A plot with a twist
by Rhiannon James
Marsh Lane Allotments in Tottenham are exactly as you would expect. A barred iron gate opens on to a landscape of neat rows of fruit and vegetables interspersed with an idiosyncratic collection of greenhouses and sheds. Exactly as you would expect that is, until, walking down a row of sheds, you come to something that looks oddly like a front door, with the number 94 marked out in mosaic. Step through it, and, suddenly, the vista is very different.
Instead of orderly lines of produce, there’s a riot of flowers and exotic plants. Ripe fruit hangs heavily from bending branches, sculpture peeps out from amongst the foliage and an ornate gazebo glimmers in the distance.
The keeper of this secret garden is 47-year-old designer, Chris Achilleos, who has achieved something rather magical in single-handedly turning a derelict allotment plot into an exuberant and colourful garden in just three years.
“When I got this plot, it was like a skip – there were weeds and large pieces of glass and metal everywhere,” Chris says. “When I first saw it I thought, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get on top of this.” After removing all the rubbish from the site by hand, Chris began the painstaking process of digging out the bindweed that had almost overwhelmed areas of the plot. “I didn’t have any help so it was a bit of a struggle,” he says. Once the site was finally clear, Chris turned to gradually improving the soil, with the help of manure supplied by a local stables, and to designing and planting out the plot.
The result is a garden bursting with interesting plants, produce and colour. “I thought I’d make the plot exactly as I’d want my garden to be – so it’s part productive and part ornamental” Chris says. He has gone much further though, than planting clematis next to cabbages. Traditional garden favourites mix with a host of exotic and unusual plants, both edible and ornamental, and there’s a Mediterranean influence too, reflecting Chris’ Cypriot roots. “I buy plants all the time, it’s an addiction,” he says. “If I spot something unusual, that perhaps I haven’t seen before, I just buy it and worry about what I’m going to do with it afterwards.”
Rooms with a view
This hidden garden doesn’t reveal all its riches straight away, but is instead arranged into a series of rooms, each with a different character.
At the front of the garden, is a vine-covered seating area, which is home to some of Chris’ more tender specimens. Euphorbias and Agaves which Chris brought back from a holiday in Spain, mingle with a Protea, Echeverias and other succulents in a gravel-covered bed. Trailing houseplants such as a pitcher plant and a rosary vine hang from the ceiling, while passion flowers scramble up posts, and tubs of strawberries sit ready to be picked. “There’s always work to do in the garden but sometimes I just come to sit here and relax. Even when it’s raining, it’s still beautiful to look out over the garden,” Chris says.
A path from the seating area leads, under a plum tree, into the central section of the garden. At the heart of this space is a gravel bed, which is punctuated by pedestals bearing bonsai trees, some of which Chris has trained himself. This bed is surrounded by much looser planting, where exotic and unusual plants such as banana plants, Brugmansias, and Albizia julibrissin ‘Summer Chocolate’ mingle happily with more traditional choices such as lavender and Penstemons. “I like to let things go quite wild, to self-seed and grow in between other plants because for me it creates a nice, natural feel and something that’s quite peaceful to look at,” Chris says.
Gardening for wildlife
This part of the garden has been designed not only for beauty but also to benefit wildlife. There’s a pond and a host of insect-friendly plants such as Echinacea purpurea and Verbena bonariensis. “The bees and butterflies love it here. I think it’s important to think about wildlife because they play a big part in the natural cycle and are really important for pollination,” Chris says. He doesn’t use any pesticides in the garden, preferring to leave any pest problems to be dealt with by natural predators. “Even though some of the fruit trees get a lot of blackfly and greenfly in the spring, I just let the ladybirds lay their eggs, and their larvae get the problem under control. It’s a slower process than spraying, but it’s just as effective in the long run,” he says. “I didn’t get a single bite out of any of my strawberries this year, because baby frogs had eaten all the slugs.”
A fruitful space
From the central ‘room’ a gazebo surrounded by scented lilies, leads into the mini orchard, which is planted with fig, apple, apricot, peach and plum trees as well as smaller crops such as beetroot, kale, chillies, courgettes and red onions. Chris ties the branches of his trees down for a year, training them into a weeping shape, to ensure they don’t shade the surrounding crops too much and they stay below the maximum height allowed in the allotments. As you would expect in this garden, there are also some more exotic touches such as sharon fruit and Goji berry plants. At the very back of the plot, is a wall entirely covered with blackberry bushes, which Chris rescued from the bindweed when he took on the plot.
An eye for detail
There’s so much to see in the garden that it’s easy to miss all the small, decorative details amongst the planting, many of which Chris has made himself. There’s an abstract mosaic design above the wildlife pond, a medieval-looking head which Chris carved from sandstone salvaged from a demolished church in Hampstead, not to mention a host of delightfully quirky touches such as a sculpted female head holding up a Cactus which looks like Medusa’s snaky curls.
Although Chris designs gardens and creates mosaics as his day job, he has much more than just a professional interest in this garden. It provides a creative outlet but also a sanctuary from the rigours of life. “This garden has helped me to get through some hard times and it’s very much part of my life now. When I’m down here I just feel really calm and at peace,” he says.
As serene and permanent as the garden seems now, by the winter, it will all be gone. “A lot of the plants are deciduous so they lose their leaves and the herbaceous borders die down so you’ll hardly be able to see anything by the end of the year,” Chris says. The consolation is, next spring, as if by magic, it will be back, bigger and better than ever.
Chris Achilleos’ garden is opening under the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday 7th August from 2pm until 6pm. Entry is £2.50 for adults, there is no charge for children. There will be homemade teas and a plant sale. The address is 94, Marsh Lane Allotments, N17 OHY.