the Thames started swimming into my garden, I realised the flooding was getting serious. Over the next 24 hours, the water submerged the riverside deck, box topiary, lawns, borders and paths.

I tried to rescue some oak cubes and timber sleepers, but the current of the waist-high muddy water was too strong for safety. Only a pot of daffodils kept its head above the surface.

It wasn’t until later, as the water receded, leaving debris and sludge in its wake, that the full extent of the damage was revealed. It had taken me eight years to develop the garden design, and last February, in just eight rainy days, it was wrecked.

Fact file

  • The owner: Nicola Stocken, a garden photographer and writer
  • The property: A three-bedroom detached house built in 1964, with a rear extension added in 2005
  • The location: Shepperton, Middlesex
  • What she spent: Nicola’s project cost around £10,000, to redesign and reinstate her flood-damaged garden

Assessing the garden

The garden had originally been created by designer Andy Sturgeon, and featured a meandering pathway of 50 oak cubes, many of which lay strewn around the garden in the aftermath. Long, rusty nails protruding from the deck’s sub-frame were all that remained of the sleepers, and everything down to the smallest blade of grass was coated in thick, slimy mud.

Nothing could happen until the mud was jet-washed away – a foul job that my son, Chris, patiently undertook. Once the bones of the garden were laid bare, I could plan the repairs, which included flood-defence measures for future incidents.


A priority was to build two brick retaining walls widthways across the garden, which were kept low to prevent them impinging on the river view. One was constructed to be level with the upper garden so that, in the event of a flood, it will prevent topsoil from being washed down and clogging up the cavity beneath the deck. The second, lower wall separates a new level lawn from the deck and gives a solid edge to the sub-frame that, unlike the original sleepers, will not float away. Both walls have ‘weep holes’ at the base, to allow flood water to seep away.

The red brickwork now beautifully complements a new border of grasses, catmint, coneflowers, lavender and *Verbena bonariensis. I double-dug all the borders, removing plants that hadn’t recovered from the ordeal. I was amazed at how many had managed to survive several weeks under water, though, including daylilies, agapanthus, irises, *Alchemilla mollis, *Geranium Rozanne = ‘Gerwat’, Clematis ‘Arabella’ and *Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’. Even better, as the weeks passed, the self-seeders returned – bronze-leaved fennel, annual poppies, love-in-a-mist, viper’s bugloss and feather grass.

At the same time as the footings were built for the retaining walls, excavations were carried out beneath the deck, with a 30cm-thick layer of soil and rubble removed to ensure that, should flooding occur again, the water could drain and the timbers quickly dry out. The original deck was so badly damaged that it was dismantled and scrapped. This work was carried out by a family friend, James Morris, who helped me to keep down costs.

Romantic drinks by candlelight in the garden at night GARDEN LIGHTING FROM LIGHTS4FUN

Candlelight, and colourful garden fairy lights from Lights4fun, create an atmospheric setting for evening drinks. The cushions are from Nauticalia

Working to budget

I was on a limited budget because, while my household insurance covered the expense of repairing paving and replacing lost deck timbers, all the plants, trees, lawn and hedges were uninsured, leaving a bill that ran into thousands. This meant I couldn’t afford hardwood, so the deck was rebuilt using 32mm-thick, tanalised softwood with a 15-year guarantee. The planks were laid with the running grooves uppermost to give a safe, non-slip surface, and the joints between planks creating a sense of movement that leads the eye towards the river. I decided on a natural finish, leaving the decking untreated so that, with time, it will weather to a silvery grey to blend in with the natural landscape and plants.

A cottage garden

I wanted to create a cottage feel in the garden, so in the long south-facing border abutting the main lawn, I planted five of my favourite David Austin roses. Adding vertical height are blue delphiniums, fragrant regal lilies and some surviving sedums. In addition, there are ground-hugging hardy geraniums, catmint and chives, leaving no bare soil for weeds to take root. Meanwhile, in the north-facing bed of oak cubes, drowned hebes have been replaced with euonymus, pittosporum, erysimum and marguerites.

The main lawn separating the borders had always played a key role in the garden as a foil to the flowers, but it had become tired-looking, so the flood gave a good excuse to replace it. We hired a turf cutter to remove a couple of inches of soil, then laid new topsoil and pristine turf. By early May the lawn was ready to mow.

It was a lovely summer last year and the hot weather really brought out the flowers, including 100 Asiatic lilies that I’d planted in pots, ready to decorate the deck for a summer party, along with uplighters and strings of coloured lights. As the bulbs lit up, I finally put the trauma of the flooding behind me.

Nicola Stocken planting tobacco plants between stone strips in her newly rebuilt riverside garden, four months after it was devastated by flooding.

Project notes

Learn from Nicola Stocken’s dramatic garden redesign project

What I’ve learnt

‘Having to rebuild and replant following the flooding was tough, but the upside is that I’ve improved the garden. I’ve adopted a “right plant, right place” mentality; for example, the beds on the deck only have plants that will survive winter flooding. I’m experimenting with plants that will tumble over the top of the new retaining walls, and soften the hard edges – rosemary, periwinkle, aubretia and alyssum are good choices. For a quick fix, I planted a packet of nasturtium seeds, but was unprepared for how vigorous they would be – they not only spilled down the wall, but also onto the grass below, killing it.’

My planting advice

‘For a garden with year-round interest, create a framework of evergreens and then add seasonal splashes of colour – spring bulbs, summer perennials, autumn grasses and winter-flowering shrubs. I have five heavenly bamboos, which have bright red berries all through winter, white flowers in spring, and lovely autumn colour. In addition, there are several box balls, two bay tree standards and pittosporum bushes. I also have some rusted iron obelisks, which are a lovely feature in winter, and in summer are covered with climbing roses and a circle of catmint.’

I couldn’t live without…

‘…the river view, even in spite of my experience. It’s constantly changing, and always beautiful in any season. Yes, it ruined my previous garden design, but I am now much better prepared for future flooding.’

My best buy

‘The teak dining table and chairs (top right) from Squires Garden Centre, which survived the flood. They’re eight years old and have aged to a lovely silver. The only maintenance needed is an annual scrub after winter. Also, the gas barbecue is used all year round,

My favourite website

‘Boutsviolas.co.uk offers a fabulous range of over 150 hardy perennial violas – some modern, some dating from the 19th century. A few smaller-flowered varieties are even edible.’

My top tip

‘In early spring, place upturned wire hanging baskets as supports over floppy perennials, such as hardy geraniums and catmint, so

The costs

Decking and labour£4,020
Brick retaining walls materials and labour£2,435
Rubbish skips£846
Turf and labour£750
Plants and bulbs£491
Garden lighting£250