Introduction: A Backyard Rental Garden Overhaul

Like many people, I have been stuck inside due to a nationwide lock down. Day in and day out, I have been looking out of my window onto my small terrace garden. I decided that it needed an overhaul. It was plain, and had only lifeless wooden tiles to break up the view.

Some don't see the point in making changes to gardens in rentals, as the property isn't yours and you are giving free improvements to the landlords. I disagree. I feel this attitude is akin to cutting your nose to spite your face. After having to spend so much free time in the house due to lockdown, I've come to know more than ever what the benefit of having a comfortable, aesthetic and personalised space is to enjoying your home, rental or not. And, as I hope to show, with good planning and construction you don't have to leave anything behind for the land lord.

Step 1: Establish What You Are Working With

When you are planning a new look to an outdoor space, its important to first establish what you are working with. Living in the centre of a city I only had a small terrace yard. To turn this into something I could relax and host guests outside in, I had identify what needed to change. If you are planning an overhaul for yourself you need to do the same. I identified the following changes I needed make below:

  • There were eyesores-
    1. Rubbish bins in the corner that were exposed
    2. Pipework and drains on the wall that looked ugly
    3. bare sections of concrete
  • There was no variation-
    1. All the walls were painted in chipped white paint
    2. The floors were all wood tile
    3. There was one potted plant, no life in the garden
  • There was nowhere to host guests-
    1. One 2 seat table in the garden wasn't enough for even a small group of friends
    2. More seating was needed, especially now that outside gatherings were recommended

With a list of issues to address, I set off with tangible goals that I needed to meet. Now I just had to find a way to blend them all together.

Step 2: Measure, Plan. Measure Again and Re-plan

With my goals set, I stared to plan out what I was going to change in the garden. In order to plan changes I feel you need a good understanding of the space layout. In my case this proved more difficult that I initially thought. Without any documentation providing a layout for the yard, I took to measuring it myself.

Being a terrace house, the building, and subsequently the garden, had unusual angles and walls that are often not fully straight. This made measuring the size of the area I had to work with far more difficult than just using a tape measure and taking measurements. If you find yourself in this difficult situation, I discovered a novel, but surprisingly functional, way to get the dimensions:

  1. Take a measurement you are confident with, for example-
    • The shortest wall
    • a doorway span
  2. Open up google maps and find your house-
  3. Take a decent sized screenshot of your garden, ensure that it is as straight as possible-
  4. Open up your favourite free copy of CAD software and import the image in-
  5. Scale the image appropriately so that the length you confidently measured earlier is in scale with your software units-
  6. Draw the perimeter of your garden on top of this image, making sure that your initial measurement is the size you expected-
  7. Congratulations! You should now be able to find the lengths of your unknown sides from the lengths of the lines in the CAD software-

Step 3: Designing a Layout

With measurements found Its time to start addressing the goals you made before. I prefer to work on paper for designs, even if I am working to a strict scale, but you may prefer to carry on using CAD software or other artistic programs.

I looked back at the goals I had hoped achieve and started to try and find a design influence that would accommodate them. I was slowly drawn to the style of Japanese Tea Gardens. Their idea seemed to address many of the things I hoped to change:

  • They are designed to host guests
  • They attempt to bring a feeling of nature into the garden
  • Many of them are small, and can be squeezed into urban settings

I took influence from this style, but drew from many others, such as contemporary Japanese urban gardens. I made sure when designing my layout to consider the realities that I was working with. Its a rental space, so permanence was to be avoided, and I would be limited to the materials and plants available at local hardware shops and garden centres.

  • I first decided that I would break up the floor space by essentially creating an island of the wood tiles in a sea of gravel. This would provide colour contrast and break up the very geometric space created by the tiles
  • I decided that widely available plants such as ferns, potted trees and bamboo could be used to screen the drains and pipes, so that as I looked out my window they would be shielded by the leaves and stems
  • To increase the seating I planned an angled bench in the corner that would bring function, style and life to the small and overlooked corner of the garden
  • Trellises with hardy climbers such as thronless bramble to brake up the white walls
  • I also decided that I would treat the tiles that remained with a dark wood preservative, to bring it more in line with the design influences I had seen, but also to contrast with the lighter woods I planned to use for the bench

Step 4: Diving In

With my plans complete and my ideas ready to be realised, I jumped right into implementation. Of course this was the height of lockdown though, but fortunately for me garden and hardware centres had just reopened.

