A small urban garden

This is how Gráinne and Padraig Haughney created a small urban garden in Kilkenny with no previous experience.

In this article we cover:

  • When they started working on their garden project
  • How they tackled it and where they found inspiration
  • Details of their outdoor kitchen and how they built it
  • How the design evolved
  • What plants they went for
  • Planting advice and maintenance requirements
  • Top tips and favourite features

When did you start working on the garden?

Our love affair with the garden came about during the 2020 lockdown. We were spending all our time working on the house and for a break from the build we started working on the garden. Garden centres were also one of the few places open.

From there it’s snowballed into a full-on obsession. It did however mean that by the time we moved in, our garden was already well underway. And with large south facing glazing in the new extension, it was fantastic to be able to look out at our garden and not piles of rubble.

small urban garden

What was your inspiration?

We’ve always loved the Japanese style of gardens. Cherry blossoms, acers, fern trees. In terms of layout, lots of curves and no straight lines. It’s all about the feel, experience, and intrigue that they create and stir in you, always inviting you to explore and see what’s around the next area.

Water also plays an important part and having the sound of running water adds so much to a garden. Our garden didn’t turn out to be a Japanese garden per se, it was merely inspired by it. We’ve added lots of other plants because we liked them, so our tip here is not to be stuck on an exact image or idea.

How did you design the garden?

We wanted the layout to entice us to explore the garden. Up first on the to-do list was a big clear out, removing all the weeds that had grown over 50 years of neglect. After that task, we had to borrow a con-saw and kango and began the fun of removing all the layers of concrete to create borders all around the garden.

Not wanting straight lines for our borders and flower beds meant we had to cut plenty of curves. Up next, we built our new flower beds running up to the new extension with our wall of glass. We wanted to create the feeling that even when we are inside it feels like we are sitting outside in the garden. Again all these new flower beds had to be built in curves.

Once we had this completed we added a dozen large whiskey barrels that we had cut in half to use for planting up trees, this also really helped to break up the space. We then added all the soil we needed and headed off to the local garden centre to buy some plants.

small urban garden

What plants did you go for?

We found that acers worked well for us, they add wonderful colours of greens, golden yellow, red-purple and bronzes to the space. Bamboos really thrived in our garden but they like plenty of water and need work, constant thinning out.

We also added lots of grasses and ferns which add height and movement. We have banana plants, and a magnolia that we want to move. Don’t be afraid to move things around and see what works best in different spaces.

We visit our local garden centres regularly and are always adding bedding plants that are in season to add splashes of colour throughout the garden, and often buy from the bargain/sale area. Most of these plants are a fraction of the cost and just need a little TLC. More often than not, they just need potting up or planting out in a bigger space.

What planting advice would you give others?

Our top tip here is to call into your local garden centre and have a chat with them. We went to our local cooperative and met the horticulturist who gave us great advice on plants, what would work and what wouldn’t. We found this to be so helpful and it’s the first place we would advise anyone starting out to visit. Your local horticulturist knows your soil, what will and won’t work in the local area. Take pictures of the space and bring them along to give them a better idea of the garden. What area is in the shade, partial shade or full sun.

Another planting tip would be to add seasonal colour. To have colour all year round, not just in summer. For example we’ve added lots of hellebore for winter colour. To get the most from these, the leaves need to be thinned out (30/50 per cent) in order to see the flowers. We also have a cherry blossom that blooms in winter and adds wonderful colour in early December. There are lots of options for creating seasonal colour, just ask your local garden centre.

How easy is the garden to tend to year round?

The best way to view your garden is, it’s a space that is constantly changing and evolving, it’s never finished. And it needs maintenance. We have a leaf blower which we use almost every day. It’s a must have.

For us, gardening doesn’t feel like work, it’s a hobby. The bamboo requires lots of thinning out and it’s important to get the balance right between looking full and overgrown. With our trees it’s also important to remove crossing branches, but we just do a little each year. Remove any damaged or diseased branches. Weeding is a full time job but thankfully the space is small.

