High in the sky, slap-bang in the centre of Oxford Circus, is a rather spectacular garden. Formerly a concrete wasteland, the rooftop of John Lewis is now a flowery, free-to-enter oasis with a kitchen garden, herbarium, a pop-up restaurant, botanical cocktail bar, planting and propagating workshops, benches and arbours for relaxing and even early morning yoga classes on the lawn.
What sets this space apart — all 600 square yards of it — is the wealth of detail that makes the difference between a prescriptive corporate venture and a characterful, real-life garden with any amount of take-home ideas and inspiration.
For instance, just beyond the ramped entrance that teasingly veils the garden from visitors with a row of native silver birches, is a building that started life as a small, plain shed. Given a lick of Celestial Blue Little Greene paint and a beautifully tricked-out interior, it’s now a des-res den that would be an asset to any urban garden.
In front of the garden shop, and typical of the imaginative container planting throughout the plot, hydrangea blooms billow from a pair of old grey chimneypots, like clouds of pink smoke.
The plan, the planting and the detail, right down to the den’s vintage books and weathered barometer, are down to Vauxhall-based garden designer Tony Woods and his 10-strong Garden Club London team that specialises in urban roof gardens.
“I’m finding that Londoners are trying to get away from that minimalist look because they’re realising that once you strip everything out of a garden, it doesn’t look bigger, but just feels characterless,” says Woods. “So this garden has a lot of atmosphere and different areas that each have a different feeling.”
The thriving kitchen garden has raised beds fronted with handsome hazel hurdles, and holds wigwams of runner beans, purple podded peas, tomatoes and artichokes as well as edible flowers for the restaurant’s salads and cocktails: cornflowers, borage, marigolds. John Lewis’s Longstock Nurseries, on the Partnership’s Leckford Estate, supplied many of the young plants, and more can be bought from the on-site shop.
An urban meadow has swathes of Achillea Terracotta, catmint, valerian and swishy deschampsia grass, while a “dead” corner that visitors can’t access is a wildlife-friendly patch of marguerites, lychnis, cornflowers and ladybird poppies, all constantly worked by bees and hoverflies.
The landscaping is practical and effective: 6ft-high hedging windbreaks of glossy Portuguese laurel, brought in as one-metre blocks; artificial Easigrass lawn that withstands a heavy footfall and just needs mechanical brushing every three weeks; decking and boundary wall of no-maintenance resin timber in simulated oak.
The garden is designed to be educational, too. The herbarium — a bank of herbs against the wall overlooking Oxford Street — has labels identifying each one that visitors can pick and toss into their botanical cocktails: lemon balm, chocolate mint, tarragon, and blackcurrant sage which, says Woods, tastes just like Ribena.
Herbs feature heavily in this garden because, he believes, they make ideal plants for London gardens. His favourites are prostrate rosemary, here tumbling charmingly over the edges of reclaimed timber planters, and green sage, which Woods often uses as foliage in planting schemes. “They’re great value, they deal with neglect pretty well and can be resuscitated. It’s important to keep using them and clipping them or they’ll get leggy.”
Shrubby thyme grows from the mouth of a metal milk churn and textural tapestries of thymes, garlic chives, oregano and dwarf lavender, along with Mexican daisy and trails of wild strawberries, froth around the bases of mature olive, apple and pear trees, obscuring every inch of compost.
Hessian sacking makes a handsome mulch for the silver birch trees and keeps the sun off the roots. Aside from using small “bulletproof” succulents as decoration, such as pots on every rung of a double ladder, he favours large planters, because, he says, they have much more impact than several small pots. “They’re the best use of space on a small balcony. And the greater soil depth means they won’t dry out so quickly and will have more nutrients.”
Thus a standard grapevine set into an old dolly tub and underplanted with white dahlias, rosemary and white bacopa looks the business in front of the restaurant, while shocking pink dahlias are given their glorious head in a vintage wooden crate.
The visual merchandisers in the store fancied a benchful of flowers, so Woods and his team installed a trough beneath a garden bench, painted it sage green and planted it with pelargoniums and petunias in rich plums, magentas and purples to make a lush, velvety seat cushion.
Proof positive that, for a knockout garden, a creative eye is every bit as important as green fingers.
- For opening times and details of workshops and yoga classes, visit John Lewis