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Anyone fancy helping me turn a small, dark swamp of a garden into a family friendly green oasis?

(5 Posts)
stuckinaswamp Tue 11-Feb-14 14:41:13

I have a typical small London garden (hoping you can see the photo I've posted - haven't tried this before). About 7x10m, north-facing - most of the garden gets reasonably decent sun from April - September, but the bottom left-hand quadrant never sees the sun, and the garden is completely shaded in autumn / winter.

Before starting building works on our house, we had a fairly conventional layout - stone patio, circle of grass, couple of small beds and a veg patch at the back. But our building works seems to have completely disrupted the drainage in our garden (the builders had to dig up most of the garden at one point), leaving us with swampy mud on which nothing seems to grow. We laid turf shortly after the building works had finished, and after doing fine for a few weeks, it all died (I assume because the drainage was so poor).

So...we're now looking at starting from scratch and, as a garden novice, I would love to get some advice from more experienced hands. We're not particularly flush at the moment, so will need to do any work ourselves / on a very tight budget.

Having read around, it seems that double digging and mixing in organic material might help with some of our drainage issues. But then what? I would love a garden which is green and lush, a real oasis from our urban lifestyle. I'm not fixed on the idea of a lawn, but am struggling to see what else would work (don't want lots of concrete / hard surfacing). We need something which will work for our two boisterous DSs (both under 5); I've been thinking about whether we could hang a rope swing from the tree at the back and maybe include a natural looking sandpit somewhere. And we want somewhere to sit outside on occasional sunny afternoons (probably towards the back of the garden, which gets the most sun). I would like to get away from this being a standard rectangular plot, but am not sure where to begin.

Any ideas on garden design, or where I could go to get inspiration, much appreciated. And ideas about the sorts of plants which would work. I think I'm aiming at a garden which looks good year round (lots of evergreen planting at different heights) which we can add to on a seasonal basis.

Kernowgal Tue 11-Feb-14 18:41:48

Do you know what kind of soil you're on? If it's London it's probably London clay, which will be completely waterlogged in this weather. And if the builders have been digging, it's probably also mixed up with the subsoil.

Digging in organic matter can only help, frankly, but I wouldn't start anything until this awful weather has long passed, as treading on sodden soil only compacts it further. You'd be best waiting until the weather warms and the sun shines <hollow laugh>.

In the meantime I'd get a copy of John Brookes' The Small Garden out of the library (it is also often found in charity shops for cheaps) as it is absolutely brilliant for ideas for genuinely small gardens as opposed to what some garden designers call 'small', ie half an acre.

I think you can do loads with what you've got, and there are plenty of plants which will tolerate damp or shade or both. The little RHS Plants for Places book is excellent for ideas, again a good library should have a copy.

I shall think further on the drainage thing, as it may be that you need to dig down and get some proper drainage put in otherwise you'll be wasting money on plants that just go and die in a wet winter like this (less-hardy plants can often tolerate cold, but it's sitting in wet soil all winter that usually kills them off).

stuckinaswamp Tue 11-Feb-14 22:26:02

Kernowgal - thank you, especially for the book recommendations.

We have clay soil <waits patiently for it to stop raining>.

It sounds as though putting proper drainage in could be expensive and / or complicated? Very frustrated that the building works seemed to mess up the soil - the drainage was fine before. Ho, hum.

Pannacotta Wed 12-Feb-14 10:47:55

Deffo go to your local library and borrow any books on garden design which appeal, the Alan Titchmarsh small books are excellent if you are new to gardening. There are hundreds of books on town/courtyard gardens so do look at these as they will give you ideas. Also look on-line and for London garden designers and you can see what they have done with gardens like yours, all good inspiration.
I don't usually suggest decking but it might work for you with small DCs and I do agree its worth creating an area at the back of the garden to sit in the sun, I wouldn't use that for veg!
North facing is perfect for creating an oasis feel, lots of lovely things you can grow which children also love such as bamboo, large leaved plants (Fatsia), Aucuba, Portuguese laurel etc. You could make a little hidden pathway between two hedges of bamboo perhaps.
Your idea for a swing and sandpit sound good too, though these need not be in the sunniest part of the garden.
This article might inspire you!

I am studying horticulture so do feel free to PM me if you'd like any other ideas.

stuckinaswamp Wed 12-Feb-14 14:25:45

Pannacotta - fantastic, thank you. Brilliant article, and very much the sort of look I'm going for. I particularly like the idea of a path winding through the garden, and different "hidden" areas, but was having difficulty visualising this / working out how I could achieve it in such a small plot.

And yes to large leaved / slightly tropical looking plants. Great to have some examples - I particularly liked the fatsia, and looking it up on pinterest brought up more examples of the type of look I think I'm after.

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