Feeding is another important job, we usually use pellets in early spring and during the summer we add tomato feed when watering. Autum mulch is also important to help warm the ground. But even with this we lost a number of our lupins and hollyhock to frost but that’s all part of gardening. Not everything survives.

small urban garden

How did you go about building your outdoor kitchen?

We had a large shed that was with the property when we bought it, and it was way too big for the space. So I put pen to paper and sketched out some ideas, then I rolled up the sleeves, got out the kango and sledge hammer and began knocking the external gable wall of the shed. I did keep the peers both sides so the roof wouldn’t come down too.

Next I built a new wall set back halfway in the shed. This created our covered outdoor space. We reused our old kitchen (the floor covering and wall cabinets) from our previous house, the granite worktop came from another kitchen that had been replaced.

Our motto here was reuse and repurpose what we could find and get our hands on. We had a small budget so we had to get creative.

Next we cladded the walls in timber to soften the look of the spaces and to help make it feel part of the garden. We added lots of potted plants to allow the garden to run into the outdoor kitchen. We then added a fridge, gas hob, (all second hand), BBQ and pizza oven (the latter a birthday present).

Next we sourced lighting and an outdoor heater, all of which allows for year round use.

Tell us about the hot tub…

The hot tub was a gift that I’d promised myself during all the long hours spent working on our house. We have a young family and with three small boys the days of ‘weekends away’ are few and far between, so we wanted to create a space that at weekends felt like we were on holidays. Be it making pizza in our outdoor kitchen or a glass of bubbly in the hot tub, it’s our take on the perfect weekend.

Our local cooperative helped us source our hot tub and ordered it in for us. The set up was super easy. It’s inflatable so it’s very easy to put up and is filled up with the garden hose so no plumbing needed.

You do need an outdoor socket to heat the water and run the filter. We also built a platform to keep the hot tub up off the ground which really helps with the heating cost as it’s not sitting on a concrete ground. It took us a few goes to figure out the maintenance.

As with a pool, you need to test the water daily and add the necessary chemicals to keep it clean: chlorine, algae, and pH. It’s important that this is done daily as the water can be heated to 40 degrees so it can cause algae to build up if not treated.

We love our hot tub and it’s lovely to head out in the summer evenings as the nights are drawing in and night falls, the peace and tranquillity is great for the body and mind. The kids usually get in on a Saturday morning too and we just adjust the temperature down for them, so the entire family gets the fun from it.

small urban garden

What are the next stages?

We have lots we still want to do, we keep dreaming and planning. We want to add a pergola and a breakfast patio area.

We also have a section of the garden for growing food that the kids love to pick and eat. Strawberries, apples, raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, herbs. We plan on expanding this area and using the wall space we have to create a herb wall.

Read up about Gráinne and Padraig’s renovation project here.

small urban garden

Don’t be afraid to get things wrong. Try things out, seek advice, and just go for it and enjoy. If a plant is not working after a year or two take it out and try something else. There’s no right or wrong to gardening, just get out and start.

Break up the work into bitesize tasks. Our garden is very much a DIY garden. Don’t get daunted by everything you have to do, break it up into spaces and achievable goals.

Be patient. You don’t have to go out and buy the biggest and most expensive trees or plants, buy younger plants and in a year or two they’ll reward you.

Respect nature. We have lots of snails who are very well fed and love our hostas. Just accept that this is part of gardening and let them do what they do. The garden should be there for all to enjoy.

Add a covered area. The idea of our outdoor kitchen came from visiting our friends in Spain who had different covered outdoor areas in their garden, and we fell in love with the concept. Having a covered area allows you to enjoy the garden all year round, especially in Ireland.

Gráinne: Swinging pod chair. It’s bliss with my morning coffee.

Padraig: The hot tub. Once the kids are in bed it’s where you’ll find me.

The boys: Our kids’ vote was divided, and they went for the pizza oven and our home gym in the garden room. We are from Kilkenny and take our hurling seriously, so training starts early.

Garden supplies and plants: Tirlan in Casltecomer and Dunnes Garden Centre in Durrow.

Follow Padraig and Gráinne on Instagram @restorationrethink

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Padraig Haughney

Written by Padraig Haughney

Padraig and Gráinne's home appeared on RTÉ's Home of the Year 2023.

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