PRICING & PLANNING
The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Garden Makeover
This article was put together by Laura Bedell-Pearce in April 2020 with reference to costs and materials relevant to the South-East of the UK.
Formal garden - design and landscaping in Reigate
As more of us are beginning to appreciate every inch of space we have outside, many homeowners are considering investing in their gardens to improve the use and appearance of their outside space. Some are also planning home offices in the garden.
What is a realistic garden design & landscaping budget?
Some garden designers recommend spending 5 to 15 per cent of the home’s value on the garden but this doesn’t take into account the variation in plot sizes and house prices across the country. Some talk about budgeting £200 per square metre of garden, but this isn’t a perfect guide either as it doesn’t take into account:
the size of the project
the vast range in hard landscaping materials available
the quality of the workmanship
whether the planting will be done using mature specimens, small plants or seed
costs for a professional survey, design and project monitoring
Unfortunately, a totally new garden costs more than most people expect, even when keeping some of the existing features. It’s very hard to complete even a small garden, with a simple design, for less than £8,000 once the materials, labour and plants are factored in, not forgetting the costs of the topographical survey, design fees and clearance. And if your garden is on a hillside or has difficult access you will need a larger pot.
You should also avoid basing your budget on TV garden makeover shows. The prices quoted rarely include labour and very often the costs of materials are subsidised by suppliers hoping to raise their profile.
Unlike a low budget interiors project (which can still look impressive), you can’t build a garden from MDF because all the materials must be able to withstand a beating from the elements. Furthermore, gardens don’t come with regular sides and a flat base. Most of them are irregular shapes with lumps, bumps or entire hillsides beneath them, which means the design and build are more complicated.
This means most new gardens cost over £10,000, and that’s for a small and simple garden (think fencing rather than walls, gravel rather than patios, small plants rather than mature specimens). A suburban garden, such as those currently featured in the Laura’s Gardens online portfolio costs between £15,000 to £80,000 –and will be built to last using quality materials and workmanship.[i]
This is a lot of money, especially when people are used to spending a couple of hundred pounds on their garden each year. But consider what you might spend on completely refurbishing a modern kitchen or adding a loft conversion and how much this adds to the value of your home (not to mention your quality of life). Most of us won’t have this type of cash hanging around in one lump which is why it makes sense to carefully plan what you want from the finished garden and then use your plan to tackle it in considered stages over a period of time.
From experience, I’d recommend that you work out what you want your end goal to look like and how much you can afford to spend in the first year (including a 10% contingency fund) and then seek advice from an experienced professional on how to maximise your budget. Be as transparent as possible about your budget and as clear as you can about your brief. Even if you can only afford a consultation rather than full-service design, it will save you money in the long run. This is why I set up my budget Garden Toolkit service, as this is a great way to get you started on your journey to creating a lovely garden.
Attention to detail: Stone-laying, mortar type, pebble margin for wood expansion, hard wood sleepers, shade tolerant planting
I don’t want to give my designer a budget, they’ll just spend it all
This is a common concern however if you were to ask someone to design a dining table they would need to know, not only what size it needed to be, but whether it was going to be Ikea, John Lewis or Conran quality as this would naturally effect the cost of construction. And it’s very similar with gardens.
I used to accept projects without budgets. They came to fruition and my clients were, and continue to be, very happy. But that was really down to luck.
If a brief is given to a garden designer without an overall budget, the project has the potential to fail. The designer will go ahead and create some beautiful designs and the client may assume that they’re going to get a fabulous garden. But then the garden designer works out all the costs for the build and the client finds out they can’t afford it. The client is disappointed as they’ve paid for a design they can’t afford and the project gets shelved. Not a good outcome.
Compare this with what happens when the budget is agreed upfront. In this case, the designer will create a range of designs based on labour and materials that are going to be within budget. The client hopefully loves one particular design and once everything is fully costed up, the client will be able to afford it and everyone can press ahead. A good garden designer will even give clients the options for things like plant maturity so that if they don’t mind waiting a bit longer for plants to grow, more money can be spent on things like landscaping or lighting. Expectations are properly managed, the project gets built and the client is delighted.
As you can see, hiring the right designer is so important – you need to be able to trust them.
Laura and one of her landscapers
mid-way through a build
What should I look for in a garden designer?
