My Englishman’s garden, and mine [part 1]
Every time I come back to London my Englishman is very keen to show me what has changed in the garden. As I follow him through the narrow corridor towards the back of the house, I am never fully prepared for the moment when the garden is suddenly in front of me and almost takes my breath away.
My Englishman and I have created this garden together. Like most London gardens, it is a small, rectangular plot behind one of the typical terraced houses, roughly 5 x 9 metres or 16 x 29 feet. High wooden fences separate it from other identically shaped gardens.
When we arrived here in the summer of 2013, we found an attractive garden. The side fences were covered in a lush layer of climbing plants (Trachelospermum jasminoides) with a knee-high box hedge in front. The back boundary was obscured by bamboo. Tall trees in the surrounding gardens contributed to the feeling of a snug, green enclosure. In the heat of high summer this made for a wonderfully refreshing oasis. The garden was stylish, contemporary and very low maintenance.
However, garden maintenance, or gardening, was what we were after. My Englishman had never had a garden before and previously I had only gardened my own tiny plot for three years. We were both passionate about plants. Our favourite pastime was visiting the great gardens in England. We couldn’t wait to get our hands into the soil, plant, sow, maybe even harvest. We didn’t quite know which plants we wanted to grow, we just knew we wanted to have the freedom to experiment.
Unfortunately, aside from the very edges, the entire plot was paved. This had been perfect for the previous owners’ children and their tricycles. We contemplated placing containers on the paving but quickly dismissed the idea; our choice of plants would have been too limited. The paving had to be removed.
Another obstacle to our plans was shade. We wanted to be able to grow a wide range of plants, not just shade loving ones. So we decided to get rid of the bamboo and thankfully, the neighbours were happy to reduce the height of their trees.
Should we keep the climbing plants on the side fences and the low hedges, the last major components of the current garden? They were beautiful plants. But without the bamboo and branches of the neighbours’ trees hanging over the fences they looked strangely lost. My Englishman was for starting afresh.
I was undecided. I remembered an incident in a garden I had tended years before. Due to climbing plants, the wood of the fence had been permanently damp. When the rotten fences had to be replaced, my carefully nurtured plants had been destroyed. Ever since I had dreamed of a garden with more permanent boundaries, I wanted brick walls. Exorbitant costs and probable construction difficulties quickly put an end to this dream. What remained was my agreement to remove the climbing plants.
We began to cut back and dig up. Having decided to remove paving and climbers, it didn’t make sense to keep the low box hedging that stood squeezed inbetween both. Coincidentally, friends wanted the plants for their new garden project. Also, my Englishman’s mother was excited to have the climbers for her garden. The bamboo canes we kept for future use.
The garden began to look bleak. Its main feature was now a shed at the back which had previously been obscured by the bamboo. It was practical, but did we really want to make a garden with a shed as its centrepiece? Thankfully, the friends who had taken our box plants were keen to have the shed too.
With the fences exposed the garden suddenly looked look like a room, only a ceiling was missing. This ‘room’ stretched into the house to include the open plan kitchen and dining area, the only devision between inside and outside being large bifold glass doors. I remember we sat at the dining table and looked at the garden. It was depressing, bare of plants, a bit like a neglected car park. We agreed, in addition to providing space for our planting experiments, our new garden had to be beautiful to look at, particularly from this angle. That was important. The garden was the focal point of the room, a large panoramic image in front of the dining table.
Another requirement for the new garden design was storage for gardening tools and I really wanted a replacement for the greenhouse I had left behind in my previous garden. And of course we also needed a seating area.
Because of my experience as a designer (although graphic-design, not garden-design) the task of creating a plan that would fulfil all those prerequisites fell to me. I started by taking a closer look at the posts and fence panels. They were in a good state of repair with the exception of the back fence. There, the panels were rotten at the bottom because the ground on the neighbour’s side was about 30 centimetres higher. A very substantial shed had been built directly on the boundary. There was nothing to stop the neighbour’s ground, including the shed, from slipping into our garden over time. A proper long term solution would have to be built, such as a retaining wall with a new fence secured on top, or a raised bed, which would provide even more stability along with lots of space for plants. Most importantly though, a raised bed along the entire width of the plot would make the garden look wider with its emphasis on the horizontal. My Englishman liked the idea.
With one large element decided, I began to consider tool storage and greenhouse. Both would need to be as small as possible. The only spaces they could occupy were the front corners, to the left and right of the back doors. Otherwise they would be an obstruction to the view. The garden faced south-west, the righthand side caught most of the sunshine. I sourced a 1.8m long and 0.6m deep mini-greenhouse and mentally placed it in the righthand corner. For the opposite corner I found a watertight plastic box. It was not as wide but had almost the same depth as the greenhouse. Positioned close to the house both objects almost disappeared from view. My Englishman didn’t object but wanted to know how the rest of the garden might be arranged.
Most of the plot was still covered in 60 x 80cm paving slabs, grey granite, hard wearing, slip resistent and rather beautiful. Maybe we could reuse them? I began to draw little sketches with the paving slabs as a grid. The front three rows could remain as a base for mini-greenhouse and tool-box. A single row could form a path alongside the raised bed.
