You need a guilt-free city garden

It's easy to bring the countryside into central London — so long as you have enough time
Ann Mollo has learned, through trial and error, what works best for town gardeners. In her glorious, plant-packed garden, roses obligingly cascade over arches and delphiniums stand to attention.

Ann Mollo's Holland Park garden
Leafy oasis: packing the town garden with plants gives it a country charm
But then Mollo has been tending the plot at her Holland Park home for 50 years — honing her creative eye while working as the set decorator for major films such as The French Lieutenant's Woman. For the past 10 years, however, she has worked as a garden designer as well as advising Londoners on how to make the most of their patch.

"My garden is a country-in-town type, but it is terribly time-consuming," says Mollo. "The first consideration when planning a new garden is to think how much time you can afford to give — or afford to give a gardener. Nothing is more depressing than feeling guilty every time you look out of the window."

Her garden is full of intriguing twists and turns, with a gothic screen towards the back that conceals a fernery, so it is impossible to tell that the shape is standard-issue long and narrow. "When I first tackled the garden, I soon realised you must never have a straight line; you always want to be wondering what's around the corner, so curves are key.

"Every so often in my borders, there are obelisks and tall plants to suggest that there is something interesting just a bit further on."

Lack of light through overhanging trees is the big issue in her garden — and most of ours. "There is a fantastic collection of shade-loving plants. Foxgloves are charming in shade and so is Solomon's Seal; ferns and hellebores are marvellous and camellias give you masses of flowers in spring: they also provide useful bulk in the border."

Garden screen
Screening off a section of the garden adds intrigue
On a metal staircase that links house to garden, which receives no light, Mollo has placed a fern-filled terracotta pot on each step, to great effect.

When buying shrubs, she advises choosing ones that don't mind shade and that flower, like daphnes and viburnums. "People tend to have boring shrubs that do nothing, with dull leaves that don't shine." Grass, she says, is a luxury and a dedication in shady town gardens. "I persevere because it sets off flowers like nothing else. My lawn gets muddy over winter so I re-seed it every spring. And on bad patches, I plant a hosta, surrounding it with a brick edging; it breaks up the lawn, and makes people less likely to trample on it."

The soil in her garden used to be heavy clay — but after half a century of Mollo ploughing compost and well-rotted manure into it every spring, when the borders are at their barest, it is ambrosia to plants. "You can fight — and conquer — clay soil, but it takes work. If you have a problem patch, or gaps in the border, do what I do: grow lilies in pots, then drop them into the spaces."

What about the rain?

What is Ann Mollo's advice for Londoners despairing of damage done by wind and rain? "There's not a great deal you can do after the event, but you can prepare for the worst by staking vulnerable plants as soon as they start to come up. I use canes safely secured around stems with a strip of Velcro from a roll. I also chop things back so they don't get top-heavy." Gardeners need to be optimists, says Mollo. "Plants are wonderful as they're resilient, so get out there and chop it all back."

* Commission Ann Mollo via her webiste at

Pictures by: Marianne Majerus

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