How to make a roof garden:award-winning west London rooftop sanctuary over four levels combines clever planting with all mod cons for a glamorous garden

Why would you bother to go out when you have four levels of garden to choose from?

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This prize-winning Notting Hill roof garden, on four levels, is a prime example of how plants and landscape materials can be used to soften the hard lines of city buildings as well as create privacy and make a strong design statement. 

“Each level of the garden has a different character. The lower levels are more enclosed and private, the upper levels are light-filled with expansive views,” says garden designer Andrew Wilson, who, with studio partner Gavin McWilliam, was charged by the owners, a professional couple, to produce an outside space that would be a match for their contemporary four-storey apartment, renovated at the same time. 

The four spaces comprise the first level outside the kitchen, which was designated a private dining area for a maximum of six people; the small, second level, beyond a guest bedroom; the third long, rectangular level, for entertaining, and the fourth rooftop space, which is for relaxing and sunbathing. 

“They asked us to make the spaces interesting and glamorous. They wanted a sensory quality so they could sit out and enjoy being among the plants, and they needed a great space for dining and entertaining, too,” explains Wilson.

A GLAMOROUS GARDEN

The partners’ response was to introduce glamour with high-spec urban materials. Dark, sleek basalt is the paving stone of choice for the floor, as well as treads on the connecting steel staircases that have glass balustrades to keep the spaces visually open.

All the containers — roomy rectangular troughs and large bowl-shaped planters — are made of attractive, rusted Cor-Ten steel, as are safety screens at the parapet edge, intriguingly laser-cut in dot and dash patterns that allow light and breeze to pass through.

“Cor-Ten steel has warmth and texture and works very well in an urban setting,” says Wilson. “And the colour has a glow and real depth. It also looks very good with the basalt.”

COUNTRY-STYLE PLANTING

The design partners liked the idea of playing off the smart city setting with relaxed, countryside planting.

“We decided to use native hedgerow species to give a naturalistic quality to the space, as well as bring in wildlife and a seasonal change,” says Wilson. “The idea was also to take something ordinary, and make it special.” 

So the several bowl-shaped planters each hold a hawthorn tree, providing a feast of berries for the birds, but these particular common or garden trees are multi-stemmed, which gives them an elegant, graceful appearance. 

They grow from a gauzy blend of grasses and geraniums: emerald-green Hakonechloa macra and long-flowering Geranium Rozanne, interplanted with the lozenge-headed stems of Allium sphaerocephalon.

Long planters hold swishy feather grass Stipa tenuissima, studded with dark, jewel-like perennials such as garnet Knautia macedonica and deep pink Astrantia Roma, that give flecks of rich colour to catch the evening light.

On the third level, a polished dark render fireplace makes a fabulous focal point. Equally striking are a pair of 7ft-high privacy screens at the outer boundary, on either side of the outdoor drinks fridge.

These, in keeping with the countryside planting theme, are field maples, their branches horizontally trained so they create leafy green walls. “In autumn, the foliage takes on incredible golden colours,” says Wilson.

A FINAL SURPRISE

The final level — the rooftop — holds another surprise. Beyond the sun loungers on the decking, a meadow of lavenders, thymes, lilac achilleas, pink-flowered oregano and other flowers is a magnet for bees and butterflies.

At either long edge of the roof are strips of sedums, to absorb water run-off and to provide further nectar-rich grazing. 

Glamour, as requested, is here in spades, in the detail as well as the bigger picture. At night, LED lights set in the paving illuminate the fireplace and the walls, while low-level uplighters make the tree canopies glow dramatically.

What’s more, that dot-dash cutwork pattern in the steel screens is Morse code, and was the clients’ idea, to say a permanent thank you and to acknowledge everyone involved in this exceptional project.


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