Above all, make sure they’re someone you feel comfortable talking to. Be confident they’re someone who you can trust to listen properly, to deliver a garden specific to your needs and taste rather than their personal ambitions. It’s important that you like them.
Equally, you need to like their previous work – does it reflect the look and feel that you want?
Speak to one of their previous clients. How was the design process? How was the build? Has the landscaping work and planting stood the test of time?
Search locally first, because travel time can increase the cost of design work and if you want to have your meetings in person (as well a regular inspections of your build) it’s better to use a local designer. They’re also more likely to pop in regularly to check on the progress of the build if they’re just round the corner from you.
In your initial meeting listen for examples of how they intend to work your budget as hard as possible. What cost-saving opportunities can they see?
Equally, what exciting opportunities can they see for your space? Do they seem enthusiastic about your space?
This boundary of larch, slatted fencing went in before any other works
Ten top tips to reduce spend on your garden transformation
Have a detailed garden masterplan for the whole area before you start hard landscaping or planting
Phase your project over time
Work on your boundaries before any other areas (to avoid damaging earlier works when a fence or wall needs work)
Get all your hard landscaping done first before planting
Avoid costly terraces and steps if slopes will suffice
Be aware that raised beds and walls increase costs significantly
Re-use existing materials where possible
Use straight lines rather than curves for hard landscaping surfaces (patios, retaining walls etc). Less cutting = less labour and less wastage
Choose a rustic style over modern (assuming it goes with your property). In general, clean contemporary finishes cost more than rustic, country looks[ii]
Use unstructured materials such as gravel – they’re cheaper than fixed materials such as paving.
Hard wood sleepers last longer than soft wood
Buy cheap, buy twice
Not all cost savings are worth it. One key example is the use of wood. If you’re having a deck or retaining wall constructed, avoid soft wood. It can rot quickly, even with careful maintenance.
Ideally, retaining walls should be built from stone (e.g. brick, dry stone walling, breeze blocks covered in mortar or cladding) or metal (e.g. corten steel). But many clients don’t have the budget for these materials, so the next option down the scale is wood. This is why sleepers are often used for retaining walls. But sleepers come in many forms. You want to opt for oak over softwood.
With regard to decking, there are many pros and cons of different materials from soft to hard wood and onto composite decking. I can help you navigate the array of products available and my expert contractors will install them professionally with toughened frames that are built to last.
Analysing quotes is a time consuming business
Compare apples with apples
The way in which different firms of landscapers quote for projects varies enormously. Some give lots of detail and breakdowns. Most do not. Unsurprisingly, most landscapers need to be busy building gardens during every dry day, so quoting can sometimes take time as it’s often done during the evening or at weekends and requires the input of costs for several different materials. Also, because demand in the UK (even before lockdown) for quality landscapers is so high, they are rarely short of work. (If a landscaping firm can start your project within a month and at a very cheap rate, this could be a red flag).
A large proportion of the time I spend during the project monitoring phase of my gardens is dedicated to:
Producing a comprehensive specification for landscapers to quote against
Taking contractors around the site, ensuring they’ve noted soil types, gradients, access etc
Checking that all quotes reflect the specification accurately
Going back to contractors with multiple questions against each line item, seeking more detail on the construction method, suppliers and preparation methods
hire a professional landscaper
I’ll just use my builder to do the garden
I hear this all the time. And it’s true that there are some excellent builders out there who can handle landscaping work beautifully. But they are incredibly rare. Unfortunately, I have been called in many times to help rectify poor landscaping work done by builders.
Professional landscapers on the other hand spend 100% of their time working on gardens so they know how best to deal with challenges such as drainage issues, correct patio jointing, protecting flowerbeds during works (to name just a few).
In short, if you want the best choice of materials that have been sourced from reputable suppliers with ethical supply chains (and all at a reasonable cost), you need a professional firm of landscapers.
Ethically-sourced tumbled sandstone from London Stone
A note about ethical sourcing
Ethical sourcing is a large topic that I won’t go into in detail here but needless to say I expect all suppliers of materials on my projects to guarantee that working conditions are safe, that child labour is not used and no inhumane treatment is allowed. I am keen to help my clients and followers understand this area better and will be returning to it in a future article. Meanwhile, an excellent source of advice can be found on the London Stone website.
How long will my garden transformation take?
