Transform your garden – easy garden design tips and budget ideas

May 6th, 2023
Posted In: Garden trends & design

If you want to transform your garden on a budget, then Jo and Simon Rutherford have some brilliant tips and ideas to copy.

When they moved into their home a few years ago, the garden was a patch of bare lawn running up to the fence line.

There was a concrete flagstone path from the back door to the garage. A few shrubs were squashed in along the fence. ‘And that was about all,’ says Jo.

The house was recently built, and, like many new builds, the garden is also wide and shallow.

Now it is so transformed that it is opening for Whitstable Open Gardens (the National Garden Scheme) on May 14th 2023.

Transform your garden with simple DIY tips and easy grow plants

Easy, inexpensive ways to transform your garden.

Garden planning

When you want to transform your garden, your first step should be to wait. Jo and Simon moved in in September, but didn’t start the garden until the following spring.

You’re sometimes advised to wait a whole year to see what emerges from a garden, but it was clear that there was nothing here.

Even so, it’s worth spending some time just thinking about the garden, looking up ideas and seeing how you use the space. Notice how you walk across it and where natural paths are.

There are two really good posts to read while you’re dreaming about how you’re going to transform your garden. They are how to design a garden if you’re not a garden designer with Pollyanna Wilkinson and 5 top garden design tips + two common mistakes to avoid.

Jo Rutherford, The Helpful Gardener

Jo Rutherford is a professional gardener. Her website is The Helpful Gardener

Ideas for wide, shallow gardens

Jo researched garden layouts and design ideas for wide, shallow gardens. ‘There’s not much out there, but I knew that I needed to stop the eye going straight to the back fence.’

She achieved this by designing her borders on the diagonal.

When you run borders across the diagonal – or even simply across the garden – the eye stops on the border and then moves on. If there is nothing between you and the back fence, then the eye goes quickly to the back. Even just a few seconds’ pause can make the view across the garden feel larger.

Jo also painted the fences nearly black to help them ‘recede’ and also because dark backgrounds really show off plants.

Running borders diagonally across a wide space makes it look bigger.

Running borders diagonally across a wide space makes it look bigger. The eye has to stop to take in the shapes rather than go straight to the back fence.

Garden bed construction

Jo decided on two kinds of border edging.

One border is for her veg garden, where she’s currently growing broad beans. Here she’s used bricks, which a client no longer wanted.

You can also get second-hand or free bricks from online sites, such as Facebook Marketplace, Freegle or Freecycle. Rather than pay to have hard landscaping disposed of, people are often happy to give it away for free, provided that you collect it.

Jo says that she’d originally planned a raised bed, but that her brick-laying skills weren’t up to it. So she simply placed the bricks at an angle, half buried in the earth.

Garden edging made from wine bottles

Jo submerged the whole wine bottles in a trench and filled in the soil around them. She said that the hardest part of the job was getting the labels off! Jo and Simon laid the gravel themselves – it’s the easiest hard surface to lay if you’re not experienced at DIY.

Seasonal planting – go for big blocks of colour

Think about having one or two big splashes of colour every season. If you choose plants that grow well locally, you can achieve a big impact on a small budget.

Jo’s garden in late spring is blue, citrus green and orange. The blue comes from huge clumps of forget-me-nots. She originally got some from her mother. They then self-seeded. Now all she needs to do is pull them out where she doesn’t want them to grow.

She also has self-seeding Euphorbia robbiae, which adds the splash of citrus green in spring.

If you include self-seeding plants in your garden, you’ll get plants for free. But you do have to make sure you don’t weed them all out when they first pop up.

I counted 25 self-seeding plants in my garden. This means that sometimes it’s full of colour, even if I haven’t bought or planted any plants for ages. And it’s both easy care and cheap.

Transform your garden with big blocks of colour from easy-to-grow plants

Transform your garden with big blocks of colour from easy-to-grow plants, such as these forget-me-nots, which self-seed.

Many of Jo’s plants are cuttings from friends or plants that have been divided.  Sometimes people want to throw plants away. She always says ‘I’ll have that!’

When I decided to re-vamp my border, I realised that buying all the plants new would be very expensive. So I researched all the ways you could save money on plants.

Transform your garden with upcycled and second-hand items

If someone’s throwing something away, Jo is often happy to give it a home. She has two ladders that belonged to a client. He didn’t want them and she now uses them to display plants.

Two old ladders used for displaying pots

Two old ladders that belonged to a client. He wasn’t using them so he gave them to Jo. They add height to the seating area.

She has hung a pallet on a sunny wall, turning it into a planter. ‘I added a piece of wood to the bottom of each pallet “shelf”. Then I lined it with plastic from an old compost bag, tearing some holes in it for drainage.’

Easy DIY pallet planter

Jo painted this piece of pallet and hung it on the wall. She added a strip of wood to make it into a ‘window basket’ type planter. She then lined it with plastic from an old compost sack. It’s a very shallow planter so she warns that it’s not suitable for plants that need a lot of watering.

The two colourful chairs also came from a client who was revamping her garden furniture. When she heard that the chairs were going to the tip, Jo volunteered to take them home. She’s mended them and painted them.

These chairs were being thrown away.

These chairs were being thrown away. Jo brought them home and painted them.

There are some old tree stumps planted with succulents. And she’s also dug a small wildlife pond, lining it with some leftover lining. Her brother had just created a larger pond in his garden, and there was a small piece of lining left over.

Use a piece of leftover pond lining to create a wildlife pond

Jo and Simon dug this pond themselves. They lined it with a leftover piece of pond lining given to them by Jo’s brother.

You can often find bargains or second-hand items for free on sites such as Freegle, Freecycle or Facebook Marketplace.  There are more ideas in 15 ways to transform your garden with upcycled junk.

Before and after - a new build garden from scratch

Before and after – from a bare patch of lawn to a vibrant flower-filled garden!

See more of Jo’s garden in video

Take a stroll round Jo’s garden in this video.

Pin to remember how to transform your garden on a budget

And do join us – see here for a free weekly email with more gardening tips, ideas and inspiration.

Transform your garden on a budget


14 comments on "Transform your garden – easy garden design tips and budget ideas"

  1. Christine Hicks says:

    I have seen lots of great ideas from lanterns to water gardens using hypertufa. It’s easy to make and form around ugly objects that are really transformed.

  2. Vivien Almond says:

    I would like to make a small rockery

  3. Palmer says:

    Until the bottles crack in severe frost otherwise great and you were lucky to have clients that have you really useful bits ,I wish I had a garden but sadly I live in a ground floor council flat with to many damp issues,mould and an ant invasion in the living room

    1. I wondered about the bottles cracking – the garden is not far from the coast, so there is less freezing, but they had some very cold weather this winter, and so far, OK.

  4. Bernard Stephen says:

    This is a lovely most economical way of garden preparation using waste empty bottles.

  5. Dorothy says:

    What a transformation and so many clever uses uses of common item made to look beautiful..

  6. Lorna says:

    Lovely, helpful ideas. Thank you.

  7. Bob says:

    People who make furniture out of pallets without completely refinishing the boards properly should not be allowed to do diy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

15 + = 18