by Abigail Willis
Entering the garden of 5 St Regis Close is like stepping into Narnia. True there is no snow (at least not on this broiling June day), and nor are there any fauns, but the comparison is nonetheless apt; one minute you are in suburban Muswell Hill, the next in an enchanted realm, where creativity, imagination and joie de vivre reign supreme. Hinting at what lies in store for visitors, instead of Narnia’s famous lamppost, this parallel universe features a municipal road bollard, liveried in blue and gold and repurposed as a hose bollard. It’s just one of several quirky eye-catchers that have helped to make this garden such a hit with NGS visitors, along with the more traditional offerings of homemade teas and a “massive” plant sale.
Overseeing this oasis of originality are artists Susan Bennett and Earl Hyde, who have gardened together here for some three decades. Over the years, they have gradually acquired extra bits of land, so their once small suburban garden now doglegs behind their neighbours’ houses, covering an area of around three tennis courts. This expanded territory comfortably accommodates a collection of architectural features designed and built by Earl, as well as Susan’s inclusive planting schemes (‘I’m the person who decrees “Thou shalt go there”’, she says, “and I can’t think of a plant that I wouldn’t use.”). The sunny border that follows the long rear boundary showcases this philosophy with a vibrant tapestry of Achillea millefolium ‘The Beacon’, purple Alliums, Salvias, marguerites, pink Hydrangeas, and hanging baskets of pretty pansies set against a blowsy backdrop of Wisteria and Clematis.
The “Folly de Grandeur”, a small but perfectly formed baroque temple, encapsulates the couple’s playful approach and provides a strong focal point. The temple’s apparently opulent marble columns are in fact made of yellow plastic gas piping, begged from a passing workman, and painted in trompe l’oeil, while the intricate ceramic capitals that adorn them were painstakingly made by Earl and glazed in precious 22ct gold lustre. The resident deity here is Maud, a Carrera marble statue of an Indian dancer and, standing sentinel at her shrine, are two standard Salix, whose frothy pyrotechnics are underscored by mounds of glaucous Hostas.
An exquisitely-detailed scale model of the Winter Palace, another of Earl’s ceramic creations, looks out across the pond nearest the house, its golden onion domes glinting amid rustling bamboo, magenta Fuchsia, and mournful weeping willow. A Chinese pagoda glazed in turquoise, red and gold, oversees the second pond which is planted with native waterlilies and fringed with flag irises, a prostrate conifer and the odd Himalayan balsam (beloved by the bees and according to Susan easily controlled by hand-weeding). This pond is patrolled by a squadron of enormous koi carp, their size in part attributable to their diet of slugs and snails, harvested by Susan as part of her campaign to keep her Hostas pristine.
Tucked away in the garden’s furthest reaches lies “The Forbidden City”, the secluded location for the greenhouse and plant nursery. Boldly painted in Chinese lacquer red, the Hartley Botanic greenhouse matches the colour of the fencing that Earl installed when they acquired this part of the garden (which was formerly a tarmacked playground). The imperial colour scheme continues in the monogrammed raku tiles on the fence and even the plants in the greenhouse co-ordinate, with regal Pelargoniums such as ‘Lord Bute’, and bunches of Persicaria ‘Dragon’s Blood’ rooting in pots of water.
Susan’s plant sales are hugely popular and her well-stocked nursery would put many professional outfits to shame. She has a talent for nursing sickly specimens back to health, and says her local B&Q have been “brilliant” at supporting her fundraising efforts by giving her “dead” plants to bring back from the grave.
The couple are constantly working on new projects, the latest being the “Liberace Terrace”, a bright yellow wall hung with mirrors and candle sconces. Although superficially tongue-in-cheek, the feature is actually entirely practical; a witty disguise for a very ordinary boundary fence, the mirrors bounce back light into the garden and make it seem wider. The planting here is suitably flamboyant (“just a hint of the Austro-Hungarian Empire”, notes Susan), peppered with fiery-orange and red Geums, and spiky Equisetum (which Susan loves for its winter interest), bolstered by the evergreen foliage of Fatsia japonica.
Undoubtedly the creative hub of the garden is Susan and Earl’s studio, where visitors can browse and buy pottery made by the couple. Continuing the ceramic theme, vintage chimney pots are used throughout the garden as planters for massed displays of Heucheras, succulents, and Hostas. These are the survivors of a collection that once ran into hundreds – the couple are by their own admission not people who do anything half-heartedly. “We are perfectionists”, says Earl, “we don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take what we do seriously.”
If Susan’s talent is for plants, Earl’s is for spotting rubies in the rubble. The grand fireplace feature is actually a cheap-as-chips fibreglass number that was being thrown out by a neighbour and was rescued by Earl, who duly painted and accessorised it with a salvaged mirror and candelabras and an “After Eight” clock modelled in clay. Susan instigates a new planting scheme for it every year, with fireside warmth currently being provided by a golden Lonicera nitida and glowing russet Heucheras, with an overmantel of billowing pink roses.
As assistant county organisers for the NGS in NW London, Susan and Earl know a thing or two about what makes a visit-worthy garden and are rightly proud that 5 St Regis Close consistently raises more money for the NGS than any other in the London region. With three openings a year, the couple work hard to ensure the garden looks different each time, and are generous hosts, happily sharing their respective expertise with visitors. ‘We try to help people be themselves in their garden,” says Susan, summing up their creative credo, “your garden should be an expression of yourself.”.
5 St Regis Close
Alexandra Park Road
London N10 2DE
Open: Sundays 20th and 27 July 2014 2-6.30, and groups by appointment Feb to Dec