Small gardens: seeing things from a fresh angle

Turning an idea on its head worked wonders for Jonathan McKee's small garden...
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The obvious route to take with this small, rectangular town garden in south London is to divide it horizontally, but the designer avoided the predictable and, instead, tilted the space on a slant. Stephen Smith set the patio at right angles to the house, then ran the path on the same grid, so it led to a focal point of the oak bench in the far left-hand corner.

These simple strokes made the space look larger and gave keen first-time gardener Jonathan McKee two triangular beds on either side that, now full of plants, have far more impact than two skimpy strips.

When McKee moved to his home four years ago, the concrete-walled outside space, just 18ft by 24½ft, consisted of rough grass and a jaded camellia.

He wanted a garden full of flowers that he and local wildlife — Balham has its own tagged community of sparrows — could enjoy, as well as a garden that somehow connected to the Victorian period of the house, without the dour shrubberies of the time.

“The house has many original features, and we’re surrounded by London stock brick, so there has to be some reference,” he says. “On my wish list were traditional materials and country garden planting — no spiky foliage, no prairie grasses.”

The contemporary layout of the garden contrasts with the traditional patio paving, although it is, in fact, reconstituted stone that has a mellow tint to meld with the warm tones of the house wall’s brickwork.

Smith’s tip to make composite paving look expensive is to choose a smooth, not riven, finish. The rendered garden walls were painted a soft, light-reflecting white, while Cotswold chippings — laid over membrane to keep weeds down and given a steel edge to keep them within bounds — formed the path to the oak bench in the corner. McKee chose the curving bench, by Gaze Burvill, to counteract the sharp angles of the surrounding walls and houses.

There is a more impromptu sitting area, too — a perching place on the low, long storage unit by the house, which Smith selected because it is less obtrusive than the usual sentry box structure designed for small spaces.
Behind the bench is a lilac tree that, despite its brief flowering period, was a must-have for McKee, so Smith planted the viticella clematis, Spirit of Poland, to thread its stems of purple flowers through the tree later in the season. A red-barked birch near the opposite, shadier back corner provides elegant screening from the neighbours as well as a vista from McKee’s office for when the garden flowers have died down. Lavender Imperial Gem, a nod back to Victorian times, softens the long line between border and patio. “Small gardens are usually flat, so you need to make them more interesting by exploiting vertical space,” says Smith, who planted a succession of flowering verticals — from tulips and crown imperial fritillaries for spring, to foxgloves, lupin and delphiniums, as well as dramatic, bright yellow Ligularia “The Rocket” — for summer.

Two espaliered apple trees, despite taking up little space, have produced a good crop and, on the back wall, the pale green catkins of silk tassel bush, Garrya elliptica James Roof, make an appealing view in winter.

McKee loves his new garden because, despite its small size, he can be a real gardener by planting, tending and, importantly, pruning, which he does twice a year — one radical prune in spring to encourage more growth, and one lighter prune in summer, to tidy and limit growth before winter.

Smith adds: “Whether you use a designer or not, a new garden is only the start. You have the template, but after that the adventure of gardening really begins.”
  • Jonathan McKee’s garden, at 81 Tantallon Road, Balham S W12, is open this S unday, 1pm-5pm, under the National Gardens Scheme. Admission £3.50, children free.
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