What kind of garden does a garden expert make? In Matthew Wilson's case, a rather special retreat, divided into a series of rooms, each beautifully planted to flow easily from the sunny, decked patio at the front through to the shady seating area right at the back.
© Marianne Majerus
"I wanted rooms that weren't rigidly divided with barriers, yet which were still distinct spaces," explains Wilson, Gardeners' Question Time panellist, MD of Clifton Nurseries and Landscape Man of the Channel 4 TV series. "I drew a plan first and spray-painted it on the ground, then kept looking at the outline for a few weeks, from different parts of the garden. It's a good way of setting out a garden from scratch."
In fact, the garden in Gipsy Hill, south-east London — only five metres wide and 19 metres long — was planted when Wilson, his wife Jane and their four-year-old twins Dylan and Amelie, moved to the house two years ago: with three huge leylandii and, at the back of the garden, a gleditsia tree that played host to an overgrown shrub rose. The leylandii had to go, but Wilson improved the gleditsia by raising and lightening the canopy and cutting back the Celsiana rose so it now blooms at eye-level. An overgrown acer was given a sharp haircut and a conifer towards the back of the garden, clipped back, now screens off the garden shed.
"I've done a lot of thinning and pruning," says Wilson. "When people move into an inherited garden, the first thing they should think about is what they can achieve with a pair of secateurs."
He concealed the former ugly concrete patio beneath a deck of old railway sleepers, first split along their length, then installed raised beds planted predominantly with striking foliage. The handsome grey-blue leaves of Hosta Halcyon, offset by a deep red Japanese maple and purple-brown Ligularia Desdemona, triggered the idea of taking grey as a key shade for render and paintwork on the raised beds, a storage bench and metal dining set from French company Fermob. "Bright colours like Majorelle blue are fantastic in Marrakech but just don't work on winter days. Grey works well with plant colours and in British gardens."
Generous curved beds replace the previous narrow borders and surround the lawns in the next two spaces, linked by faux terracotta stepping stones. The first space is screened on one side with a multi-stemmed Amelanchier lamarckii — the best all-round tree for small gardens, producing blossom and berries — and the next is marked with a trio of olive standards, one of which is under-planted with Euphorbia Fens Ruby, Salvia nemorosa Blauhugel and Allium Gladiator, a favourite combination.
At the back, Wilson under-planted the gleditsia tree with lavender to make a secluded seating area with pleasant dappled shade.
Horizontal tension wires instead of fencing make the garden look more open, less enclosed. Down the right-hand side, six espaliered apples, a mix of eaters, cookers, dual-purpose and juicer, are trained against them. "I'm not a fan of solid fences in small gardens because it makes them feel claustrophobic," he says. "The trees will get denser in time, and make a lovely boundary. And plants with height that I've planted here, like the Rosa Skylark and Diascia personata, migrate into the wires and behave like climbers."
If he didn't have kids, he wouldn't have grass, adds Wilson. "But for now, they want to use the garden, and I love the fact that my son, who's only four, will come out and say, 'That's an echinacea!' with a south London accent."
Matthew Wilson's top tips for a town garden
* Less is more when space is limited. I plant in groups of five, six, seven and more for maximum impact. Try to use a backbone of plants that provide a long season of interest, like perennial geraniums and grasses, mixed with plants that are more ephemeral but create a bit of a wow when in flower, such as flag iris and peonies.
* You can never apply enough mulch.
* London clay soil, especially, is incredibly hungry. I use well-rotted manure and spent mushroom compost.
* I've got seven different alliums in the garden, and in spring, blocks of White Triumphator and Queen of Night tulips. Bulbs are great for small gardens: they don't take up space, they're cheap, and they come up every year.
* Keep to a restrained palette for containers as well as plants or the garden will end up with a pizza look: too much of everything.
* Hostas are favourite plants for Londoners but can be decimated by slugs and snails. They hate garlic, so I make a concentrate from garlic bulbs and spray on to plants, diluted, once every 10 days.