How to create a city garden:this designer took inspiration from cottage life to shape the perfect country-in-the-town retreat

Pack roses, alliums, lilacs and even a mini wildflower meadow into a city garden for a rural retreat in town 

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Tucked behind a pretty Victorian villa in Stamford Brook, Chiswick, Butter Wakefield’s garden is crammed with roses, alliums, sweet rocket, valerian and every sort of countryside flower imaginable.

“I wanted the full English,” says American-born Wakefield, a garden designer whose light planting touch won her a Gold medal at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show earlier this month.

However, the garden is not cottage-garden chaotic, but carefully orchestrated in a predominant colour scheme of pinks, lilacs and purples.

The lawn is kept neat at the edges with a brick mowing strip, while exuberant plants such as catmint and geraniums are prevented from flopping on to the grass with low wire border supports, prodded in all the way along. 

Most importantly, there is a strong evergreen structure provided by oversized box pyramids that run down either side of the borders. “When I moved here in 1992, I put them in straightaway, when they were teeny blobs,” she says. “The clipped shape anchors everything. In the winter, all the flowers disappear, so to have these big fat pyramids really gives you something to look at.”

Wakefield’s design principles include overscaling in a small space and creating a rhythm through repetition, both informed by an early spell as an assistant at Colefax & Fowler, the interior design institution.

“The disciplines of scale, texture, pattern, everything, are transferable from indoors to outside.”  

Despite the abundance of summer flowers, the major attraction in Wakefield’s garden right now is a comparatively new wildflower meadow that sweeps across the lawn, leaving an inviting curved path down the centre.

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Flanking the lawn: oversized box pyramids and a wildflower meadow (Clive Nichols)

It’s a triumph of country-in-the-town, with sanguisorba, meadow buttercups, wild carrot, cornflowers and bellis daisies scattered among the tall grasses but the real delight, says Wakefield, is that you never know what’s coming up next. 

“Last year I thought all that grass was rather boring, so I thought I’d have a meadow. This one came in rolls from Wildflower Turf and you just roll it out like regular lawn turf, sit back and watch the show unfold. All I did in preparation was lift the turf that was here, and turn over the ground beneath.  

I wanted the most bang for my buck so I got a native and non-native wildflower mix, which is better for biodiversity, because both kinds opens up the spectrum for all kinds of pollinators. What’s interesting is that this second year it’s getting better and better. I never had red campion last year, for instance, and this year it’s everywhere.”

Maintenance, she says, is simple. “The company gave me instructions to cut it halfway down in midsummer and gather up all the cuttings, to give the plants room and air to grow, then in late autumn, you cut it right back to the ground and leave it to seed.”

Anyone can have a meadow, she says. “I had some surplus turf and divided it into two apple crates and displayed them at Chelsea Flower Show last year.

They were a great success. The experiment showed me that you could have a piece of the countryside even on a balcony.” 

Roses line the walls, blurring the boundaries of the garden, and thrive on a nutritious diet of banana peel and coffee grounds.

One of her many favourites is white rose Madame Alfred Carrière. “It’s the first to flower and the last to flower. I have two bookending the north-facing border, because they’ll grow anywhere.”

Her secret weapons to keep the colour flowing through summer are late-flowering clematis. “When the roses finish, you’ve had your first flush of perennials and everything dips, the clematis viticellas go: ‘Pa-pah!’

Every shrub in my garden — lilac, viburnum, philadelphus — has a viticella clematis scrambling through it, because they extend the season and they’re so easy: you just whack them back, early in the year. Mauve-and-white Little Nell is a great one, with a sweet scent and tulip flowers.”

What Wakefield chooses to grow, she says, is all about what she can pick and bring inside. “As soon as I get in on Friday, at the end of the day, I will come out here and pick roses, alchemilla and whatever is in bloom for the house. The scents are wonderful. It just makes me so happy. I believe that if nature was on prescription for mental health, we’d all be better off.”

  • Butter Wakefield can be commissioned at butterwakefield.co.uk

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