Don’t worry – I’m not turning into Charlie Dimmock. In fact when I think of creating a garden for good times, I sigh. It’s so hard to get anything to flourish in this cold, windy corner of the north… well apart from the ever expanding collection of balls that pop up in the flower beds. For years, whenever I’ve looked through the windows I’ve spotted yet another one glowing in all of its neon glory. However that’s another thing that’s changing and the sight of a boy practicing drop kicks in the garden is now rare. The swings and the slides have gone, so has the trampoline and we’ve realised it’s time to start claiming the garden as our own.

It’s taken us fourteen years to complete the interior of our house and of course add the extension. In all of that time, the garden has been pretty neglected. We live in a listed house in the heart of a conservation area so every project we undertake has added complications. Since Christmas though, I’ve been thinking about starting to work on the garden from the top by creating a new patio area. When John Lewis saw the post with photos of us sitting in their Garden Department discussing my plans, they asked if I was serious about buying my furniture from them. I was – if we were going to invest in this, I wanted to do it properly with quality furniture that would last.

Now before I go on, for the sake of clarity I want to confirm that this post is being written in collaboration with John Lewis but we have paid for all of the components ourselves apart from the reading chair and some of the cushions which were bought with a voucher they gave us.

When we had a garden for good times…

Until I decided that we were going to have a long hot summer this year, I had almost given up on our garden. As most people know, we live in one of the wettest parts of the UK. The upside of that is that we are always surrounded by lush greenery however our garden faces the sea with no protection from the wind and plants seem to struggle with the salty air.

Whenever I think of summer in the garden, I automatically revert to our days in the south where the sun seemed to shine solidly from April until October. We used to hold legendary “Surbiton Sundays.” We’d place wallpaper tables down the full length of our garden, dress them with brightly coloured saris and load them with plates of food and buckets filled with chilled bottles of wine. We’d invite eclectic groups of friends, mixing colleagues from Selfridges with people from rugby, the boys’ nursery, neighbours and old school mates for long al fresco afternoons with children playing around us as the conversation flowed.

These Sundays were such a fundamental part of our lives that when our offer was accepted on this ‘forever home’ in the north, the first thing we did was order the huge extendable garden table that we’d always wanted but never been able to accommodate in our much smaller garden. No more wallpaper tables for us! It was the first thing we’d ever ordered from Ebay and we wondered whether it would materialise but when we arrived with our removal van, there it was in the garden, waiting for us like a symbol of good times to come.

After missing having my family around for the last fifteen years, I imagined us spending balmy evenings around that table and, Sinatra style, we’ve had a few – but than again, too few to mention. The problem is that the price of our stunning aspect over the Bay to the Lakeland Hills beyond is a perpetual chilly breeze. Even on the stillest of summer days you shiver.

Every year I’ve wanted to solve the wind factor by installing a glass balustrade. I’ve often costed it out only to hear Mr MC muttering that we have a ‘glass balustrade’ in the form of the large glass walled extension that we built 4 years ago. And yes the extension is lovely (and we’ll be paying for it for a long time yet) but it isn’t the same as sitting in the garden.

The end of winter starting point

This is where we started. It looks grim – the winter storms had shredded the furniture covers to pieces and everything was exposed and bare. You’ll see that there was a raised stone flower bed on the left that narrowed the patio. This meant that if we wanted to open the bi-fold doors when we had chairs around the table, we had to move everything first. The other problem was that the sun only really hit that spot for a few short hours. There is better light at the front of the patio and the very back. I’m often found perching on the doorstep with a cup of coffee trying to enjoy the last evening rays.

Creating a garden for good times

The plan

So, I tracked the sun’s journey and created two distinct areas – one at the front of the patio that has the sun from the morning until about 5pm and one at the rear that picks it up as it sets. My plan is that the main area will be for eating and sitting in groups. The quiet sunset spot is for me to sit and read at the end of the day. I’ll give you a breakdown of costs at the end.

Creating a garden for good times

Improving the flower bed

Job number one was to remove the flower bed which was much harder work than expected. The boys joined in, eager to play with a sledge hammer and it was like watching Tom and Jerry as the force of the unyielding wall reverberated through them. In the end each stone had to be chiselled away individually and it took a long time. The bed is now level with the ground, shorter and squarer which somehow makes it look bigger.

Preparing for the balustrade

Next step was removing the end stones of the patio to create a foundation of concrete that would hold the anchor bolts for the balustrade. They will support the large panel of toughened (hopefully cricket and rugby ball proof) glass which should create a microclimate for both us and plants to flourish behind. The stone flags were then relaid on top of the concrete before the aluminium channel was installed.

Creating a garden for good times

Defining plants that might grow

Mr MC and I don’t quite agree when it comes to gardens. I abide by the theory that there are no straight lines in nature. He on the other hand likes everything to be geometric and minimal. In fact he would prefer us not to have any flowers in the garden – in his mind they’re messy and when we bought our first house together, I compromised by planting only white flowers. We’ve moved on since those days though and the advice that I’ve been given has been to opt for hardy mediterranean plants that will cope with the salty sea breezes.

So, my biggest horticultural investment has been in an olive tree to add a little vertical structure and separate the two zones. I bought it from Villagio Verde who dedicate their whole business to nurturing olive trees of all sizes. They are based in Worcester (but offer free delivery nationwide) and have numerous RHS medals. I wanted one that was well established and the tree that arrived is sturdy and well shaped. The only thing I would say is that the chap they use on the website to give you an idea of scale is clearly not very tall because I had anticipated a bigger tree. In advance of its arrival we’d removed a stone from the patio so that it could be planted in the ground but it would then have been the height of a shrub so we’ll have to keep it in a pot for a few years.