The quick answer is 6 months to a year. I’m sorry, this is going to be bad news if you want it done for the summer holidays! A garden is a large investment though and it’s best not to rush the process. Hopefully, this guide will help explain the stages of a garden build and why it takes this long:
0 – 4 weeks: Planning permission: This doesn’t apply to most projects...but if you live in a conservation area, want to extend a boundary height, add decking at height, build a tree-house or another large structure (such as a home office), you will need to apply for planning permission. Existing trees may also be covered by a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) to protect them or protect a view from a neighbouring property. Contact your local council to find out more about your plot as early as possible. Also, if any part of your build effects a party wall or disputed boundary, it is best to get this politely and properly agreed up front. The good news is that many projects don’t require planning permission and if they do, I can provide you with advice on all the steps outlined above, but in the meantime, for more information visit www.planningportal.co.uk.
2 - 12 weeks: Garden surveys and garden design take place year-round but be aware that there may be a waiting list for sought-after suppliers in your area.
4 - 8 weeks: The design phase usually takes between 2 and 6 weeks to come up with a concept depending on current workload. The design process doesn’t just happen at the desk – the garden lives in the designer’s mind while they’re doing other tasks and the vision comes together which they then need to convey on paper or screen. Once the initial presentation has been given, the client needs time to consider it. Some tweaks may need to be made, so it’s possible to add on a further 2 weeks at this point.
2 - 6 weeks: Then landscaping specifications are sent out for quotations. The landscapers are often busy during the day and demand for quotes in the South East is high. As mentioned above, quotes are often done ‘after hours’ and then need to be carefully reviewed by your garden designer for accuracy. This entire process usually takes 2-6 weeks.
8 – 24 weeks: Once you’ve approved your chosen quote and paid your booking deposit, your designer will book a slot with the landscapers. Quality firms often have a significant waiting list of pre-booked projects before they can start on a new job. They will give you a start date but be aware that this may vary if there has been poor weather (or a major pandemic!).
3 – 8 weeks: Once tradespeople and materials are on site, landscaping works of the type shown on my website usually takes between 3 and 8 weeks.
0 – 2 weeks: As landscaping comes to a close, my team and I start planting - if space and weather conditions allow, we’ll plant during the build. Planting is undertaken during the months of March, April, May, June (if wet enough), September, October, November and December (if mild). July and August are generally too dry and the Winter months are too cold. Giving plants the best chance of adapting to their new environment is the priority. Planting often happens in phases with Spring bulbs being added in Autumn to gardens planted earlier in the year.
Winter is the best time to plan a garden makeover
When should I contact a garden designer?
It’s a common misconception that designers are busy in summer and have nothing to do in winter. Because much of my work happens indoors at my computer and drawing board, I work all year round. But the best time to find me away from existing live builds and flower beds is in the Winter. By planning early, you can get ahead of the game during the months of bad weather and pre-book the best local contractors.
Having said this, I would add that having extensive photographs of your garden during other seasons can be a great asset if you’re starting design in the Winter as the days tend be short and dark and many plants are dormant. A bit like planning for a wedding, if you can start at least a year in advance you’re going to get the best results.
The Laura’s Gardens approach to budgets
At Laura’s Gardens I have an open discussion with my clients about budget as early as possible. I help my clients to make their budgets work as hard as possible; for instance, re-using existing materials and plants, working with (rather than against) the garden’s topography, selecting the materials that best marry the look my client wants to achieve with their budget and specifying the optimum sizes and laying methods for the materials to reduce labour time.
The prices that I, and my trusted contractors, submit are neither the cheapest nor the most expensive in the area, but a project by Laura’s Gardens is built to last. I have a strong reputation for honesty and reliability, married with creativity and enthusiasm.
If your garden is out of control or simply a blank canvas, let's talk. From full garden design and landscaping management, to DIY garden toolkits and planting plans, I can help make your dream garden a reality.
Please send me:
A description of what you are looking for
How much you are planning to spend on your garden project (I need some guidance, as this will be reflected in the design and materials)
Photos of your garden from front and back (and an upstairs window if possible)
[i] Large gardens I’m working on currently have budgets in excess of £80,000 – as they require work on level changes, multiple hard surfaces and full-size trees.
[ii] unless you want a dry-stone wall – glorious things, but top budget as the skilled labourers are rare as hen’s teeth and usually have to travel some distance to work in the South-East