Case Studies

Case Studies

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No 10: Transforming an old garden

November 2017

The pool terrace as it looked by the end of March 2017

In January of 2017 I wrote an article ‘Water scarcity is here to stay, but we can benefit from taking the right action’ I promised myself that I would find the time, get stuck in and finally get around to sorting my own garden out. I had finally decided to landscape my own garden. It is hard to believe that I had never really implemented my own ideas, but alas, I have to admit that this was true. I spend every day of the week in various stages of garden and outdoor design and when I am not doing that then I am supporting my crew as they build these gardens and then there is the admin – we all work hard.

Following a plan:

If I was going to do this then it had to be carefully planned and unfortunately it had to be done on the weekends, which are precious for me. So it had to be done on only one day of the weekend, Saturday. This meant that I was in for the long haul. How many Saturdays was this going to take? That I didn’t know. For a long time I had had a clear an idea of what I wanted to do with my garden but I knew that I couldn’t afford to take my project to that level of finish. So I had to compromise, I had to re-interpret and downscale my design and make it more affordable without losing the original concept.

The lawn area as it looked by the end of March 2017

I have an 800m2 property and house and patio and paving take up half that area. So the garden wraps around the house on two sides, and on the other two sides it is more of a passageway. I wanted to deal with the south and the west side of the house. These are the areas where we entertain. It helped that the dogs had departed and so the accepted, but erroneous belief that they needed lawn was not applicable any longer. To be honest I dislike lawn and wanted it gone for ten years already.

Freedom! Now I could finally justify getting rid of it. It would now become an adult space. The desolated garden that I faced every day during last summer had surprising consequences. We had fewer social events at home and spent less time in the garden and more time indoors. In fact the impact of the drought had affected my lifestyle! This is key because enjoyment of our gardens is presumably the reason we have them. Those of us who don’t have boreholes should be able to make changes that are a positive adaptation in this era of climate change but also these changes should enhance or improve our experience of our homes. This is exactly what I have done in the simple redesign of my garden.

New garden paradigm:

The outside area had become a little like one of those rooms in the house that nobody sleeps in, where stuff gets dumped and or stored. The room keeps filling up with no real plan. It becomes cluttered and untidy. Nothing really gets assessed or thrown away. My outside space including the green areas and the paved areas had become like that. I realized that we can no longer amuse ourselves in our gardens, these days we have to make sure that our outdoor spaces add value and not costs.

Clutter and congestion:

Potted plants cluttered the paved areas around the house.

One of the objectives of this garden upgrade was to deal with the paved areas and existing courtyards. Here I had collected a lot of pots. Be warned – don’t collect pots. Not unless you throw the old ones away. I had gone through a phase of collecting succulents too. Be warned – don’t collect succulents, they grow and multiply and then you will need more pots. I had tiny pots, medium pots and large pots.

Some I bought, some I had collected from clients – who were throwing theirs away. Besides the potted succulents there were also roses, Lemon trees, Frangipani trees, and ferns, basically, lots of collectables. I had decided that it was time to let all this weight go. After-all these pots needed constant care and watering. I wanted freedom from this commitment. So one of the objectives was to discard at least half of these pots, half was good.

I would finally plant the Lemon and the Frangipani trees that I had been growing for years. I would give all these pots away to neighbours and friends and the roses to a client who was overjoyed at getting them. The rest of the plants worth keeping I would commit to the ground.

Smaller garden – More space

When we first bought the house in 2005 I had set about planting trees and tall growing shrubs to screen us from neighbours, the street and the harsh mid-summer sun. I had planted around 20 trees and twelve years later these trees have grown enough to push my garden skywards, producing a forest like effect around the house. This I wanted to now take advantage of. With a forest around me I no longer needed to focus my attention on the small details of my garden. I did not want the fuss of cultivating beds full of collectables. In a way – I wanted to underline the tree-scape in bold clean lines and simple planting rows. In essence I wanted less garden and more space. So the planting beds had to be reduced in size.

Simplify the planting choices

Amazingly I had many plants that survived the summer of 2016/2017 without any water at all. We didn’t water with buckets; we just left everything alone to see what would happen. Silly I know, but that’s what we did. Amazingly, of the plants that survived were a balanced mix of indigenous and exotics. Fynbos had perished, but Euphorbia ‘kilimajaro’ and Murraya exotica looked perfect. Strelitzia regina survived of course, as did Salvia leucantha. When a new landscape is planned there are always choices. I knew I wanted to underline my trees with a kind of a hedge. I didn’t want to have to box-cut this hedge and I didn’t want it getting too large too quickly. It needed lateral and contained growth from a central stem. It needed to be around one and a half meters in height eventually.

