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City Gardens: Green and Serene

by Rhiannon James

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It has become something of a cliché to talk about the tranquil, urban oasis, but if any space truly fits that bill, it’s Glen Burnell’s and Roger Blanks’ garden in south-west London. Despite being just minutes from a busy high street, it’s a cool, lush space with the kind of calm, relaxing atmosphere most spas would kill for.

The couple have cleverly turned their long, narrow garden in Merton Park into a beautifully secluded space, where boundaries and neighbours’ gardens disappear behind banks of greenery, with tropical-style plants such as fan palms intermingling with bamboos, grasses, acers and more traditional shrubs such as rhododendrons.

“There’s something magical about the garden for me, because you walk into this green, enclosed space and you feel like you’re escaping from the outside world,” says Glen, 46, who works as a team manager for a private housing organisation.

The chilled-out ambience of the garden also makes it a perfect spot for entertaining. “I love cooking and we have dinner parties out here all the time. We light all the candles in the evening and it looks lovely,” Glen says.

Balancing the lushness of the planting, is a sense of symmetry and order in the garden. Looking out from the sunny raised deck, the sinuous curves of the borders edged with box spheres lead the eye right through the garden to the central water feature at the end. The combination of water and steel is echoed by a second, tubular, feature next to the deck. “I love water but you’ve got to be careful you don’t end up with overkill, “says Glen. “I think the balance now is about right.”

Design Process

Appropriately for such a serene space, the garden is not the product of a hectic makeover, but the result of gradual, thoughtful changes over the last fifteen years.

“When we first came here, the garden was laid to lawn with borders about a foot wide, so we basically started from scratch,” Glen says.

Since then, the couple have poured a wealth of time, effort and creativity into the garden, designing and sourcing everything themselves. The shape of the beds was the first thing they tackled. “I remember getting the hosepipe out and basically drawing the form of the garden with it. I’d move it around, stand back to get a better look, and then move it again. I spent hours doing that until I got the shape I wanted,” he says. Five years ago, the couple added the deck and the built-in seating, which Glen designed himself, finding a local contractor to do the building. Originally a ground-level paved patio, the raised deck creates an uninterrupted flow between inside and out, as well as adding a viewing platform for the garden.

Planting

The couple have also allowed the planting to slowly evolve, adding, moving and trimming back plants as the garden has matured. “We started by buying some established palms to add some form to the garden and gradually we’ve just added to that planting. I see things and think that’ll look nice in a certain place but if it doesn’t, or it doesn’t take, we move it,” says Glen.

To help this process, Glen and Roger grow some of their newer plants in pots, set into the borders, so they can play with the arrangement of the planting until they find exactly the right look.

Despite their evolutionary approach, the couple have stuck to some guiding principles in the planting. A variety of evergreen plants, such as fatsias, bamboos, rhododendrons and holly, have been used so the garden retains its lush, green feel all year round. ”When we first started working on the garden, I hated the way it went bare in the winter because it just seemed so cold. I wanted it to look great throughout the year and so now, even at Christmas, it’s a really green, attractive space,” he says.

They have also stuck to a strict colour scheme, limiting themselves to a subtle palette of purple and white against the greenery. One exception to the rule is a tamarisk which arches over the seating area and blooms with clouds of pink flowers in spring. “I don’t normally like to have pink in the garden but this is a gorgeous plant,” says Glen. Increasingly, the couple have also focused on introducing more drought-tolerant planting. “Whenever we buy plants now, we try to think whether they will work from a sustainability point of view, given all the dry weather we’ve been getting,” he says.

Getting the look for less

Along with doing all of the design work himself, Glen has saved thousands of pounds by clever sourcing of plants and features. The box spheres were bought from Ikea for £10 each. “I was going to go with square hedging to edge the borders but then I decided to do something a bit different so I thought I’d use balls instead. They were a slightly funny shape when I bought them but they look great now.” Glen found the water feature next to the patio for a few hundred pounds on the internet. Unhappy with the base, he replaced it with a planter. “If you shop around, you can usually find something which achieves the effect you’re looking for without having to spend a fortune,” Glen says.

Despite the work that has gone into the garden already, Glen’s enthusiasm is undiminished. “It’s not finished, I’ve got lots of ideas to come yet,” he says. The next project is to create a semi-circular backdrop for the water feature at the end of the garden using painted plywood. “Marine ply costs nothing but it should look really quite dramatic down there once it’s painted,” he says. He’s also planning to plant drifts of alliums this autumn to carry on the spherical theme.

But having ploughed so much love and energy into the garden, would he do it all again? “If we found something with real potential, I’d love to get really stuck in again,” he says happily.

 

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