Written by Natalie Flaum

Garden makeover: a subtropical scheme in Hertfordshire

Inspired by their native New Zealand, Leonie Knight (@allfurcoatandnoknickers) and her husband Marcus, director of a refrigeration company, have designed their garden with lush plants and a party vibe. The garden makeover brief was to reconfigure the tiered garden of their 1960s house and create a subtropical garden design with spacious dining area, wall seating, barbecue and bar. The couple lives here with two of their children Max, 21 and Fin, 17.

Leonie Knight's garden makeover beforeLeonie Knight's garden makeover after

Tell us about your subtropical garden design…

Our house is pretty unusual and was built in the 1960’s by a concrete engineer using poured concrete. When we moved in nine years ago, the garden was fairly traditional, but the original crazy paving was unsafe with tiers left unfinished and old rotten decking that we think covered up an old swimming pool.

Did you start straight away?

Yes, and we expected the renovation to take just a couple of years – it’s still ongoing! We literally ripped out everything, potting up trees and shrubs to give to friends. We discovered it had been used as a dumping ground with a huge glass greenhouse, bikes and prams buried under ground. Removing them was an enormous feat.

Leonie Knight in her subtropical garden

Leonie planted evergreen climbers, Star Jasmine and Clematis Armandii, on the pergola. Photo: Alison Hammond

How did the subtropical garden design evolve?

We wanted a large outdoor space to host parties with, decking replacing all the crazy paving. After meeting Marcus, I relocated to his home in Auckland, and it was here, surrounded by native cabbage trees, flaxes and cordyline plants that I became interested in subtropical gardening.

Does it fair well in this climate?

Creating a subtropical garden isn’t difficult but takes a lot of time and dedication to establish. The trick is to use plants that aren’t tropical but give that lush appearance with big abundant leaves to create lots of different shape, form and foliage. I’ve planted evergreens with palms, banana trees, cordyline, grasses, ferns and bamboo. During the summer, even when it rains, I still water the plants twice a day, feeding them with sulphate ammonia once a month and an organic seafood liquid food once a week.

subtropical garden design makeover with decked area, large dining table, bench seating and lush plants

Contemporary wall and seat benches by Garden Solutions provide a casual modern setting. The longer bench keeps the BBQ equipment hidden from view. Photo: Alison Hammond

Were there any challenges to overcome?

We had to spend a small fortune removing the old concrete. We did a lot of it ourselves, but also hired a brilliant company – Garden Solutions – to remove the crazy paving and the three feet of solid concrete beneath it.

Any subtropical garden design tips?

The most important job I tackled straight away was to establish and plant up the boundaries with bamboo and trees that have matured since, providing cover and privacy. Look out for discounted plants in garden centres. I often buy from the ‘casualty corner’ in my local one and love nursing them back to life. Division planting is great too – some species can be divided up and replanted once they have been in the ground for a few years. I did this with the bamboo, which is expensive to buy individually.

subtropical garden design in hertfordshire with evergreens, begonias and fuchsias

The planters by Garden Solutions are built from block and render and painted in Farrow & Ball’s Railings. Leonie planted evergreens, begonias, fuschias, heucheras, grasses and pseudo panax. Photo: Alison Hammond

What are your favourite features?

We love the block and render bench seats and planters designed by us and bespoke made bespoke by Garden Solutions. Behind the longer bench is a cooking area with steps down where our six well-loved and used barbecues reside – Marcus has an addiction and the wall hides them from view. The maturity of the garden has tied in with the renovations of the house, providing us with complete privacy. We are never overlooked and love the amazing lush green views all year round.

Are you pleased with the results?

Absolutely. It’s taken nearly ten years of love and dedication and it’s a real gardener’s garden. We’ve had several parties here and friends comment that it reminds them of being in a bar on holiday. For Marcus and I, it feels like a typical New Zealand house and that makes it very special to us.

garden bar with window hatch, bi-fold windows and bar stools

Marcus installed a stainless steel sheet bar underneath the aluminium bifold kitchen windows from Schueco, finished off with bar stools. Ferns add to the subtropical theme. Photo: Alison Hammond

Project costs

  • pergola and fencing, £500
  • decking, £5,000
  • seating, walls and decking labour, £10,000
  • planters, £1,000
  • pots, £220
  • furniture, £350

Total: £17,070


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