Get ahead of the curve in your city garden

A prototype for future London gardens? Water inspired Chelsea Flower Show medalist Matthew Wilson to create this well-rounded, compact design.
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Hear Matthew Wilson talk about the making of this Chelsea garden at Clifton Nurseries, Little Venice, on June 3 from 6.30pm. Tickets, priced £15, include canapés and a glass of Prosecco. There will be an opportunity to buy plants featured in this garden, and all plants on sale, at a 15 per cent discount. To book, visit

Could this be the prototype for future London gardens? Designer Matthew Wilson won a silver-gilt award at Chelsea Flower Show last week for this contemporary garden that - with its extravagant sweeping deck, sculptural furniture and ancient olive tree - looks stunning. But it illustrates an important issue, too - how to conserve water. 

Sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada, whose Blue Water Project aims to preserve freshwater habitats around the world, the garden relies solely on rainwater stored on-site and plants that thrive in drought conditions.

“People tend to give plants a unilateral diet of water whether they need it or not,” says Wilson, who is an authority on climate change as well as managing director of Clifton Nurseries, whose landscape team built the garden. 

“What this garden demonstrates is that you can have many plants that require minimal watering or receive no watering at all, apart from rainfall. Edible plants need watering and nurturing because, with vegetables, what you put in, you get out.

“Ornamental plants, if you choose the right ones for the right place in your garden, need no watering, provided you give them good soil preparation.”

Wilson made his point by dividing the garden at Chelsea into three zones. The first is a zero-irrigation gravel garden with a magnificent macro  bonsai olive tree, surrounded by stipa grasses, cistus, alliums, salvia and California poppies. 

The second is a circular, three-tiered rainwater pool. Sited at the front, to the right of the gravel garden, the stone-clad pool feeds into a water tank under the deck that keeps the garden’s reservoir in the shade. 

The third area is comprised of edible plants, Mediterranean herbs that thrive in dry conditions as well as globe artichokes, chives, sea kale, rocket and rock samphire that need less watering than thirsty lettuces.

A novel and attractive hedge of pineapple guava produces edible, dusky pink flowers that taste of cinnamon, says Wilson. A stone “riverbed” flows throughout, with “waves” that allow water to flow into the shallows, colonised by Japanese water iris.

At the back of the garden, a grove of characterful cork oaks, with their wonderfully gnarled trunks, creates dappled shade, under which simple wooden cubes make a fine spot to admire the scenery. 

Here, Wilson’s choice of shade-loving plants that need little watering include the beautiful Euphorbia mellifera, London Pride, nodding ornamental onion Nectaroscordum siculum, woodland fern Dryopteris and native grass Deschampsia cespitosa. All of these are widely available online or in garden centres.  

The surfaces in the garden are permeable, so rainwater sinks back into the ground, and all the materials - from the dry stone walling, recycled from an old mill, to the deck boards of western red cedar - have had  little or no water used in their  production.

Interestingly, there are no straight lines in this garden, aside from the boundary of dry stone columns and western red cedar panels. 

Even the oak benches and table, steam-bent by furniture designer Tom Raffield to mimic the flow of water, are all curved, and the space - organic and sensual - looks all the better  for it.

“So many contemporary gardens go down a straight path of linear landscaping and geometric blocks of planting,” says Wilson. “In this garden, we celebrate the curve.”

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