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How I transformed my wild urban garden, with a little help from a Chelsea Flower Show winner

Olivia Walmsley transforms her inner-city plot with help from
Google, Bunny Guinness, dozens of plants and hours of hard toil
Olivia Walmsley (right) and Jonathon Bain (left) transformed their inner-city plot with help from Google, Bunny Guinness, dozens of plants and hours of hard toil Credit: Andrew Crowley

As darkness falls on my London street, I am knee-deep in a ton of mulch, frantically forking it into sacks, while my boyfriend barrows them into our back garden. There are three gigantic pallets (two mulch, one compost) sitting in the street outside our flat. We have to empty them, bag by bag, before morning and the ­arrival of the dawn parking patrol.

Why did I think redesigning our ­garden was a good idea? What is mulch, anyway?

Rewind two years. At the age of 38, I finally moved into a flat with a much longed-for garden. My boyfriend Jonny and I decided to abandon Brixton after a humid summer, most of which we spent in the garden of the Trinity Arms, escaping the jungle conditions in our small top-floor flat.

We swapped a traffic-choked road in Brixton for a quiet magnolia-lined street in ungentrified east London. There are no cafés, no restaurants, no ­decent pubs and nary a Sainsbury’s Local within walking distance. Instead, we have a 22yd (20m) back garden, running east to west, with a large paved terrace and a neat lawn, bordered by a gravelled path.

We unpacked in February, the day after a storm brought down the fence on one side of the garden – timing! – and, in spite of our grand plans, did nothing to the outside space. We were too busy ripping out the mouldy pink bathroom and repainting grubby walls and scuffed stairs.

Before: Fence panels on the point of collapse and a lawn of weeds that concealed the worst thing – a buried concrete path Credit: Andrew Crowley

We ­delighted in the foamy white blossom that covered the apple tree in spring, ignoring the yellowing grass and weeds creeping across the gravel and lawn. Ivy and grape vines colonised the back of the garden, under which a wrought-iron bench and table donated by my parents slowly rusted.

I planted a few pots with lavender and herbs and placed an inherited ­potted bay tree on the terrace, happily hosting barbecues (we even cooked our Christmas turkey out there). In summer, the boughs of the apple and a forsythia next door reached out to form a bower shading an old pub table we’d tarted up with a lick of paint.

Occasionally I’d buy a random plant and stick it in the ground, where it would quickly die. The lavender turned woody and straggly, the herbs withered. But at night, once candles were lit and the solar-powered fairy lights flickered, it looked pretty good, we thought. But last summer, when a friend visiting with her children refused to let them outside, I realised the situation had spiralled out of control. The lawn, which we’d rechristened the “wildflower meadow” (when the weeds bloomed it looked quite pretty, from afar, for about a week), was, in fact, a waist-high tangle of nettles, ­dan­delions, bindweed and thorns, mined with cat and fox poo.

The gravel path had disappeared. The steep, wooden stairs leading from the kitchen to the garden were on the point of collapse. The patched-up fences were hanging on by splinters. It was time to take action. I hacked back the ivy at the end of the garden and ­attacked the grass with a mower. We were left with a patchy, brown lawn.

We had no idea what to do next. What would thrive in this neglected plot? The most I’d achieved was to kill a few plants, while Jonny had grown fly-blown chillies in our Brixton flat.

Then, last autumn, The Telegraph’s gardening editor suggested I stop ­procrastinating and get on with it. She asked Bunny Guinness (six-time Chelsea Flower Show gold medal-winner) to set us on the right path.

I showed Bunny around the garden in September, surreptitiously kicking the barbecue detritus, wine bottles and cigarette butts into the weeds, explaining we wanted a wildlife-friendly garden with space for entertaining. Bunny sent us ideas and a long plant list, which we loved (with a little help from Google): jasmine, honeysuckle, rambling roses, cherry trees, climbing hydrangea and espalier apple and pear trees. That’s when the work began…

October to Christmas

Olivia takes in the view from the “crow’s nest” Credit: Andrew Crowley

Blowing the budget (already) We soon realised that fixing the stairs and fences was beyond us, so we found quotes for repairs, the cheapest of which swallowed up our whole £2,000 budget.