During the design phase I had made sure to research the measurements of plant pots and holders I had planned to use and ensured that they would still be on sale when I went to pick them up. I bought everything in one fell swoop; Bamboo, Ferns, Pots, Gravel, Compost and Trellises. For your own redesign it may be convenient to choose a single shop or supplier for everything. This guarantees you'll get everything at once and, if uniformity is important to your design such as the faux wooden tubs for my single bamboo plants, it ensures that you don't run out of stock and end up with mismatched items.

In a rainy weekend of mad potting and labouring, I removed the tiles I had indicated on my plan and filled in the void with contrasting grey slate gravel. I stained the remaining tiles with a darkened wood preserver and placed the plants in their respective pots and moved them into position as per the plan.

Alas, I was missing the crowning piece of my design; the fitted bench. The lockdown rules had meant that, while the hardware stores were open, they were not delivering timber. I had to wait several more weeks to get the materials delivered. In the interim I set about making detailed design for the bench.

Step 5: Designing Custom, Removable Furniture

Once again I picked up my pencil and paper and set about making pans for the bench. I wanted the bench to conform to 3 simple rules:

  1. It had to be made of only 2 cuts of wood, the frame timber and the cladding
  2. It had to be removable; remember this is a rental and we don't want to leave things behind
  3. It has to be easily modifiable. As you might remember from the measurements, my garden does not feature 90 degree angles, so this bench will end up being built at 100 degrees. If I were to take it with me to a new property I want it to be easily modifiable so that it can be used in a new home

I think that following these simple design rules for building furniture for a rental property make it easier to commit to creating something bespoke, as opposed to something premade. By having it removable, easily modifiable and simple to construct it makes it less of a commitment to the property and more of an asset that you can take with you.

In my planning I made sure that there were repetitive, named components that could be quickly cut in batches and then assembled to make construction easier.

The 2 cuts of wood I chose to make the bench from were 38mm*38mm lengths and 90mm*20mm decking planks.

Step 6: Building the Bench

With an ease in the lockdown, and a window of spare time, I was able to order my timber and have it delivered shortly after. I had used my plans from prior to work out the amount of timber I would need to order, calculating the frame by length and the decking board by area; then ordering 10% more to account for cutting losses.

The bench was constructed with only a handful of tools.

  • 2 Workmates
  • A Mitre Saw
  • A Drill
  • A Guide Drill Bit
  • A Through Drill Bit
  • A Countersink Bit
  • A Screwdriver Bit
  • PVA Glue
  • A Hammer
  • Tacking nails
  • 3 inch Screws

I set up the 2 Workmates and the Mitre Saw into a jig and started cutting out all of my components into standard lengths. I marked these with the appropriate letter name as per my plans previously and then stacked them into neat piles.

Once I had all the frame pieces cut I began to assemble them. I would line up each piece as directed, then drill a guide hole through both pieces of wood. I would then enlarge the guide hole to a through hole with the through bit in the first piece, then add a countersink. This would mean that the screw would only bite and pull into the second piece of wood, pulling and clamping the parts together as it did. I glued each piece along the way before putting the screw in.

With each half frame assembled, I clad them by first sawing the 50 degree angle, half of the total 100 degree angle, into a deck board before cutting it to an estimated length. I then tacked and glued it to the frame. Once all the cladding was done I trimmed the remaining excess off the ends of the boards, cutting them to the frame's limits.

Step 7: The Finishing Touch

With the bench finished, a task which took around 3 days, I moved the 2 halves to the garden. I was glad to find the fit was better than I could ever have hoped for; even in spite of the non uniform walls of the terrace.

I now had finished, and I had been able to achieve all of the goals I set out. I had created a green, natural space where I could host guests and look out on.

I hope that this guide has provided the inspiration and some ideas on how to transform the spaces you have, or just rent, into more welcoming and pleasant areas and given you the confidence to get building that bespoke furniture!

Thanks for reading :)

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