As garden centres reopen across NI, people are looking forward to revamping their plots. Linda Stewart meets three people who transformed their gardens
Disability campaigner Michaella Hollywood (29) is furloughed and in self isolation in Crossgar with her mum Marie, dad Michael and dog Charlie.
She's been planning to transform her unusable back garden for a year and a half and the builders came out to do the work early in lockdown, creating a well-designed space where she can sit outside and enjoy a change of scenery without leaving the house.
The work was part funded by Michaella and partly by the Housing Executive and included building a new bathroom as well.
She says: "When the occupational therapist was visiting, she had noticed that the paving had become unsafe - so that was really where it began. It went through the planning system, along with other elements she wanted to change in the house and the builder was able to do social distancing which has been brilliant.
"The area was really all over the place - the paving was up and down and when it rained, the water would lie on it, so we would have had to wash the water away. There was really only one small part where I could sit.
"As part of my disability I can't hold myself against gravity, so I was finding it hard to hold myself up outside. It was barely usable for me anymore - it was really hard to drive the wheelchair on."
Michaella was born with spinal muscular atrophy which affects all her muscles.
"I can't brush my own teeth or scratch my nose if it's itchy, and when I go to sleep I have to use a ventilator. I get my food through a tube in my stomach," she explains. "I often describe it that I can do everything, but I need someone to be my arms and legs."
Michaella was also born with no ears, an unrelated condition.
"I recently got new hearing aids before the virus and now the sounds I've been able to hear outside are unreal. I never realised you could hear Charlie sniffing until about two weeks ago - being able to hear your dog sniffing is something I've never thought of before," she says.
The builders have replaced the paving and installed a pathway around the house, and then the family got to work on the soft landscaping.
"We've planted flowers and there are raised beds that are about 75% getting pulled out and new stuff planted - but that hasn't started yet," Michaella says.
"We've planted radishes and tomatoes in a pot at the front and once they're mature we can plant them out the back. We also have pansies - they're growing rightly and once they're mature enough we can plant them out.
"Mum wants an apple orchard, but I really want berries. I like making jam, so I'd like to plant blackberries and that sort of thing. I'd say we'll end up with a mixture of fruit and veg - all our flowers tend to die on us, but we seem to be able to grow veg."
The family is also growing bonsai from seed, a complicated process involving a spell in the hotpress followed by weeks in the fridge.
"They will be able to come out of the fridge in the next few weeks and that will be very interesting," Michaella says.
Because of her health conditions, Michaella and her family had been in self isolation since March 12, and the garden has been a godsend.
"It's so good to have this at this time - when we planned this, a pandemic wasn't in our minds at all," she says.
"I've been spending quite a bit of time in the back garden and I'm able to take the chair for a walk round the house.
"We've put a table in the middle as it's been really useful for me. Even writing with a pencil can be quite tiring so it's good to have the support of the table," she says.
"You can't underestimate how important this is. Last September I went to the US on a State Department-funded trip for emerging leaders and I was on six planes in a month. And in such a short space of time to be in self isolation, it's bit of a culture shock and it's not what I'm usually like.
"So to be able to come out for a bit of a change of scenery has been really nice. I haven't been anywhere in three months, so to be able to come out the back and not worry has been really good - there's no one here to put me at risk.
"As a shielder, this has been a slice of heaven."
Estimated cost: approx £1,000.
Time: one week.
Best bargain: pavers were £15 a pallet in an auction.
The advice I'd pass on: if it's complicated, let the experts do it!
Teacher Caroline Davis (28) and electrical design engineer Jack Nedza (24) built a new covered patio area in the back garden of their Waringstown home.
They’d bought the house 18 months ago, but their beagle Milo had been racing up and down the garden, destroying the plants on one side, so they decided to replace that area with a paved patio. They also wanted to replace the paving slabs in the middle of the garden with turf, which they took from the new patio area, creating a continuous stretch of lawn.
“It was really tatty looking — the slabs were all overgrown and it was looking a bit unloved, but this has made a massive difference. We’re very proud of it,” Caroline says.
“We got engaged in February. We bought the house a year and a half ago and we’d always wanted to do up the garden, but we didn’t have the money because we were doing the inside.
“We knew we were going to have to save for our honeymoon, so we just decided to do it ourselves as Jack had the time off.
“I am a teacher so I’m doing remote learning, but I had time in the afternoons and weekends and Jack carried on when I was working.”
The first step was to remove the old slabs from the centre of the garden and then they marked out a 9x3m patio area and dug it out by hand.
“We basically dug for about a week as no diggers could get up the side of the house, so we did it all ourselves. The builders’ merchants told us we were mad and it would never work!” Caroline says.
“We got it level first and then Jack had to dig down 10 inches for the posts to go in. There was one day when it was scorching and I got a bit burnt, but whether it was raining or whatever, we still got out and did it.