I already had a strong Viburnum tinus hedge adjacent to the covered patio and I liked the deep rich colour of their leaves and their white flowers. Up by the pool I had a sculptured Coprosma – one of those collectables that I decided I would keep despite it being an oddity. Along the boundary wall on the road side I had planted a row of Hibiscus syriacus. These had matured well and were about three meters tall. They were nicely standardized so as to enjoy their greyish branched stems, which I call ‘the bones’ in winter when the Hibiscus is bare. These Hibiscus species are by no means water-wise. Although they suffer ever summer they are quite structural in my garden and I wanted to keep them.

So, I had to now choose the new plants that would frame the lower garden. I decided to take my cue from what had survived without watering, and so I chose the exotic Murraya exotica (apologies, but it did survive) and Strelitzia regina because I love their foliage and orange flowers against the green boundary wall.

Increase functional space

The garden had never been landscaped before and now with the lawn taken out we had opportunity to deal with some of the problems that existed with levels. Oh boy! I knew these level issues were there, what I never realized was how much soil I would have to remove just to create a level surface.

The soil being removed

I won’t go into that in depth, but I am sure I removed five or six cubic meters of soil from No 10 in order to create a level surface where the two areas of lawn had been. Now in my fantasy the old lawn would have been paved. I would have added a timber pergola, draped with climbers, positioned various potted plants around in groups and thrown in some lovely ‘Hope Furniture” benches for lazy days under the pergola.

This was fantasy and not quite workable or affordable. Anyway, I already had a patio that viewed the garden and I already had paved areas with seating and tables. What purpose did this large previously lawned area serve? How was I to dress it? The lawn area’s only function had been for standing around a braai, really that was all we ever did there. I decided that to go with my second and more rational but very different option, the more affordable option. I decided to frame the outer edge with a double row of pavers and simply lay a bed of gravel in the center. I thought I might group some pots in the corners.

This was very Zen and minimalist. I wondered if it was boring, perhaps too stark but went with it anyway.

The new minimalist Garden space surrounded with Murraya

Lawn-free minimalism

Lawn-free minimalism

The fire pit turned out to be a great acquisition, proving a real ‘conversation hang out’ as the night sets in

The Shower Courtyard – Winter 2017 – before the upgrade

The outside shower courtyard off the guest bedroom also had to received an upgrade. The paving here was purposely enlarged and planted area made smaller for less maintenance and less planting.

Finally the potted Lemons have found a place in the garden

The pool terrace: The upper terrace of lawn was at the pool adjoining the patio on the south side of the house The main feature planting here were a Sersia pendulina tree, a lone Trachycarpus palm that I had salvaged from a garden and of course the Coprosma mention earlier. This was the most utilized area of lawn as it was the overflow for pool parties.

The pool terrace as it looked by the end of March 2017

Here I decided the only choice was decking. It was soft and natural – an element I had always enjoyed. It would serve its purpose of extending the entertainment area perfectly, enlarging the pool footprint and the adjacent patios simultaneously. And so it was.

The bed areas were reduced to allow for a larger deck area

Smaller Garden – more space

I look forward to the summer – I am so glad that I made a plan to improve both my property and lifestyle.

Planting Window

So I had only Saturdays and I had to complete all the work within the rainy season as I have no borehole, or rainwater tanks. The one thing I do know from indigenous landscaping is that the planting season starts in March, with or without rain. There is something about the shift of the seasons around the equinox that makes it easy to plant a new garden from March. However the window for planting, in my opinion closes in July.

The plants need that time to establish well before the spring arrives. A landscape master plan can be implemented in stages Most of my work is all planned anyway, and although I didn’t have it on paper, the project was straight forward, at least in design. As the budget was constrained it worked very well that I had only one day a week to get the garden landscaped. So in April 2017 we started, almost every Saturday the crew arrived at 8am and left around 2pm. They also needed a time off. This makes landscaping affordable as each month a piece of the puzzle is added.

The costs then roll from month to month instead of all at the same time. It worked for me because I was content to live with a deconstructed garden. Trust me – at times, it was really messy, but I knew it had to be done.


The project started in March and finally was completed in October when the timber deck was installed. The result has been spectacular. We now spend a lot of time in the garden, marveling at the simplicity and order that the redesign has resulted in. The garden is free from the disorder of years of neglect.

I am loving the open expanse of gravel. The hard and gritty gravel is well balanced by the deep green of the surrounding Murraya. These plants have proven to be an excellent choice. They have complimented the existing Viburnum hedge and Coprosma as expected and have added to the old world charm of No 10.