In Summer 2018, ready to enjoy the sunshine, I decided to give my grassy garden a makeover! In two weeks, I took it from unusable meadowland into a functional low maintenance space. Here’s the story…
A long time coming
I bought my house four years ago, and I remember thinking it had a good sized garden for a new build. It was churned up earth when I first got the keys, and a couple of days later the housebuilders brought in turf fitters to roll out all the grass. The respectable brown lot became green – it was grass from house to fence!
Me and my girlfriend at the time quickly became bored of keeping the tarpaulin-wrapped lawnmower in the living room. It wasn’t much of a focal point, so I built a shed.
And that was that. For four years. That was my garden. Endless grass and a shed. Slowly, the garden began to fill up with hand-me-down-chairs, swinging benches and tables that my family had grown tired of. It became a bit of a graveyard for unwanted garden furniture.
Because of this, and because of the lack of any kind of patio, mowing the lawn became an exercise of dragging chairs from one side of the garden to the other. And there was a lot of grass to cut!
It was time for a change. It was time to do away with the grass and create a low maintenance space with lots of places to sit and relax.
My problem with grass
When I started talking to my family and friends about my plans to rip up all the grass, they acted like I was breaking tradition; like skipping sprouts at Christmas dinner. So here are some reasons to justify my dislike for grass…
Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, the house was a new build. Not long before, it had been an old laundry plant which they’d pulled down; leaving bricks, nails, and shards of glass in the earth, and poking through my lawn. So it wasn’t great to sit directly on the grass.
Secondly, the turf was extremely boggy. I tried having a meal outside at the table, and gradually felt my chair sink into the earth until my dinner plate was at face height.
Thirdly, my yard had become the place for the neighbourhood cats to do their business. It stinks, it’s hard to clean off the grass, and you can never truly trust where you’re stepping.
Finally, came the cutting. Once a week I’d have to spend an hour dragging furniture around to maintain a vast stretch of grass which, because of all the reasons above, I couldn’t even enjoy or appreciate. Often, this led me to avoid cutting it altogether, and the garden would become an overgrown, unsightly mess.
So, it was time the grass went, in favour of a low maintenance alternative that, if I’m too busy to tend to one weekend, would just remain exactly as it was.
So I knew I wanted minimum maintenance, and I knew I didn’t want grass. But I had to come up with a plan of what I did want.
I also knew I had to cut down the graveyard of garden furniture that had been kindly donated (or dumped) by my family. Not all of it was unusable. For example, the second swinging bench, the white table and chairs, and the BBQ were all in good shape, so I could incorporate them into my garden.
There was also a water feature my mum had bought me for a birthday a couple of years ago that hadn’t gotten any use because I have no outside electricity. So I needed to plan in some outdoor electrics.
And, of course, my beloved Christmas tree. I bought a rooted beauty a couple of Christmasses ago, and at the end of the festive season I stripped it of its merriments and stuck it in the garden. To my amazement, after a couple of re-pottings, it was still alive the next year, and then next. I brought it in both years rather than lugging in a new one from the garden centre. I’m hesitant to plant it because I know it’ll take over, so I’m going to keep it potted as long as I can.
All these items needed to a place in my plan.
After browsing for ideas on Pinterest and creating a bit of a mood board, I decided on some more elements I definitely wanted to inject.
At the centre of the garden, acting as the main focal point, and having the rest of the garden moulded around it, I wanted a structure where my guests and I can sit, on the table and chairs I already had. I also loved the idea of wrapping it with fairy lights. I think it adds a really magical and romantic look, and there’s light enough to stay out there after dark, drinking or playing cards.
I also adore plum coloured slate, gravel, and the idea of creating a medley of potted shrubs and hardy plants. Particularly bee-friendly ones such as lavender, because I’d love to see a few extra bees in the garden.
My plan therefore came to life; a slate path wrapping around the central structure, with gravel around the edges. On the gravel would sit the swinging chair, the water feature, the Christmas tree, and an assortment of potted plants.
At the back, there’s a square space that sits beside the shed. Here, I intended to create another deck, where the BBQ would sit. But I actually ended up finding an ingenious workaround. I’ll get to that later. King of suspense.
Pergola vs Gazebo
Having looked around for that structure to sit as the focal point of the garden, I decided on a pergola over a gazebo.
But what’s the appeal of a pergola over a gazebo?
Well, gazebos can’t really be left outside all year round. Whether it’s plastic and tarp or metal and canvas, you’ll usually need to take it in for the winter and bring it out again the next Spring or Summer. Which amounts to maintenance.
Plus, wind is the ultimate gazebo killer and here in the UK, we get some pretty hearty gusts. My mum has gotten through dozens of gazebos in her time. If you’re intending to keep them out for long periods of time, the wind will rip them apart like a breeze block to matchsticks. Often, in fact, they launch straight up into the air, break any bonds you have tying them down, and come crashing down into the neighbour’s yard.
So then, I wanted a more sturdy structure that you don’t have to take in when the cold snap rolls around, and pergolas, particularly the thick timber kind, certainly fit the bill. There’s no need to worry about wind damage.
