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What do you do with a rental garden?

Alison Stewart

Alison Stewart

May 19, 2012

If you’re living in a rented house, how do you manage to have an attractive garden without spending a lot of time and money? If you’ve been lucky enough to walk into a beautifully designed, easy-care paradise, that’s great, but the gardens in most rental properties are either a wilderness, or boring, or both.

The back garden is what estate agents euphemistically called “laid to lawn”

The garden of our rental property in Edinburgh is in the “boring” category. The front garden isn’t too bad – a mix of shrubs and smallish trees in raised beds behind a Lonicera hedge – but the back garden is what estate agents euphemistically describe as “laid to lawn”: a dandelion-infested, raggedy-edged rectangle of grass surrounded by a 30-40cm strip of mostly bare soil and a regimental row of trees squeezed up against the stone walls.

The patio – with soggy remains of winter pots


If you’ve visited my blog before you’ll know that I am currently knocking myself out trying to renovate a large, unruly garden in the west of Scotland and frankly I don’t have the energy or the money to lavish on the garden of the Edinburgh house, where we’re serving time until our younger daughter finishes school. Last year (our first in this house) I decided, with some success, just to brighten up the concrete patio with a collection of colourful pots.

But last Sunday Ian from next door appeared at the gate with a wheelbarrow full of divisions from his herbaceous border. He’s a good neighbour and I didn’t have the heart to turn down his gift, but at the moment I don’t have anywhere at Sherbrooke that I can use them. So I made an on-the-spot decision to make a (very small) herbaceous border in front of the back wall of the Edinburgh garden, by widening the 40cm strip of bare earth to more like 120cm and planting it up with my free herbaceous perennials. The idea is that we’ll look straight across at the border from the patio doors in the kitchen. It’s west facing, which probably isn’t ideal, and the tree roots might be a bit of a problem, but what have I got to lose?

Widening the 40cm wide strip of ‘garden’ by cutting turves

The grass at that end of the garden is comparatively dandelion-free – much too good just to turn into compost – so I cut it into turves that I’ve parked beside the wall over the shady side, with the aim of taking them across to Sherbrooke to fill in bare patches in the grass there. The border would look much better if it was at least twice as deep but my aching back and shoulders can’t deal with any more turf lifting for now, and there’s always the difficult question of how much you can mess around with a garden that doesn’t belong to you.

My new herbaceous border, planted up with my neighbour’s generous gift of plants.

Ian had given me some pretty sizeable clumps of plants so I further divided them and pretty much just plonked them in, hoping I’ve put the ones that are going to rocket up to 80cm near the back, and the lower growing ones at the front (but as I’ve completely forgotten what they all are, I’m not at all sure!) I added some purple Heucheras that I had potted up from cuttings, and some divisions of Bergenia from the front garden, just so the whole thing doesn’t disappear completely for the winter.

I’m calling this my “lucky dip” garden. It’s not what I would do if the garden belonged to me but it’s cheap and (hopefully) cheerful, and it will be fun to see what colours and shapes emerge as the summer progresses. And if there’s anything from the motley collection that I like and think will work at Sherbrooke, I can take some more divisions in the autumn or next spring and move them over there.

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