Now we still needed a seating area and a path to the back bed. At the front, between mini-greenhouse and toolbox, there would be space for garden furniture. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to view the garden from an additional angle? The back right corner of the garden caught the first rays of sunshine in the morning. I drew a double row of paving slabs along the fence on this side. It would work as a path and be just wide enough for a small table and two chairs, sufficient for the two of us.
My Englishman agreed, visitors were likely to sit at the dining table which felt almost like it was outside when the bifold doors were wide open in summer. Another large seating area in this tiny garden would be a waste of planting space.
Now a rectangular area of open ground remained in my sketch. On three sides it was edged by paving. Paths could divide the area into three or four beds. My Englishman was not convinced. Couldn’t we just have one big flowerbed? I liked the flexibility this would give our planting. We finally decided to add just one row of paving slabs along the lefthand edge of the plot. This would be useful for future fence repairs and we would be able to access the bed from all sides.
Our plan was finished. Everything had found its place. The new garden layout would be asymmetrical, which pleasantly matched the arrangement of the house’s interior. The size of our main planting area would be impressive for such a tiny garden, more than half the width and almost half the garden’s length: 3 x 4 metres or approximately 10 x 13 feet.
In summer 2014 friendly builders implemented our plans. When the ground in the central bed turned out to be mainly rubble, they excavated 30 centimetres deep and filled the bed and the newly constructed raised bed with a total of 6 cubic metres of fresh topsoil mixed with compost. All granite paving slabs were re-laid, none of them broke.
The view from the dining table had improved, considerably. But we still hesitated to start planting. Since the brick wall idea had been abandoned I had been looking for alternatives. The new garden layout meant that the boundaries would remain exposed. The fences were now solid on all sides, but they looked rather drab and utilitarian. Simply keeping them as they were would let a random DIY-store-standard decide the look of our garden.
Wooden cladding might be an idea. The existing fences would be kept, the neighbours wouldn’t need to be consulted, we would simply attach an extra layer on our side of the fences. I looked for sustainable options and came across Kebony. A Norwegian company produced this weather resistant alternative to endangered tropical hardwood by impregnating fast growing Scandinavian softwood with a byproduct from the sugar industry. It sounded perfect. Unfortunately there wasn’t a supplier in the UK. But Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) was available. Also a fast growing softwood, it mostly came from North America accompanied by trustworthy certification. Its environmental credentials sat half way between Kebony and endangered tropical hardwood. At least this species had the advantage of a high natural resistance to decay. It was the most sustainable solution I could find.
One morning in spring 2015 a truck delivered 20 x 70 mm slats of untreated cedar wood with a total length of 607 metres. The pile was wonderfully fragrant and impressive in size. In an effort to eliminate waste I had spent ages measuring and calculating each bit of wood required. Now I was nervous if it was actually going to be enough.
My Englishman and I were going to cut the slats to size ourselves. One mistake and we would not have enough material. The plan was to use screws to attach the slats to battens leaving gaps of exactly 10mm. We needed to do this very precisely, otherwise the resulting panels would not match up once we fixed them to the existing fences. Panels had the advantage that we could replace the actual fence without having to throw away the cladding, should that ever become necessary. And conveniently, the screw heads were hidden at the back of the cladding. In addition to the fences we wanted the ugly but practical equipment box to be hidden under cedar wood. That way it would blend with its surroundings, just like the mini-greenhouse we had ordered and which was made of the same material. All this could be done in an afternoon, I thought. Well, it took a week and we used 800 screws, but in the end everything fitted perfectly, not one slat was missing and there was virtually no wood left over.
The result was spectacular. The garden’s design was suddenly of a piece. The finely-textured wood resonated with the materials used inside the house. The garden’s clean-cut lines made it feel uncluttered and luxuriously spacious. Finally we could start to plant.
This was almost six years ago. It took us a while to realise how unusual our garden’s layout was. By exposing the boundaries and filling the middle of the garden with plants we had turned the popular design for small urban gardens inside out. It has proved perfect for us. The two large flowerbeds have already accommodated several gardening experiments.
While the plants absorbed our attention, the hard landscaping lost its novelty. In summer we almost forgot about it. But in winter, while most herbaceous plants are under ground, the acer is without leaves, the banana plant is wrapped for frost protection and the garden is at its most dormant, the hard landscaping comes into the foreground again.
The cedar wood has aged beautifully. The initial honey colour has been bleached to an elegant light grey. Rain turns it into a warm brown which gently contrasts with the pale blue of the raised bed and the sky mirrored by wet granite paving.
A few weeks ago, around the winter solstice, my Englishman and I were sitting at the dining table looking out into the garden. Apart from a few late roses there were no flowers. The sun barely made it above the fence, precious rays briefly drew crisp lines on the cedar wood. With its muted colour palette the garden was bare but not bleak.
This article is the first part of the series ‘My Englishman’s garden, and mine’. Part 2 can be found here.