London gardens present unique design problems, and there is nobody better equipped to deliver realistic solutions than Matthew Wilson, Channel 4's Landscape Man, managing director of Clifton Nurseries and head of its design team.
"Most London gardens are a plain rectangle in shape, and what we invariably do is whack a shed at the end," says Wilson, who will be talking about garden design at the GROW London gardening show taking place on 20-22nd June at the Lower Fairground Site on Hampstead Heath. "That's how many gardens get designed. We put a hideous object — an orange wooden building — at the end, and think it's a marvellous idea."
For Londoners, one big design issue outweighs the others: "What we are short of, and obsessed with, is space." Wilson's struggle with clients, he says, is to make them think beyond the skinny borders, large lawn and uninterrupted views that they believe make the most of a long, slim plot.
"In fact, the way to make a garden feel more dynamic is to close down the space, not open it up. The way to do that is to create rooms, which sounds grand, but is as applicable to a small garden as it is to Sissinghurst."
To prove the point, Wilson's own garden is 65ft long and as wide as his terrace house, at 22ft. Yet it is still divided into four rooms — a deck, raised beds, a central area of two lawns surrounded by borders and a secluded seating area at the back. "If I look out on to my garden, I can't see beyond the lavenders in my raised bed. And that's what makes the garden interesting — you can't see through to the end."
It is helpful, says Wilson, to think of the spatial arrangement of your garden from the same perspective as the different rooms you have created in your home. "Even an open-plan living space will still be divided into different areas. What makes a garden interesting is the journey it takes you on. If you don't have that journey, you won't want to interact with the garden."
Practicalities are as important as aesthetics. "I'm always looking for ways to give things more than one purpose. I have a large bench that doubles as a low table to put food on from the barbecue, and it also has a lift-up lid so we can store the kids' toys. Concealed drawers at the bottom of a bench can hold seat cushions so you don't have to trek indoors for them."
Instead of accepting a basic, bog standard component, make it more than the sum of its parts, says Wilson. "That hideous orange shed could be an object of beauty. Paint it a dark colour, build a pergola projection off one side and install a cheap living wall system on the other so you can cover the wall with herbs and salads. Either hide the shed or celebrate it."
Banish the bins, he pleads. "They're not what you want to see when you walk out of the door. Invest in a good quality bin store so that you take several disparate objects and unify them. Give it a sedum roof — you just roll sedum turf on to the top, over a waterproof membrane — and a necessary evil is turned into a visual delight."
Even a side return can be a green corridor, given a little imagination. "I've seen one where the owner painted the house wall white, laid down sandstone paving and put up a contemporary fence of light-coloured wood made from horizontal slats. Against the wall were 10 tall, slim planters filled with lush foliage of large-leaved hostas and ferns, while against the fence, alternating with the opposite planters, were five planters of climber Akebia quinata, which thrives in shade. It was very simple and therefore easy to keep looking good. A side passage needn't be the land that time forgot."
However if you don't have a side return, then Wilson has obvious but overlooked advice: "If you're having work done in both house and garden, plan both at the same time, and get the landscaping out of the way first, otherwise it will cost a lot more money for the time it takes to get everything through.
"After all, you can't barrow three tons of topsoil over the Wilton carpet."