Unlike gazebos, they’re open-topped, but if you want cover, you simply let climbing plants and it creates an enchanting Secret Garden look.
There were pergola designs I’d seen that came with their own decking, so I knew I’d opt for one of those, as it would raise up the seating area and make it its own designated section.
Getting rid of the unwanted garden furniture
So in creating my plan, I’d made a list of the garden furniture I wanted to keep. But that left a bunch of faded and mistreated items that I didn’t want, and before I could start taking up the grass, I had to shift them.
If I really wanted to, I could’ve disassembled all the furniture and done a few trips to the tip. But I’m
lazier more efficient than that. So I posted, ‘free to a good home’ posts on Facebook Marketplace, which is free to use! If the furniture was in shoddy condition I’d write, ‘perfect for upcycling.’
And literally within 24 hours, all of it was gone. And I didn’t have to touch a single item.
Getting up the grass
I had never dug up grass before, and suddenly I was having to contend with unearthing about 70 square metres of it. It was well-rooted into the sticky, clay-like earth underneath, so it wasn’t easy.
When researching the best ways to dig up grass, I discovered a tool called a Turf Cutter. I think it would have been about £100 to hire for the day, and watching the video on the hire shop’s website, it seems to cut the grass into long strips which you can then roll up into turf rolls and give away or sell.
I didn’t go for it in the end. Partly because I don’t think it would have been as easy to use as the video suggested, but also because I wanted to save some money.
Instead, I went down to Asda and bought a £3 hoe and a £5 fork. I already had the spade.
I’ve created a guide on removing the grass using just the two tools above, which you can read here: How to dig up grass.
My mate and I dug the grass up over a week of the hottest weather I think I’ve ever seen in the UK.
By the end of it, we ended up with a pile that was about three metres long and at its highest point was as tall as me. Though, to be fair, we were trying to make it as tall as me. It was the only way we could find fun in such an awful and soul destroying task.
I paid a garden waste removal guy from Facebook £190 to take it all away. A skip would have been about £300, and I’d have had to do all the labour myself, and I would’ve lost my driveway until they could get around to collecting it. I made sure he was taking it to a trade waste centre, and not dumping it in a lay-by on the M6.
Levelling out the baron wasteland
Once all the turf had gone, with the clay-like top soil wrapped in its roots, the garden was a really rugged, uneven, bumpy stretch of craggy earth, and wasn’t at all ready for the next step, which would be to lay down some weed membrane ahead of bringing in the slate and gravel.
To even it all out, I was advised to order a couple of tonnes of sand, which I got from Wickes for £84, with £30 delivery on top.
With two great sacks of sand on my driveway, I needed a quick way of transporting it into the back, so I headed out to buy a wheelbarrow. I managed to get a really good one in a clearance sale at B&M for £15.
A colleague gifted me a heavy duty landscaping rake and one evening after work, I got all the sand raked out; filling in the pits and voids. Because the garden slopes drastically backwards, I had to build up a square in the centre where the decking and pergola would sit (because I didn’t want my plate sliding off the table).
Everybody knows that you don’t put gravel directly onto earth. It would be a paradise for weeds. Instead, you lay down some weed control membrane, which helps to stop the sunlight hitting the earth, and it helps to act as a barrier for any surfacing weeds.
Inevitably, since some weeds root miles deep, they will still emerge, but a good membrane will help to stunt the process and reduce the amount of break-throughs.
I found a 100 Sqm roll of good quality weed control membrane in Screwfix, and set to work covering my garden from edge to edge; overlapping each row by 10cm or more to ensure no gaps in between.
I used rocks and bricks I’d collected from beneath my turf (delightful, right?) to weigh down the rows, and stop the wind from lifting them away like sails.
The perfect pergola
Because I wanted to butt the slate up against the decking, I thought the next step would be to build the pergola, and then bring in the slate around it. So that’s what I did.
I managed to find a fairly ornate pergola for £549 in Argos that comes with its own decking underneath. A little shopping around and I managed to find the exact same design, outsourced from the same supplier, in Screwfix for £479 – a saving of £70. I wouldn’t have thought of going to Screwfix for garden structures, but there you go! It’s always worth shopping around.
It took my mate and I a good few hours to build, and again we were working in some of the hottest weather I’d ever witnessed in the UK, so we were having to take breaks every half an hour to drink water, re-apply sunscreen, and just get out of the sun.
I borrowed Makita drills from both my brother and my dad. We set one up with a drill piece and one up with a screwdriver head. So I did the drilling and my mate did the screwing. It seemed to work fastest that way.
The pergola comes with a 15 year no rot guarantee, but an elderly DIY aficionado friend of mine advised me to treat it anyway. So I bought some clear wood care from Wickes for £20. It keeps the wood’s original colour, and it’s as thin as water so it slops on easy. It took about 25 minutes to coat the entire thing, and gave me some extra peace of mind.
A garden divided
Something I foolishly hadn’t taken into consideration when planning was the dividers that sit between the gravel and the slate. I knew I wanted the gravel and slate to sit separate from each other, but I hadn’t put any thought into what would keep them separate.