“In between all this, we had two tonnes of stones delivered and over three days I was digging stones from the front drive and wheelbarrowing them to the back while Jack was putting the posts in.
“Then we had to use a whacker to hit all the stones down and make it all compact.”
The couple hired this from the builders merchants who were able to deliver it, followed by a cement mixer at a later stage. Caroline found herself mixing cement in the front drive and ferrying it to the back for Jack to lay the slabs.
“I didn’t need to work out for a couple of weeks!” she laughs.
“Jack went back to work three weeks ago and I did the grouting between all the slabs. And the first weekend after he was back, Jack finished the structure. The last bit is putting the roof on — that’s due to be delivered. We managed to buy some swing chairs and it looks fantastic, to be honest. We got two Bushmills whiskey barrels and some stools to create a seating area round the barbecue and we have some outdoor furniture last year that we’d bought last year and never used.”
Caroline pays tribute to her granny, who pushed them to undertake the project: “She’s the one with the green thumbs in our family!”
She’s now looking forward to having friends round and having a barbecue once the roof is on and the restrictions are over.
“Throughout last summer we didn’t have anywhere to sit outside. We sat on top of the step outside,” she says.
“We’d spent so much money inside the house, but it’s nice to have somewhere for family and friends to be able to sit and socialise.
“Jack did a super job — I just did a bit of hard graft. He laid the slabs, he made the whole structure himself but I just mixed the cement and did a lot of digging.”
Estimated cost: about £1,750- on building materials, equipment rental (whacker plate and cement mixer), furniture and lighting.
Time it took: about 80 hours. We would spend around eight hours in the garden at weekends, whether the sun was shining or it was raining.
Best bargain: Bushmills whiskey barrels, which we found through a Facebook Marketplace link. They were £40 and delivered for free. The best thing is there is still a bit of whisky in them!
The advice I'd pass on: Make sure you do your research. Once you've researched you just need to get it started or else it won't happen. Jack also made sure all of his measurements were correct at each phase of the build to ensure minimal mistakes throughout.
Greenways development officer Michael Savage (58) is working from his home in Londonderry, in lockdown with his partner Bernadette and daughter Ellie (16). He has just transformed a neglected veg patch into a pond thriving with wildlife.
He has a large garden at his home on the Limavady Road where he had created a vegetable patch and wildflower meadow in previous years.
To make the new pond, he had an idea to transform an area which had been neglected for some time.
"It's been sitting there not doing anything and was overgrown with weeds, so last year I decided it would be nice to convert it into a pond," Michael says.
"We bought a pond liner and a pump and then they sat in the garage from last year. When lockdown started and we were stuck here for weeks, it seemed like a good opportunity to do it - it took about a week and a half to complete."
The veg patch has been built using long-lasting oak that had fallen in the Great Storm, which felled thousands of trees around Europe in 1987 - when Michael bought it at a salvage yard in Coleraine years ago, he was told that the French Government had given permission to plank the fallen oaks.
The first step was to remove all the surface vegetation and then dig out the soil, before picking over the substrate to remove sharp stones and glass shards that could puncture the liner. Michael used some old pond liner and builders' bags to underlay the new pond liner.
"We wanted to keep a bank that was to become a rockery and cascade. We've got mining bees in the garden so I decided it would be nice to have some bare soil that they could burrow in," he says.
"Down the other end of the pond, I wanted to have a bog garden. For a while it was my job to do school wildlife areas, so I've built lots of ponds and they've always been fairly naturalistic but this one was more formal in shape than I normally do.
"We got irises from the garden, and we got a scoop of pondweed - crosswort - when we were out on a walk, although it came with some Canadian pondweed and we're picking that out to make sure it doesn't get established.
"We bought some marginal plants online - we have a lovely one called flowering rush and there's lots of water plantain, arrowhead and some camassia, although it's not taking too well.
"We bought a water lily online and when it arrived it was an inch and a half root and one very sad leaf. That's struggling to get going, but I think it's going to survive."
But as soon as the pond was complete, wildlife started to colonise it, Michael says.
"What was really great was that we filled it up with tap water and just that day things started arriving. We had water beetles, we had pond skaters dropping out of the sky on the first day or two and we found a stonefly.
"It's too late now for frogspawn but we did manage to get some tadpoles when we were out for a walk. The pond is thriving - it's a bit soupy at the moment but it's starting to clear," he says.
Estimated cost: about £200, including £160 for liner and solar pump, £20 for marginal plants and £10 for miniature water lily, plus some pond baskets.
Time it took: 15-20 hours.
Best bargain: the pond plants from Lincolnshire Pond Plants via eBay, great quality and very good prices.
The advice I'd pass on: Make your pond as deep as you can - ours is 60cm but even deeper would be better. Take time, making sure there are no sharp stones before putting down liner, and use some kind of underlay. And take time to just watch what appears.