Creating an urban oasis in your garden

Food writer Josceline Dimbleby has used artistic instinct to create a romantic magical garden.
At this time of year, Josceline Dimbleby's back garden is magical, packed with roses, hollyhocks, love-in-a-mist, and the occasional plum-speckled white foxglove. Purple allium wands pop up all over the place and lime-green froths of Alchemilla mollis line the garden path. The pale pink walls are lined with rambling roses and two kinds of jasmine that, at dusk, compete with pots of white regal lilies and tobacco flowers for intoxicating fragrance. It is a perfect country garden, shoe-horned into town: west London, where Dimbleby, one of our best-loved food writers, has lived for the past 18 years.

Josceline Dimbleby's garden
© Marianne Majerus
Although Josceline Dimbleby isn't a gardening expert, she can visualise exactly what she wants

"I do love romantic gardens with tumbling flowers that look almost wild, but are not," says Dimbleby, who makes jam from the tayberries that grow within picking distance of the patio and a rose petal tart from the rich pink damask roses. "Trouble is, the garden does get too wild very quickly, so you have to be endlessly chopping bits back. But I love knowing I've got to come into the garden every evening in summer and do some deadheading: it's very soothing."

She gardens by eye, not by textbook, which for her works brilliantly because she doesn't dither, but knows exactly what she wants. "I'm bad at names and I'm not a gardening expert but I'm really visual - I come from generations of artists - so I have very strong ideas. I sit out here and think, 'I must put something tall and pink here, or a large round shape over there, to fill that space.' And I love looking at other people's gardens and getting ideas. It's like food. I'll think, 'That's very good, but I could do it in this sort of way.'"

The previous owner of the house was gardening guru Sarah Raven, so that when Dimbleby moved in post-divorce from the Putney home she shared with husband, BBC-TV presenter and commentator David Dimbleby, there was an excellent grid laid out for the main planting area: a large square divided into four quarters by narrow paths and with a central focal point of a large pot. Dimbleby has gone rather better with her centrepiece: a verdigris statue of the Burmese goddess Kuan Yin, sculpted by David's younger brother Nicholas, bought from the Putney plot along with several large pots of 30-year-old magnolias and a white rhododendron.

Dimbleby enhanced the building that runs along the bottom of the garden, where Sarah Raven's husband, Adam Nicolson, used to write, by painting the walls the same muted pink as the rendered back house wall and the garden walls, adding a mirror and glassing over the roof so that now there are a riot of year-round geraniums and a resident datura that produces dangling pale pink trumpet blooms in late summer. The gothic frames on the windows are echoed by the arched cut-outs of the blue latticework trellised panels on either side of the garden, another Josceline visual that adds bucketloads of character. On one garden wall, three life casts of her three children's faces are tucked into the ivy; on another, a wall fountain trickles into a basin beneath. "It's quiet in this street but the sound makes it quieter because it concentrates your hearing so you don't notice anything else."

Aside from summer deadheading, cutting back with a careful eye is the garden's maintenance; for instance, the silvery weeping pear tree that Raven planted is now less weeping, more lollipop to make space for the plants beneath.

Her other trick is to balance the flowers with a few architectural evergreens, such as the tall and perfectly-clipped box cone in one of the beds. "You need a few formal-looking things amidst all the chaos," she says, "that will also show up in the winter."

Dimbleby's garden clearly gives her enormous pleasure. "I grew up abroad, in London with a beloved grandmother, and at school in Dorset; later David and I had a holiday place in Devon for years. I love the English countryside, but London is such an exciting mixture of England and abroad that it will always be my home - as long as I can have a garden."

Find the recipe for rose petal tart in Josceline Dimbleby's book Orchards in the Oasis: Recipes, Travels and Memories (Quadrille, £25.)

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