Location, location, location - it's the boring bits that make everything else work.

Designing Utility Areas

August 2020
Sometimes I get asked to re-plan a whole garden, or a significant part of a large garden, and the element of the design that I start with is the so-called utility area. It's the boring bit that contains the storage space, the shed and the compost area, and maybe a greenhouse.

As expected, most clients are not interested in this one little bit, and some look at me with the tell-tale expression that gives away what they are thinking - 'I have chosen the wrong person to design my garden!'. Such clients really want me to talk about plants and colours and summerhouses and ponds. Perhaps they will have a gardener who will deal with all the practical bits, leaving the owner to enjoy gazing lovingly at the rose arbour while sipping mojitos from a hammock.

Hanging around
Photo by Linda Segerfeldt on Unsplash

This is an appealing image of the make-over garden but nothing to do with the practical reality of realising a design and developing a successful outdoor living space. The gardener, whoever it is, will need a utility space in order to maximise the garden's potential. I would go so far as to say it is impossible to grow good quality plants without one.
Contrary to what's in the customer's mind, your working area does not have to be ugly or messy - mine is tucked away behind the greenhouse, screened by mixed shrub and herbaceous planting.

Green house in confined space

Limitations and opportunities

My tiny garden came with the limitation that much of the hard landscaping of retaining brick walls, steps and terraces was fixed - to undo it would have been financially unviable. So my work area is squeezed into a small space that I would like to be at least twice the size. The image shows my greenhouse with a gravel path leading to a small storage space and water butts. I would have liked to include a potting bench and one compost bin. These are located at the top of the garden up an inconvenient flight of steps where there is no water supply. The greenhouse is close to the garage, a garden tap and a narrow passage where I store the green bin and recycling. It's all very bijou.

The area was created by taking out an area of lawn about 6m x 3m plus an extra 6m x 1m strip for screen planting. I have 24m2 in all but would prefer 50m2.

I started with the greenhouse, added the gravel path, and storage area which is discreetly positioned behind the greenhouse. Finally, new borders were created to screen the whole thing from the rest of the garden. It has become one of my favourite areas and because I spend so much time there, the plants get extra attention and look really good all the time.

There is no hard and fast rule about the proportion of garden space to be allocated to utility space. In a small garden it might be as much as 15 - 20%, in a large plot perhaps 10%. If you want to grow vegetables the allocation of space needs to be increased to accommodate a greater range of tools, materials and more composting and water harvesting.

The rest of the garden will benefit from your dedicated planning - it will prevent the messy bits from encroaching into the main garden in an intrusive way. Maintenance will be easier, making the business of gardening a more enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Checklist utility area

A working garden, as opposed to a magazine stage set, needs to accommodate all of these things:

Essential

  • Lockable storage (shed and/or garage) for mower, large hand tools, power tools and a place for overwintering garden furniture
  • Space for storage of a range of garden composts, unused pots and seed trays, recycling bins, green council bin
  • Water collection and storage
  • Potting bench and small hand tools
  • Compost bins

Optional

  • Greenhouse (only slightly optional in my opinion)
  • A place for bulky items like wheelbarrow and children's outdoor toys
  • A bit of spare hardstanding to put things that are in transit or for materials for forthcoming projects (mine sit on drive and look messy)
  • Log store
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