The good thing is that being evergreen, it will add to the patio even in winter and I’m hoping to decorate it with lights at Christmas.

Creating a garden for good times

I feel a bit nervous about discussing the plants that I’ve chosen because I know there are a few garden designers and horticulturalists amongst you. However I’ve continued with the mediterranean theme and planted a mix of lavender; salvia; senetti; santolina and nepeta (otherwise known as catmint and already down to bare sticks as the cats have had their way with it). Any further planting suggestions would be much appreciated (Latin names are fine – Latin I can do, it’s the practical stuff I struggle with)!

Creating a garden for good times

The garden furniture

And this is the furniture that we bought for the main eating area. It is made in the UK by British company Kettler who I visited once a long time ago when I was busy putting garden brochures together for Selfridges. At the age of 26 I couldn’t imagine ever owning garden furniture of such stature so it feels like an achievement that we now have some.

It’s big enough for our family or a few friends but still quite compact and it makes better use of our space. When we were in John Lewis, the staff were telling us to buy it quickly because this set is currently priced much lower than it is in the John Lewis catalogue – or anywhere else for that matter. It’s quite an investment and so we’re pleased that it’s made from synthetic wicker and should last well. The cushions are weather proof and a neutral grey…

Creating a garden for good times

Corner Garden Set

… I’ve added weatherproof scatter cushions as an accent and a couple of throws for cooler evenings.

Creating a garden for good times

Corner Garden Set; Square striped outdoor cushions (various colours available); Rectangular striped outdoor cushion; Yellow outdoor cushions (various colours available); Yellow fleece throws

I was pleased to see that the covers are sturdy because although we’ll take the cushions in, the furniture itself will have to withstand our winter weather.

Creating a garden for good times

Corner set cover; Table cover

It was a team effort when the glass for the balustrade finally arrived. After a lot of shopping around we ordered the whole system from Trade Balustrade which worked out cheaper than buying components individually (even the glass).

Creating a garden for good times

When everyone deserts me after dinner for their movies and games consoles, I have my own quiet spot. This is the view I have as the sun goes down. I don’t think anywhere in the world can beat a Lake District sunset.

Creating a garden for good times

The chair is made from woven rope and adds a tonal contrast to the grey wicker. In the winter it will fit nicely in the corner of my office further down the garden.

Creating a garden for good times

Garden armchair 

I was torn between that one and this one which is such a beautiful design but would take up too much space in my office during the winter.

Creating a garden for good times

Garden rocking chair

And so, I’m now thinking through the finishing touches and John Lewis have them to suit every mood. It’s a great way to add an extra lease of life to the furniture you may already have.

Lovely glasses for summer drinks…

Creating a garden for good times

L-R banana tumbler; flamingo tumbler; toucan tumbler; watermelon tumbler; make a splash tumbler; flamingo wine glass (sold out); glass cocktail stirrers

….English country garden cushions…

Creating a garden for good times

Fern showerproof cushion; Life is Better showerproof cushion

…or a nautical theme…

Creating a garden for good times

Beach huts showerproof cushion (reverisble – squiggles on the other side); blue striped cushion

… portable barbecues for summer adventures…

Portable barbecue

… and these probably aren’t for most people’s gardens but they are great for taking on holiday with you – perfect for Instagram shots!

Creating a garden for good times

Large flamingo; further options here

And as if by magic, as soon as we finished the project, the heatwave arrived so here are a few ‘patio in action’ shots from the weekend. I was busy all day on Saturday and so I was really looking forward to getting home and being the first one to sit in the sunshine however I was beaten to it. The new furniture had enticed the boys away from their lairs – one was revising, one clearly wasn’t. He claimed he was taking a well earned break.

And so it went on over the weekend, it was like turning the clock back because the boys were out in the garden with us all of the time. The eldest finally joined us after his weekend of rugby last night and so we had a barbecue.

It was everything I’d hoped it would be.

Original barbecue

And of course this is just the start of the long, hot summer that I’ve been telling you was on its way. You can thank me in October!

I promised to include total project costs and here they are:

  • Garden furniture corner set £1299
  • Garden armchair* £290
  • Covers for all furniture items £154
  • Cushions* £42
  • Throws* £30
  • Balustrade £639.60
  • Olive tree £150
  • Plants £164
  • Materials £225
  • Tools (Mr MC went through three drills boring holes into the cement. If he had hired a rotary hammer drill for a day in the first place as he did at the end, it would have cost £25)!
  • Mr MC’s blood, sweat and tears- priceless

Grand total: £3,018.60 (*items bought with a John Lewis voucher)

So that will be the last home project we do until the autumn, until then you’ll find us in the garden!

Midlife Lately

Just a heads up – I’m hoping to hold another blogger sale in aid of Bloodwise this weekend. It will include samples and lightly worn items, mostly in a size 12. There’s a lot of work to be done to pull it all together so I’ll confirm details in Friday’s post. Until then, have a great week.

Disclosure: ‘Creating a garden for good times’ is written in partnership with John Lewis and I used a voucher to buy the chair, cushions and throws. We funded and managed the rest of the project personally.

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