Even before the prolonged winter, selling agents were reporting a shift away from high-maintenance blooms and complex borders, partly fuelled by smaller budgets. ‘Spending on gardens is the first thing hit in a recession,’ notes agent Quentin Jackson-Stops of Jackson-Stops & Staff in Northamptonshire. ‘Buyers want enough garden for seclusion, and a nice drive, but they also want to manage it themselves with a sit-on mower.’
Matthew Hallett of The Country House Company believes that a generational divide may also help explain the growing preference for simpler gardens. According to him, the average age of country-house buyers has dropped to 40 and younger families want informal gardens. ‘Features such as tennis courts and wildlife ponds are popular, but swimming pools are less so, because of the heating. And unless you’re an equestrian buyer, land now seems less important than views.’
Whatever the driving factor, interest in hard landscaping is undoubtedly rising, helped along by the monochrome spring of 2013, which substantially delayed property marketing because most grounds looked terrible. ‘I’m not suggesting the country-house garden is at risk, but immediately around a house, we’re seeing more hard landscaping for entertaining, maintenance and because it makes an immediate impact, whatever the season,’ says Michael Parry-Jones of Grantley. This view seems borne out by garden suppliers. Water-feature designer and Chelsea exhibitor Allison Armour reports: ‘It’s hard to keep up with demand for sculpture, even in January and February.
A sculpture that’s never static will always be a focal point. I use a lot of polished steel for fountains-in rain, it’s one thing; in the sun, it’s another.’ Happily for wildlife, sales of stone bird tables during the freeze increased by 53%, according to Ian Cockerill of Haddonstone, and the weather has made buyers more aware of frost resistance and rain erosion, leading to demand for better-quality stone.
That said, flowers and plants retain their appeal. ‘People still seem to use a lot of topiary and prairie-style planting using grasses and herbaceous perennials continues to seem popular,’ says award-winning Kent-based designer Judith Sharpe. ‘The trend seems to be towards Minimalism, but I don’t think this will last. The trouble with trends is that the garden dates. You want it to lift the spirits, not look like everyone else’s.’
However, warns Andy McIndoe of Hillier Nurseries: ‘Anyone selling property now the weather is picking up should resist instant makeovers using quick-growing, exotic plants that are inappropriate to a country house setting. Make the garden you already have look cared for. Then buyers won’t think “Goodness, have we really got to tackle all this?’