On a Plants & Planting course at Capel Manor College a few years ago, we students joked that we needed faintly ridiculous, posh-sounding names if we were going to get ahead in the garden design business. Ann renamed herself Honey and Mark called himself Muddy. It was agreed that my name didn’t need changing – it’s ridiculous enough already.
Anyway, Ann/Honey is now busy gardening, designing and advising the good folk of south west London. Her own garden is tiny – just a few metres square – but it feels much bigger. She’s somehow managed to cram in a potting bench, a table, a shed (complete with a green roof covered in sedums, below) and umpteen plants in pots. She’s even managed to divide it into two sections, which gives the illusion of more space.
The climbing white rose is Rosa ‘Sander’s White Rambler’. It’s survived living in a recycling box for the past five or six years, a plastic half barrel for five years before that and a shallow raised border for five years before that.
Like most London gardeners, Ann would love a bigger space. But what’s she’s done with what she’s got is an inspiration for anyone with only a few square feet to play with.
If the number one plant in Amsterdam is box, the second is most definitely the rose. Roses are everywhere, scrambling over doorways, steps and walls.
Here in the UK you don’t see many roses in pots, especially climbing ones. Somehow the message we seem to have absorbed is that they don’t grow well that way. However in Amsterdam roses are often growing in the tiniest pots imaginable (as you can see from the pic above) and are positively blooming.
Last weekend Naomi and I hopped on the Eurostar for a garden nerds’ getaway. We went to Amsterdam for its open garden weekend (Open Tuinen Dagen), when around 30 gardens open to the public. There aren’t many people I could drag around 30 gardens, but Naomi is definitely one of them.
We managed to see around 25 of the gardens in two days, and it was fun. We got to snoop at some pretty impressive canal houses, galleries and museums (the Dutch seem shamelessly nosy, so we were too). We discovered streets we wouldn’t normally have walked down, stopped off in some nice cafes, and in true garden visiting tradition, ate a lot of cake.
Box is most definitely the dominant plant in Amsterdam, and many gardens, such as the one at the Museum Van Loon (above), are formal parterres. They’re found in even the smallest of gardens, filled with roses and bedding. They’re lovely, and a novelty at first, but we were soon hankering to see anything that wasn’t a box ball, hedge or block.
Fortunately around half of the gardens were virtually box-free. All of them had a design idea or planting combination to take inspiration from. Here are my favourites.
The garden at the swanky Canal House Hotel on Keizersgracht was designed by a couple of Brits, Rose Dale and Laura Heybrook of Dale and Heybrook. The contemporary black and white theme matched the interior of the hotel perfectly, and the abundant, lush planting and gentle water features made it a peaceful retreat. The hotel is pretty posh, but the staff were more than happy to let everyone lounge on the outdoor sofas, drinking free iced tea.
The garden at Amnesty Internation HQ (above) was a tranquil, contemplative space: a canopy of robinia trees underplanted with Luzula nivea and campanulas.
My prize for the most original garden went to the Canal House on Herengracht (above). In a bold take on the traditional parterre, oodles of box were confined within a grid of corten steel. The effect was loosened by blowsy, cow parsley-esque valerian (Valeriana officinalis).
The garden at Kerkstraat 67 was extraordinary. Huge hedges of perfectly sculpted privet swept down the garden and pooled at the bottom in big fat blobs.
The private garden above was delightfully romantic and pretty, and a great lesson in how to break up a square space.
And my favourite? The garden at La Cuisine Française. It didn’t have the wow factor of some of the other gardens, but it felt the most loved and lived in.
Its layout could be adapted to any long, thin garden and the planting was a happy mix of edible and ornamental – towering herbs including lovage and sweet cicely, standard gooseberries and wisteria, foxgloves, tons of salad and alliums – plus a huge dining table. Its English owner, Patricia, was on hand with plant advice and Dutch poffertjes. Many Amsterdam gardens have a garden house, and Patricia lives in hers.
This window box was home to the first daffodil I saw this year, and now it has erupted into colour again, this time with wallflowers and a couple of plants you wouldn’t expect to see in flower yet – a dahlia and a tobacco plant (nicotiana). Despite the fact that it’s felt pretty cold in central London, it’s clearly still a microclimate compared to the rest of the country.
My friend Huw said that this isn’t strictly a garden, more house decoration, but I disagreed. Someone who likes gardening lives here, that much is obvious. And he’s an artist, too, apparently, which explains why there are so many objects and artefacts to look at.
I love the white doves over the door, and the way the climbing orange rose contrasts with the blue frames of the windows. The colour and the whimsy reminded me of the garden of another artist – Stephen Wright – who I met last year.
I’ve come to realise that I don’t know half as much as I should about shrubs. I’m really only familiar with the bog standard ones that you see in most gardens (and garden centres), and it’s only when I visit gardens such as Huw’s that I realise there are so many more out there.
Huw’s piece of Welsh mountainside is crammed with lots of unusual shrubs, most of which he hunts down online. Unusually, he grows many of them from seed – and lots don’t take as long as you’d think to grow and flower.
Flanking the ceanothus (California lilac) are two Abutilon vitifolium, one white, one mauve. They were sown in 2005, and first flowered in 2008, which I think is pretty impressive. They’re not reliably hardy, but they’re still standing despite a bit of a knockback after the winter of 2010/11. Why don’t we see more of them in gardens, I wonder?
Just seen on the left is a Drimys winteri. Huw was lazy with this one and bought it as a small tree. It smells lovely, and has a great shape too.
I visited my final Chelsea Fringe happening on Saturday – The Garden of Disorientation in Clerkenwell. Designed by landscape designer Deborah Nagan, it was a deceptively simple space, containing some higgeldy pallets packed with mint (supplied by Steve’s Leaves), sofas and bean bags, some great galvanised steel furniture from The Modern Garden Company, a wall of jasmine in Woolly Pockets and a pop-up bar serving mojitos. I loved the walls, created by Vienna-based artists Duller & Stippl with the help of volunteers. By all accounts, when the garden closed for the last time that night, some people were indeed disorientated…
Isn’t this lovely? I love the contrast of the dark pink wallflowers and the turquoise paint, and the grey-leafed plants such as santolina and Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears) underneath. And the way it’s all framed with wisteria and climbers… aah.
It’s not often that you come across a street in London that has a real community feel, but Elmsdale Road in Walthamstow is one of them. The street opens its gardens once a year for charity, and neighbours and strangers do the rounds of the houses, admiring the gardens and eating cake.
The houses on the street all have very long, thin gardens, and unusually, many of them are only divided by chainlink fences. I take that as a sign that everyone gets on, and don’t feel the need to barricade themselves in as so many people do these days.
My two favourite gardens (apart from Mel’s, of course, which I’ve featured before) were divided into sections so you couldn’t see the whole garden at once. They both had formal layouts but loose, informal planting and were stuffed to the gills with plants and trees. When I finally get my garden (I’m now looking in earnest, so watch this space) this is the look I’ll be going for.