Painting with plants

by Abigail Willis

As an award-winning botanical artist, Rosemary Lindsay is used to working up close and personal with plants and she brings the same forensic attention to detail to her garden in Herne Hill.  At 150 x 40 feet it’s a bigger canvas than her watercolours but one that equally reflects her design flair and affinity with plants.

Rosemary and her husband Crawford came to this garden in the 1970’s and although there were vestiges of what had once been a good garden, it was also as Rosemary puts it  ‘very boring’, and ripe for a rethink.  Today 5 Burbage Road elicits plaudits from the likes of Anna Pavord, attracts visitors from home and abroad by appointment and is a longtime stalwart of the NGS – complete with teas and a sell-out plant stall (

Beautiful bones lie at the heart of the garden’s success.  Rosemary has disguised the length of the garden by dividing it, in time-honoured fashion, into a succession of different spaces.  The paved terrace leading from the house gives way to lawn, lawn to a ‘dusky perennial’ border, this in turn is followed by a gravel garden, which leads into a woodland garden.  A key design decision was to divide the rectangular lawn into two, making a pair of squares separated by a border of neatly coiffed box balls and instantly improving the rhythm of the garden.  “It’s amazing the difference it has made,” Rosemary observes.


This is a garden that works in the round and, walking about it, the visitor is rewarded with any number of interesting lateral views, an important consideration for Rosemary, whose earlier training was as an architect.  To this end, the bisecting central path was removed, thus disrupting the view straight down the garden and obliging the visitor to go around the side paths and enter each of the various ‘rooms’ from an oblique angle.

The garden is well provisioned with evergreen plants for a strong year- round framework.  A nuisance in many people’s eyes, ivy is put to good use blanketing one of the boundary fences to provide shelter for birds as well as a permanent backdrop to a sunny border.  Ivy has also been carefully trained up the vertical supports of the wooden fence that partially screens the woodland area.  Evergreens such as Phillyrea latifolia, holly, laurel and boxleaf honeysuckle are shaped into well-behaved sculptural forms and a cloud-pruned Escallonia in the woodland area shows how this technique can transform a rather ordinary shrub into a real eye-catcher.


Judicious specialist pruning also ensures that the stems of deciduous trees and shrubs are attractively shaped, the better to frame the views created by Rosemary.  The trio of apple trees alone offers a master-class in the pruner’s art – their textbook goblet shape is immaculately maintained by one of three gardeners who occasionally help in the garden.

border and goblet

South-west facing and sheltered, the garden Rosemary says, “gets a bit of everything”.  The shady border running down the left hand boundary is replete with Epimedium, hellebores and Geranium sylvaticum, while its opposite number features sun-worshippers such as Cistus, lavender and irises. Euphorbia robbiae and the blue-flowered Geranium ‘Bill Wallis’ are both Burbage Road stalwarts – self-seeders that Rosemary finds it hard to be tough on but whose presence gives this nuanced garden a spritz of informality.  A rogue Babington’s Leek – which Rosemary grows for their flowers – has arrived unplanned in one of the beds near the house but she has let it stay, a quirky touch, like the old boneshaker bicycle propped up in the shady border.

Fragrant plants are a notable feature, some of them, like Daphne and Choisya, doing double-duty as evergreen interest.  Although most of her plants are hardy (“there’s no greenhouse here”, notes Rosemary), tender specimens such as the evergreen Magnolia (syn. Michelia) thrive; housed in a tub of ericaceous compost near the warmth of the house, its crop of scented, cream flowers bears witness to its rude health.  A magnificent Drimys winteri is another supposedly tender plant enjoying this sheltered garden, its glossy evergreen, aromatic foliage, and fragrant creamy white flowers in fine form for the NGS opening.


View to house terrace from box balls dividing the lawn

Rosemary also loves scented roses and she has tracked down some less than usual suspects for her own garden.  She points out a Rosa spinosissima (Burnet rose), whose white, scented flowers are followed by dramatic, maroon-black hips.  Rosa ‘Sombreuil’ climbs up the wooden screen dividing the gravel and woodland gardens, along with ‘Evangeline’, a rambler whose pink, single flowers are also scented.  Another rambler is the magnificently monikered ‘Ghislaine de Féligonde’ whose sweet, musky-scented flowers are borne on almost thornless stems – “how can you resist a rose with a name like that?” asks Rosemary.

Basking in the sunshine the dry garden radiates Mediterranean informality.  Crocosmia, irises and self-sown primroses happily grow in the gravel here, along with a white acanthus and aromatic herbs such as fennel, rosemary, lavender, marjoram, and sage.  A smartly topiarised lollipop tree turns out to be narrow- leafed bay, Laurus nobilis angustifolia, a purchase from Architectural Plants ( ) – “a wonderful place to go shopping” says Rosemary. The assorted zinc tubs and troughs, acquired before such items became ‘vintage’ with price tags to match, house specimens which object to the garden’s London clay, such as pinks, and an olive tree.  After years of cultivation, the soil still yields a regular harvest of pebbles but Rosemary uses them as a decorative mulch for her container grown plants.

Zinc containers and view to Woodland and Gravel Gardens

The woodland garden is dominated by a large lime tree (“protected”, notes Rosemary rather wistfully), that comes with all the attendant problems of the Tilia genus – including aphids – but whose leaves provide the raw material for copious leafmould.  This area is lavishly mantled with Lamium, Geranium phaeum, Pulmonaria, Aquilegia, Solomon’s Seal, and acid green Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum).  Tucked discretely behind a hurdle fence in the far corner, the tripartite composting station is where Rosemary, a keen mulcher, mixes her home-made compost with John Innes to get the consistency she likes.    Nearby, at the foot of an ancient pear tree, the recently installed bespoke insect hotel awaits its first check-ins, while another artwork – a rusted wire fox – breaks cover from the undergrowth (although this being London, the garden is no stranger to the real thing).

compost insect fox

Woodland garden and hidden composting station

Deliberately keeping the colour scheme harmonious and “not too chaotic”, Rosemary has also factored in plenty of areas throughout the garden where visitors can pause to admire the carefully composed views, and almost tangible sense of calm.  This being an artist’s garden, it’s perhaps no surprise to find that some of the seats are also works of art, such as the pebble smooth ceramic seat by Hannah Bennett (

Seat reindeer bench

Gravel Garden

And while Rosemary’s artistic way with plants can be admired in her garden between April and June, her botanical watercolours are available year round, through and in greeting card form from botanic gardens, galleries and bookshops.

5 Burbage Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 9HJ

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