Creating a London garden: our guide for first timers
For seven years, I lived in a sunny first-floor flat in Highbury Hill without any garden whatsoever. All I ever grew there was basil in pots from the supermarket. During this time I was, however, becoming ever more obsessed with gardening in all its forms, incessantly reading about it, visiting gardens and making notes for future use.
By the time my girlfriend and I finally bought a terrace house in north London in the Harringay Ladder district and with a 40ft back garden, I was like one of those jets on a short runway with its engines revved up to the max with the brakes still on.
That was last summer. The south-facing garden at the new house was an indecipherable mess. Overgrown with brambles and nettles, it still sported some thorny old roses and bluebells and columbines prospering among the weeds.
The main problem was that it was entirely overshadowed by two vast and ugly sycamores at the far end. They were expensively removed in a single day by a gung-ho team of tree surgeons (Tree Amigos from Stoke Newington). Afterwards the garden looked as though a bomb had gone off but at least there was light.
So overgrown had the garden been, I hadn't realised it had a definite structure already: raised beds around the edges, with a concrete path going all the way around them, enclosing what had once been a lawn.
A simple plan
This might have been the point to redesign the whole thing with curves and different areas, taking inspiration from Dan Pearson's lovely London gardening book, Home Ground. I didn't, though. I liked its simple plan, and, intending to plant the whole garden as fulsomely as possible, hoped the constraint of the beds would work well with such anarchy.
While the borders were all bare earth, I dug in 40 or 50 bin bags of well-rotted horse manure, carefully carried in through the house, this being the only access to the garden.
Then the planting, so long anticipated, began. There was still time to enjoy some summer flowering, if I was quick. I went white, mostly. From Columbia Road I got a big tray of white Cosmos Purity cheap, plus some gaura, lavender stoechas alba and anemone Honorine Jobert. From a National Garden Scheme garden in Alexandra Palace came lots of verbena bonariensis at £1 each. All these plants, in open ground, thrived through August and it felt happy straightaway.
In October we made an expedition to The Place for Plants in East Bergholt and packed five trees into the car. For the centre of the lawn, as it was yet to become, we chose a Robinia x slavinii Hillieri, a bit of a punt since I hadn't seen it in real life: as it has turned out, its pinky-purple blossom is lovely and its feathery foliage even better. Otherwise, we went for the obvious: a pear, a crab apple, a winter-flowering cherry and a magnolia x loebneri Leonard Messel.
Then there were the roses. I bought bare-root from David Austin and put in just before Christmas, Mme Alfred Carrière for the north fence; in the side borders, Gloire de Dijon, Alister Stella Grey and the first actual Austin rose I've tried, The Generous Gardener; in the front border, visible though the house, I planted Mutabilis, ever-flowering, ever-changing (if you plant one rose, make it this) and a French favourite, General Schablikine. The gloom of this year's dismal spring was lightened by a dozen wild primroses (£1.75 each from Rassells) I put out on February 1, which flowered for many weeks.
Eventually, though, it became possible to plant out some annuals: seedlings of Spencer sweet peas (a little pot picked up for £1.50) and poppy seeds (Shirley, Ladybird, White Cloud from Chiltern Seeds), which I proceeded to weed out enthusiastically when they came up, until I learned to recognise them. They've carried on all summer.
Bordering on obsession
I bought wherever possible from NGS open gardens and became a repeat visitor to Enfield to buy top-quality plants at amazingly good prices from Clockhouse Nursery.
The main expenses were turf for the lawn (£54) and a basic garden shed bought online (£170). From Criterion Auctions in Islington I bought an old, silvery teak bench at probably slightly more (£120) than a new one would have cost.
Around the tiled area for sitting out, I have concentrated on scent, with trachelospermum and honeysuckle climbing the fence, Lilium regale and the new variety of scented daphne, x atlantica Eternal Fragrance, all outdone by masses of tobacco plants, both affinis and the monster sylvestris.
The borders soon filled with erigeron, violas, phlox, salvias, scabious, erysimums (mutabilis as well as the essential Bowles' Mauve), euphorbias, all kinds of verbena (rigida and hastata, as well as now self-seeding bonariensis) and flax. As this hot summer has progressed, the garden has become abundant, a joyous muddle, blowsy even, beyond all expectations.
After gardening only in the imagination for so long, I've been surprised by how easy it seems to grow anything and everything in London: the Californian Tree Poppy, romneya coulteri, half-price (£7.50) from Alexandra Palace Garden Centre has romped away, flowering non-stop.
Having a garden is one of the great joys and privileges of home ownership. The day a plant you have never grown, or perhaps even seen in real life before flowers for the first time is a special happiness. It's been a year of many such firsts for me. When you make a garden, though you are expressing yourself in a plan and plants, you never do control it: plants grow as they will and you have to learn to work with them. Perhaps after this first year it will all become routine, even a chore? But I doubt it.
Photographs by Graham Hussey