So I took to Googling gravel dividers. The only search results I could find were tall edging items to go between a lawn and gravel. There were also long concrete bars, but my plan for the slate path had lots of right angles, and I didn’t fancy hiring an angle grinder to chop through concrete.
But the biggest issue was the cost. I needed 37 linear metres, so with the options above I was looking at £250+
I wanted something wooden, to tie in with the pergola that was so centric in the garden. And I wanted it to be quite low to the ground. And, most importantly, I wanted it to be inexpensive. So I decided to make my own.
I went to B&M and filled up my boot with 1.5m fence stakes. They were £1.10 each and I got 38, totalling £41.80. They were long bars of square-sided wood that came to a pointed tip at one end.
I also picked up a £5 box of 6cm garden screws from Wickes.
Using a set square, I went through all the stakes, and marked a cutting line just above where the wood begins to slope to a point. Then, with a jigsaw I’d borrowed from the shed of dad, I cut all the pointed ends off; leaving a straight piece of square-ended wood.
Then I simply had to screw two pointed stakes to each length of wood, and voila – I had a piece of custom piece of gravel edging, ready for plunging into the ground.
I had plenty of the wood treatment leftover from the pergola, so I gave all the edging a coating, to keep it protected from the weather.
So in total, the edging cost me between £50 and £60, if you factor in the wood treatment. And it looked how I wanted it to look, rather than being forced into a look I didn’t like, just because it was all the market had to offer.
I set to work fixing the edging in place – staking it down through the membrane – making custom cuts wherever they were needed, which were easy thanks to the use of the jigsaw.
Bring in the slate (and gravel)
So now I had a pretty level garden, covered over with membrane, with the pergola in the middle, and the wooden gravel dividers all staked perfectly in place. It was finally time to bring in the slate and the gravel!
The best deal I’d seen on a bulk bag of plum slate was £140, plus £30 for delivery. That was until a director at my company told me about a website called decorativeaggregates.co.uk, who offer it for £99 with Free Delivery. They also offer samples, if you want to see the gravel or slate before you buy any.
I ordered 3 bulk bags of rhinestone gravel and 2 bulk bags of plum slate and it came to £490. Two days later, it was offloaded on my drive. Each bulk bag sat on a wooden pallet.
It took a couple more days to shift all the gravel and pour it into place. We used buckets to fill up the wheelbarrow, and then used that to cart it into place.
The garden quickly came to life. It was like colouring between the lines as the black membrane became filled over with gorgeous plum and golden hues.
Pallets: An unexpected opportunity
When the gravel and slate was all dispersed, I took the bags to the recycling centre, but couldn’t fit in the huge wooden pallets that were left behind. I actually wrote a blog about turning pallets into garden furniture, which you can read here: How to create garden furniture from wooden pallets, but I didn’t have room for any of those ideas in my plan.
Then I remembered the space at the bottom of the garden, beside the shed. Right now, it was filled in with gravel, but I’d planned to eventually introduce some decking, and turn it into a BBQ area. And then I had the idea to use the pallets.
I measured the pallets, and then measured up the space at the back of the garden, and they were spot on! So I used what was left of the wood treatment, and gave them a really good coating, before levelling out their gravel base and laying them in position.
I put the BBQ onto the deck, and that was that!
Let there be light (and electricity)
Having bought some outdoor fairy lights for the pergola from Amazon for £19.99 and having set my water feature in place in the garden and filled it with water, it was time to arrange some outdoor electricity!
I managed to find a really good kit in a clearance section in Asda for £2.50. It came with a 4 plug extension with a 10 metre cable and a watertight box that it sits in.
I drilled a hole from the outside of the house into my lounge, which backs onto the garden, fed the cable through, attached the plug, and stuck it into an unused socket. Then I positioned the box outside against the fence, within reaching distance of the water feature and the pergola, so that the chord for the fairy lights could reach it too.
Then it was just a case of wrapping the pergola in the fairy lights!
Adding some greenery
Now, with everything else in place, all that was left to do was to head out to B&Q and pick up some garden plants, to line the fence, and to add a bit of life and colour!
I wanted a hardy selection that wouldn’t perish too easily if I forgot a day’s watering, so I mostly chose shrubs!
And there you have it – my completed garden project! It cost just over £1,400 and took a little under two weeks. I hope you like the transformation, and I hope it inspires you to give your own garden a refresh.
The total spend
Hoe – £3, Asda
Fork – £5, Asda
Outdoor electrical box – £2.50, Asda
Sharp sand – £114, Wickes
Wood treatment – £19.99, Wickes
6cm garden screws – £5, Wickes
Gravel and slate – £493.69, Decorative Aggregates
Pergola – £479, Screwfix
100m Weed Membrane – £14.99, Screwfix
Wooden stakes – £41.80, B&M
Wheelbarrow – £15, B&M
Grass disposal – £190, local trader
Fairy lights – £19.99, Amazon
1ltr bottle of Jack Daniels – £20, Sainsbury’s
Total – £1,423.96