Nonetheless we went ahead, and by Christmas a new fence and a new set of stairs (above, featuring a great outdoor lantern from Dunelm) were in place – the existing ones were beyond saving – with a terrace, or “crow’s nest” halfway down, overlooking the garden. It would be the perfect sunny spot for morning coffee or evening drinks, and for our kitchen herbs (the bay tree, oregano, chives, thyme and rosemary so far).

January and February: clearance chaos 

Our first task was to take up the gravel path and membrane beneath. We filled 35 bags and dumped them in the front garden, which wasn’t much fun in the rain, in January.

This, like everything else, took longer than anticipated. Jonny and I have differing approaches to project management. Mine is optimistic, some (eg Jonny, an actual project manager) might say: clueless. “We can get this done in a day,” was my motto, which is how we ended up shovelling mulch in the dark.

Olivia breaks up the old path

While clearing weeds, we found a buried concrete path running down the middle of the garden – probably the reason for the lawn’s bald strip. A low point, which coincided with the left fence collapse.

We dug out the path, hired a drill, broke up the concrete and dumped it in the front garden, then backfilled the trench. This was another un-fun weekend – the novelty value of the pneumatic drill wore off pretty quickly. On the plus side, we finally had a blank canvas to work on. I planted five big pots of tulips, for a bit of spring colour.

March: soil and mulch-gate

The camassias coming into bloom Credit: Andrew Crowley

To improve the soil, Bunny ordered three pallets of compost and mulch for us. I didn’t understand how much this was until it arrived on the road, which is why much of it remains in the front garden. Neither did I have any idea what to do with it; thank God for the RHS website and, of course, The Telegraph’s online archives. How did people garden before Google?

We worked in compost, turned the soil, marked out the borders and sowed grass seed. I also invested in a pump-action water pistol, which I used to deter feral cats who love to dig 
up tulip bulbs and then – adding insult to injury – poo in the holes. The crow’s nest makes an excellent sniper point.

Late March: plants plus cock-ups

Squirrels ate the few tulips left intact by the cats. Never mind! Our new plants – about 150 of them – arrived in a lorry in late March. Jonny, not a morning person, couldn’t be coaxed into the garden before 11am, which led to some tension, given we had to get all the plants in before Monday.

That weekend was a blur of soaking, digging, planting, watering and mulching, with help from Jonny’s family. We’d lured them over for Sunday lunch, then put them to work.

Afterwards, I discovered we’d done lots of things wrong: we hadn’t soaked the bare root roses; nor had we watered anything enough. Our marking out was a bit rough, too; some plants went in the wrong places. We didn’t put down boards to protect the grass seedlings, so no new lawn has appeared.

Now


We gave up on grass seed and turfed the lawn, and have started filling a mini greenhouse ((£259.99, forestgarden.co.uk)  with seedlings. Jonny also constructed a 'bee hotel' with wood offcuts, bamboo and pine cones, designed to be a habitat for different sorts of insect life. There's a small trough of water underneath it (the pool area and tiki bar) which we hope should slake their thirst until we get our lily bowl later on. 

The 'bee hotel', left, constructed by Jonny; right, a mini greenhouse

The plants have been in their new homes for almost a month; some are thriving (the espalier apple is blossoming beautifully; camassias are about to burst); some are not.

Viburnum, which was flowering happily when it arrived, now looks droopy and sad, shedding petals like dandruff; the roses look like dead twigs; the climbers aren’t going anywhere on their wire supports. I’m worried about the lavender, planted in a shady spot, and the jasmine leaves have yellowed (too much water? Too little? Who knows?).

It doesn’t look quite like Bunny’s plans; the lily bowl and raised beds for veg will be part of phase two, and the arches are still waiting to be galvanised.

After: Olivia and Jonny's newly transformed garden  Credit: Andrew Crowley

None the less, every time I glance out of the window while washing up and spot a robin rooting in the earth, or take a cup of coffee down to the garden and hear the buzz of bees hovering near an unfurling bud reaching up to the sun, my heart lifts a little, too. Just don’t mention the mulch.