Real-Life Renos

Overgrown Backyard to Garden Sanctuary: A DIY Makeover

How one couple transformed a backyard of weeds and bramble into a restorative garden filled with wildflowers, birdsong—even a pétanque court.

Photo by Jessica Alavi-Ellis

Welcome to Real-Life Renos, where we’re pulling back the curtains to the home renos we just can’t get enough of. Tag along as our favorite designers, chefs, and cookbook authors welcome us inside their spaces and share the behind-the-scenes stories behind their transformations. We’ll explore their takes on sustainable living, how they express their identities through design, how they create beautiful spaces that center around accessibility—and so much more.

Over the past two years, my husband and I have been slowly renovating and restoring our Victorian terraced house in North London. It wasn’t love at first sight (at least for me), but Darius saw the potential. It had three bedrooms, good proportions, and a big (for a city) garden. However, the layout was terrible, it had a non-functioning bathroom upstairs, and a rundown extension on the end of the kitchen. The electrics were outdated, the windows leaked, and all the original features had been lost over the years.

What we did have was a lot of energy and love to invest into bringing this 1890s house back to life. So, with virtually no experience (and a tight budget) we set about learning how to do everything from plumbing to building stud walls (bye free time, hello DIY).

Covered in weeds and bramble. Photo by Jessica Alavi-Ellis

And then came the first lockdown that brought the U.K. to a standstill. At that point, our garden was a large patch of broken concrete and a sea of neck-high weeds and brambles. Up until then, we had focused our energy on making the inside liveable, but the pandemic took its toll emotionally and we craved a connection with nature. As a distraction from worries about the health of loved ones (and from news that, as a journalist, I couldn’t switch off), we turned our attention to the outdoors we were so fortunate to have.

We started out by asking for advice from green-fingered friends—with a long narrow plot and no clue, we needed all the help we could get. What we did know was that we didn’t want to follow trends or get too distracted by inspiration online. Instead, we craved a space that felt personal to us, surrounded by things that would comfort us.

We spent weeks sketching out our dream garden on graph paper: a space for entertaining, for growing our own food, a year-round BBQ area, a cut-flower patch, a hammock spot to remind us of our honeymoon in Mexico and…a pétanque court! Not the most traditional choice, I know, but we tried to take our inspiration from our happiest memories: the south of France, where we got engaged, and Moscow, where I worked as a foreign correspondent while Darius stayed home in the U.K.—when he visited, we’d played boules in Gorky Park. There was no lawn (controversial, I know), but we decided it was a lot of maintenance, and what would we use it for?

Digging the drainage and outline of the pétanque court. Photo by Jessica Alavi-Ellis
A lot of heavy-lifting later... Photo by Jessica Alavi-Ellis

Our lockdown weekends were spent clearing, levelling, and rotavating our plot. We mapped out our sketches with string and sticks onto 35 meters of bare soil. We added extra drainage and a soakaway after witnessing the garden flooding the previous winter. But the hardest part was lugging 12 tons of gravel through the house, thanks to having no outside side access: It took Darius 300 (!) trips. Many more evenings, weekends, and some heavy machinery later, our pétanque court was done, and I got planting.

We decided to leave one section of the garden wild, and plant a mini wildflower meadow in another. These choices, designed to encourage wildlife, have given us so much back as we now have a garden full of bees, birds, and even slow worms! I can’t wait for the meadow to flower this year and see all the new creatures and critters that might call it home.

In one corner of our garden we planted a jasmine tree. A lot of my childhood memories are tied to vacations spent at my grandparents’ home in Jordan—and the strong scent of jasmine in their sun-soaked garden. The pandemic separated us all, and sadly my grandfather passed away before restrictions allowed a visit, but in some small way I will always feel connected to him through that glorious scent of jasmine.

A big part of the process of planning the garden and watching it come to life has been the emotional succor it has provided us. In one way or another we have all been impacted by the pandemic, but we are ever grateful for the privilege and pleasure of being able to shape our own outdoor space. On the most difficult days, a few minutes in the morning picking flowers from my cutting patch, getting my hands in the soil, or even weeding have brought me disproportionate joy. Nurturing nature has been a way of nurturing myself, and I am so grateful for it.

