Dramatic designs in Clapham
by Abigail Willis
Like the proverbial well-made play, Charles Rutherfoord’s Clapham garden unfolds in three acts. The action opens in the front garden, a carefully plotted space that was created two years ago from a rarely used in-and-out driveway. A trenchant advocate for the urban front garden, Charles – an architectural designer and one time Chairman of the Society of Garden Designers – was determined that this utilitarian space should be reinstated as a garden. Areas of the concrete drive were duly Kangoed into submission and replaced by neat wooden-edged beds. The pathways that remained were laid with pea shingle – Charles’ first choice when it comes to that gratifying underfoot crunch, and it is cost-effective too. A young copper beech hedge separates garden from pavement but, generously, Charles plans to keep this boundary transparent, “I love that this garden is to some extent a shared space – it’s wonderful that people want to stop and look at it.”
And this is certainly a garden worth looking at. Where concrete once prevailed, soft and romantic planting now welcomes the visitor who, thanks to twice yearly NGS openings (www.ngs.org.uk), can enjoy the entire garden without having to peer furtively through the hedge. Two hydrangeas act as floral gatekeepers while ahead a cloud of jasmine clothes the gold-framed bay window. Here and there are hints of what lies in store behind the house, such as the American shrub rose ‘Golden Wings’, a pretty variety whose simple flower heads and prominent stamens Charles greatly admires: “I know it’s terribly unfashionable, but I love hybrid tea roses and I like being able to see a rose’s stamens.” Dahlias (more of which later) add a spritz of exotic late colour, as do the vermillion begonias, that blaze from planters and window boxes by the house.
Acts two and three play out behind the house and are divided into two by a sturdy railway-sleeper partition, against which is trained a japonica (“wonderful early flowers, and makes a good jelly!”). Lilac ‘Sensation’ gets spring off to headily fragrant start and this second area of the garden is also packed with unusual specimens such as honey-scented Euphorbia mellifera, Arbutus x andrachnoides (which bears pretty white flowers and fruit, but whose beautiful, peeling cinnamon-brown bark also adds interest) and an Acacia baileyana, a grey-leaved mimosa that is one of Charles’s favourite evergreen trees for a London garden.
A plantsman to his fingertips, Charles keeps hard landscaping to a minimum. Soft landscaping however is a different story and the garden’s final and largest ‘act’ is characterised by two intriguing manmade hillocks. These mounds, sculpted from builder’s rubble and topsoil, create high ground in an otherwise level garden. The side bank is planted with ceanothus and cistus, through which ramble roses and clematis, while the bank at the far boundary features architectural acanthus and late-flowering lavender. Like a mini-amphitheatre, the earthworks overlook the garden’s centre stage, where every year Charles orchestrates a mass planting of some 1500 spring tulips.
The eye-catching stars of the spring garden’s NGS opening, the tulips are planted in November to ensure full vernalisation. A creature of habit when it come to bulbs, Charles faithfully sources his every year from the “completely reliable” Bloms Bulbs (http://www.blomsbulbs.com/) – having made his choice from their display at the Chelsea Flower Show. Colour rather than type is his priority but the elegantly fluted ‘White Triumphator’ is a regular, as is the red and yellow lily tulip ‘Fly Away’. Blowsy irises and tree peonies add their own chorus of colour, joined slightly later by the coppery hues of Rosa ‘Just Joey’ – a “proper old-fashioned hybrid tea,” notes Charles approvingly.
Unlike some spring gardens, which run out of puff later on, this garden exits the summer with an explosive burst of colour. A sea of dahlias takes over where the tulips leave off, with Charles opting for cactus-flowered varieties in joyous hues, such as the pink/purple ‘Elga’ and orange/yellow ‘Pineland’s Pam’, all sourced from specialist dahlia and chrysanthemum nursery Woolmans (http://www.woolmans.com). The tubers are usually overwintered in the shed after the first frosts but this regime is set to change this November when Charles will experiment with re-planting the tubers one foot deep, the theory being that deep submersion will protect the dahlias from the elements. The tulip bulbs will be planted above, with the garden’s regular annual horse manure mulch applied as the final layer.
A spirit of playful experimentation infuses the garden. Charles (together with his partner Rupert Tyler, who raises succulents and tender plants in the futuristic geodesic dome greenhouse) welcomes the influx of NGS visitors – and credits them with helping him to keep the garden fresh. “I really enjoy it, not least because it gives an impetus to get things done! We get lots of repeat visitors and we like to give them new things to see each time.” The circular path that snakes around the tulip/dahlia bed is a case in point, installed after Charles noticed that visitors weren’t able to navigate the garden very easily.
New developments are also evident in the garden’s far recesses. The removal of a sickly elder has suddenly rendered a tricky, shady space less so, and Charles points out an emaciated 18 year-old cornus as an example of how difficult growing conditions had latterly been in this area. Fresh arrivals lighting up this newly liberated corner include a phalanx of white Japanese anenome (A. x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’) partnered by the chameleon-like Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, whose lime green flowers turn white then pinkish with age.
If Charles is, by his own admission, “quite strict” about what goes into the garden, this plantsman is equally discerning about his suppliers. Favourite nurseries within London include the historic Rassells nursery in Kensington (established 1897) (http://www.rassells.com/), as well as recent start-up, Battersea Flower Station (http://www.batterseaflowerstation.co.uk/), founded in 2012 and “good for unusual things”, according to Charles. And when it comes to roses, and those fragrant but unfashionable hybrid teas, Charles opts for another long-established company, Harkness Roses (http://www.roses.co.uk/) founded in 1879, and still going strong.
51 The Chase, SW4