A tropical garden with a cottage garden twist

by Abigail Willis

A major house renovation was the catalyst for the contemporary, tripartite garden that lies behind Paul Thompson’s and Gordon McArthur’s early Victorian terraced town house in Islington.  “Although the existing rear garden was perfectly pleasant it was also very mundane,” recalls Gordon, and the sleek new kitchen-diner extension was a not-to-be-missed chance to improve the ‘flow’ between house and garden and to create a space for outdoor entertaining.

A hefty quantity of soil was excavated to create the cool, travertine- paved courtyard that now unfolds on to the basement level.  French windows open fully across the whole width of the extension, uniting house and garden into one seamless space. From here, a short flight of steps, with potted Crassula ovata (money plant) in guard-of -honour formation on each side, rises up to a second ‘room’, with a silvery wooden deck enclosed by smart raised borders, faced with white render.  A single step leads up to the final ‘room’, a dining area set against a dramatic red, rendered wall, in whose niches a trio of cast concrete heads keep a brooding vigil over the dining table. Walls fashioned from glass bricks make unusual but effective dividers between the three garden ‘rooms’.

rees st dining space larger

Although the initial garden layout was entrusted to a landscaper – the planting was down to Paul and Gordon.  Columbia Road Market, just a short early Sunday morning drive away was the first port of call for the keen but fledgling gardeners and eight years on remains a favourite hunting ground for the architectural subtropical plants they love.

A tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) – since joined by two others – was their inaugural purchase (from Columbia Road stalwart Lyndon Osborne).  In this sheltered, east-facing plot, these and other unusual tender plants thrive without any special cold-weather coddling, and include a Muehlenbeckia astonii, a divaricate plant from New Zealand, whose tiny, heart- shaped leaves grow on tough and wiry zigzag branches. A large Pseudopanax crassifolius is another architecturally inclined antipodean that relishes the favourable microclimate within Paul and Gordon’s garden.  A member of the Aralia family, this plant features unusual dual foliage, with unappetising spiny lance- like lower juvenile leaves (to dissuade grazing animals), and softer, rounder leaves higher up.

Paul’s belief that “you can’t just rely on flowers – leaves give you a long season” means there is a particular accent on foliage with dramatic interplay between the likes of Arisaema consanguinium (jack-in-the-pulpit), Thalictrum delavayi, Ferula communis, American Poke Weed (Phytolacca americana) and Inula magnifica.  Even after flowering, the leaves of the flag iris in the bog garden have plenty of interest to contribute, as does the surrounding stand of Macleaya cordata (plume poppy), and rheum.   Rampant climbers such as Solanum crispum and, Clematis ‘Bill MacKenzie’ (romping away into the neighbours’ overhanging cherry) reinforce the sense of a verdant woodland garden.

The garden is now so well-stocked that by Paul and Gordon’s own admission the planting regime has become ‘dog eat dog’, with only the fittest specimens standing their ground.  This Darwinian approach to gardening is brutal but effective, with striking plants and combinations at every turn.  Paul in particular likes to mix things up with unexpected juxtapositions, teaming exotic tender specimens like Echium pininana with cottagey hardy geraniums or catmint.

rees st succulents and palm

A recently assembled collection of potted succulents and cacti, and a Paeonia rockii acquired at Chelsea Flower Show – also bear witness to a happily out of control plant addiction.  These now occupy the built in shelves originally intended as outdoor seating area in the terrace.  A driftwood log  – reminiscent of a Viking longboat in shape and a lucky find on Ross Sands, Northumberland – has found a second life as a planter, home to the satirically named mother- in law’s- tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), a native of tropical West Africa.

log planter rees stAnd, as if the garden wasn’t populated enough already, a rambling rose from a neighbour’s garden is beginning to insinuate its way over the fence.  Its appearance is both welcome and serendipitous, since Paul and Gordon are recent converts to the joy of roses, having just this year added a David Austin rose, ‘A Shropshire Lad’ to their plant portfolio. The garden is run with minimal use of chemicals and Paul and Gordon swear by the worm juice produced from the wormery in their tiny basement front garden as their in-house plant food.  Slugs are a problem that they navigate by avoiding slug magnets like hostas and Gordon’s early morning slug patrols.

Supply sources are as eclectic as the garden’s planting scheme.  As well as Columbia Road, Paul and Gordon also use Beth Chatto’s nursery http://www.bethchatto.co.uk/, Langthorns Plantery http://www.langthorns.com/index.html , and Great Dixter http://www.greatdixter.co.uk/nursery/.   The couple are also fans of Burncoose Nurseries http://www.burncoose.co.uk/site/index.cfm and Bluebell Nursery in Derbyshire (http://www.bluebellnursery.com/ .  Not averse to raising their own plants from scratch, the couple often turn to Plant World Seeds www.plant-world-seeds.com/  for seeds such as Lychnis coronaria and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica).

Luckily as Gordon and Paul’s knowledge and interest in gardening has grown over the years, further outlets for their plant passion have presented themselves.  Newly created tree pits on Rees Street have become grateful recipients of their surplus plants, while both men are closely involved with the community gardening effort in nearby Arlington Square.  This formerly neglected public square has been taken in hand by the local residents’ association (of which Gordon is Chair), and its team of energetic volunteer gardeners have planted some 25,000 plants, trees, bulbs and shrubs in the square, since 2011.  Gordon and Paul have also found themselves in demand as garden designers.

rees st fountain at end and steps

Both Arlington Square and 5 Rees Street recently opened for the NGS for the first time, with 5 Rees Street attracting over 100 appreciative visitors.  Gordon & Paul thoroughly enjoyed the experience and are already hatching plans for next year’s event – the perfect excuse for some new plants perhaps?

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