Growing upwards: how to create a flower-filled cottage garden in town

Meet a plant-crazy gardener who has solved the space problem by growing upwards...
Midsummer magic is present in Michael Foley’s Islington garden right now, with a profusion of foxgloves, delphiniums, hydrangeas and all manner of roses. That plants are his passion is clear — they pack the central box-edged rectangular bed and spill out of the gently curving beds on either side.
 
His latest crush, a large-leaved pale lavender lacecap hydrangea called Kawakamii, is resplendent in several forms throughout the garden.
 
“My mantra,” he says, “is that there is always room for one more plant.” But if things get a little crowded, which they tend to do, he’ll put the plant in a pot.
 
Witness the astrantias that outgrew their border space, happy in containers on the gravel, and a row of potted purple salvias called Amistad — a favourite plant of his, among many others — ranged along a ledge on one of the brick walls that surround the long, slim garden, measuring only 25ft by 16ft.
 
Foley’s flower-filled retreat is a delightful cottage garden in town, and has no need for complicated design or landscaping. The structure, he says, comes from the plants, including a towering Echium pininana, studded with hundreds of flowers, that creates a striking focal point. When that goes, another statement plant is planned, possibly a deep plum angelica.
 
In winter, pots of large camellias keep the colour coming. “A plain, flat area is boring,” says Foley. “Height is very important, especially in a small garden, which needs to have impact.
 
“I don’t have much room, so I go upwards. I even let the roses grow tall because they’re easier to admire and take in their scent at eye level.”
 
Regulation square trellis lifts the boundary walls higher to accommodate more plants, such as the exuberant apricot-pink climbing rose Compassion, and also serves as a loose screen at the back of the garden to divide his plot from his neighbour’s, and to give the impression that there is a lot more action beyond.
 
But at this time of year the central bed is where the main party is going on, with several roses, including the dusky crimson William Lobb, velvety red LD Braithwaite, rich yellow Graham Thomas, raspberry and pink-striped Ferdinand Pichard and the fluttery-flowered cerise and gold Rosa mutabilis, which is seldom out of flower through the year.

 
Few gardeners would have the audacity — or the confidence — to team these disparate roses together and, more-over, in the same bed as scarlet Crocosmia Lucifer, a yellow peony and, a little later, white Japanese anemones, but Foley is unrepentant about his gloriously chaotic colour scheme.
 
“I’m a great fan of Great Dixter, where Christopher Lloyd was gardener, and the philosophy there is to not be scared of trying something different. Great gardens like Dixter are what give me inspiration, not textbooks. I don’t throw together any old colours, but I do like to mix things up a bit, to have a wild card in there. The trick is to go by eye, to trust your judgment.”
 
Foley has a painterly eye, and trained in graphic design at Central Saint Martins. “For me, art and gardens interlace with each other,” he says.
 
An avid collector of artworks, displays in his garden include a striking bronze figure by Anna Gillespie, after falling for one of her life-size sculptures at Chelsea Flower Show.
 
He admits, though, that at Chelsea he makes a beeline not for the show gardens, but for the plant nurseries and rose growers in the marquee — his idea of heaven.

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