South London gardens:Chelsea Flower Show Gold medallist explains why house history is important when designing a garden

Chelsea Flower Show Gold medallist reveals why her favourite garden is the one she has created for herself at home... 

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Chelsea Flower Show Gold medallist Jinny Blom has designed many town gardens in her long career, but the one that gives her most pleasure is the one she created purely for herself, behind her Victorian semi in New Cross Gate.

Enclosed by walls of mellow brick, the south-facing garden has a generous deck that stretches along the back of the house and extends to a walkway over a pool of waterlilies. Cubes of box contrast with beds of ebullient planting set into a floor of blue-grey paving stones that contrast with seating of black tables and poppy-red chairs.

LONDON MATERIALS

“I didn’t want the garden to be too ponced-up because the house is a south London semi with history — there were eight direct hits on my road during the Blitz — so I kept the materials very London-y,” says Blom, whose first book, The Thoughtful Gardener: An Intelligent Approach to Garden Design, shares her insights into her creative process. 

“The deck is made from reclaimed groynes that were used to tie up barges on the Thames, and they’re actually tropical hardwood. The pond is built over the original Anderson shelter, and I installed three lead spouts along the pond to remind me of my struggles with fractured lead pipes in the house.”

When Blom and her husband moved in over 30 years ago, there was a mountain of clay in the garden, full of bricks and debris. “My neighbour who originally owned both houses had dug out both cellars to have them tanked and dumped the clay in our garden. I disinterred two marble fireplaces and the original back door with stained-glass panel, so we reinstated them. The fender still bears the marks of my garden fork.”

A LOW-MAINTENANCE GARDEN

Back then, Blom was a psychologist by day and an enthusiastic gardener in her spare time. “The garden had three fruit trees, a clinker path, a lawn and the usual planting accidents. I became a garden designer in 1996 and three years later the house had to be underpinned. I thought, if there’s an upheaval, I might as well make the most of it. The builders changed the levels for me and I got rid of the lawn, because I’d go away for work and return to long, wet grass and the Flymo. It freed me.”

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Creating space: the wall was built 2ft in front of the back boundary to give Blom a work and storage area (Andrew Montgomery)

Aside from the deck with its inviting white loungers, there are two seating areas at the back of the garden that can be reconfigured to suit any occasion. “I found some junk shop school chairs that can be dragged all over the place, and little fold-up tables. One set is on the east side for morning sun, and the other on the west, for late sun. I like the fact that they’re right at the bottom. You need a journey in a garden.”

DISGUISE EYESORES

The brick wall came later, just a few years ago, when a gale knocked down the fences, and now it gives her a leafy view of the treetops behind the garden, but loses the railway tracks. Blom had the wall built two feet in front of the back boundary so she had a space to hide her bike and the compost heaps. “Even in a small garden, it’s worth sacrificing a bit of space.” 

YEAR-ROUND PLANTING

Her planting theory is to have a bit of something happening all year round, but in her garden there is always a lot happening. “In winter, there’s a strong structure of clipped box and in summer, I just plant things with lots of vertical strands, like Geranium palmatum and Verbascum blattaria Albiflorum. Then if they die, it’s easy to fill the gaps.”

Blom thinks big despite the small space, so her chosen trees are large-leaved Pawlonia and catalpa. “You can prune the bejasus out of them and they’ll only thank you.”

HARDY PLANTING

By the deck — where it is, she says, as hot as Hades — there is a jungle of tree ferns, echiums and tetrapanax as well as a giant red Mexican salvia and a Euphorbia mellifera. She has several of the exquisite, borderline hardy Rosa mutabilis around the garden. “They’re fabulous in London, they don’t get bugs, and you can almost wall-train them.”

Despite her obvious love of plants, Blom claims she has little time to garden properly, so all her plants are low-maintenance. “There are a lot of self-seeders like the orange poppy rupifragum. If you let them self-seed, half of the gardening is just pulling them out.”

Blue globe thistle echinops and statuesque eremurus follow the ink-black irises that are putting in an appearance now at the back of the garden, while two mature grapevines decorate the handsome brick walls.

She loves to surround herself with planting, leaving no spare patches of soil: “I stuff the gaps with the Mexican daisy, Erigeron karvinskianus. Gets you out of a world of trouble.”


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