The before... Photo by Jessica Alavi-Ellis
...and the after Photo by Jessica Alavi-Ellis

What we are growing:

Plants can be expensive, especially larger established ones. We picked a couple of showstopper plants (hello, Dicksonia antarctica), and we’ve been filling the rest over time. A mix of ferns and hostas on the shady side, and palms and bamboo on the sunny side and lots and lots of bulbs. I like to grow perennials and annuals from seed—that way, if they fail, it’s just the cost of a packet of seeds.

In the veg patch:

We have kale (lots and lots of kale), garlic, plenty of herbs, and fruit galore: raspberries, white currants, gooseberries, rhubarb, and strawberries. It’s not nearly enough to sustain us, but when supermarket shelves have been empty, it’s been reassuring to have leafy greens in the garden.

What we’ve learned along the way

  • Always leave a patch for wildlife; sometimes the most unkempt areas of the garden are where birds and insects are happiest. We left a patch of nettles and long grass at the back for birds and pollinators.
  • Watch the garden to see how the light moves across it through the day—and the seasons—as this will help you plan planting and seating. In the summer, the last place to lose the sunshine in our garden is right by the house so we built permanent seating there. In the winter there is a beautiful, golden, low sun peeking through onto our veg patch in the late afternoon, so we built a second seat there as a great spot to sit with a cup of something hot.
  • Don’t have a lawn if you don’t love the idea. Instead, consider wider borders. Perhaps a mini orchard? A pétanque court!
  • Don’t stress about the plants at the start. Sounds counterintuitive for a garden but the hard landscaping, like a patio or built-in seating is far more difficult to change later (and expensive). Once you get that right, you can watch how the garden changes through the seasons and fill any gaps.
  • Think about what will bring you joy, whether you have a large outdoor space or none at all. Grow what will make you smile: herbs on a windowsill to pick and add to dinner, flowers to cut or move around the house—just the process of caring for plants can be hugely restorative.

    What about your garden or backyard brings you comfort? Tell us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • nita
  • Jessie
  • Susan Rooks
    Susan Rooks
  • Jessica Alavi-Ellis
    Jessica Alavi-Ellis
Journalist, restoring & renovating @cluelessrenovators


nita May 25, 2021
Love the tip about leaving a patch for wildlife/nature.

My wildlife sanctuary happened "by accident" after we demo-ed a stone patio and then life happened (insert long medical story here). Short version: the neatly stacked pile of rocks is still in the back yard ... and it became a major source of entertainment during the lockdown. I added a few shallow terra cotta dishes for water (changed daily) , let clover and dandelion grow, and started scattering sunflower seeds.

Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and an ever-changing cast of birds (and their off- spring) now provide daily daily entertainment. And BEES love the clover !

I still want my outdoor dinning patio (and a pizza oven)...but will be sure to include a spot for the winged and the four , six, and eight legged critters.
Jessica A. June 6, 2021
Love this so much!
It's kind of magical when all these creatures come to our gardens isn't it?
Pizza oven sounds great too - building one is on our (long) to do list!
Jessie May 24, 2021
What great advice about how to plan your outdoor space. I had to learn the hard way along with dear my late hubs. We bought a house that had been abandoned for over 10 years overseas. Luckily it wasn't made of wood but concrete block! The "garden" was so overgrown the trees were already at least 10 to 15 years old by the time we moved in. What you say is true: you need to think about how the seasons affect the space before you start making changes! I'd visited the country before, as a child, but never this particular region of it. It was like another country! Colder, with different topolgy, and even the soil was different. What an education.
Now I understand when folks say, "Love what you've done with the place!" It really is a labor of love when you work with nature. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your space!
Jessica A. June 6, 2021
Wow it sounds amazing. Where in the world are you?
Susan R. May 24, 2021
I've really enjoyed Chetna Makan's videos!