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Small but perfectly formed

by Rhiannon James

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When architect Annette Marchini and her husband Renzo wanted to extend their London home, they came up against a common conundrum – how would they deal with a significantly smaller back garden?

Annette’s solution was to use thoughtful design to create a cool, contemporary garden that’s eminently usable despite its size.

Space to think

Four years after moving into their Clapham home, Annette and Renzo, who have an eight-year-old son, Max, added an open-plan kitchen and family room at the back of their house. As is so often the case with extensions to city houses though, this reduced their outdoor space to what Annette calls “a beach towel-sized garden”.

A redesign was essential, and Annette’s first step was to give some careful thought to how the family had used the original garden and what they would need from their new, smaller space.

“The first thing I decided was that we needed an evergreen garden. Our outdoor space is like an extension of the family room, which we use all the time, and so it has to look nice in the winter, just as much as in the summer,” she says. She has included a variety of evergreen plants such as ivy, evergreen clematis, Helleborus foetidus and Bergenia ‘Silberlicht’ in the garden but has also carefully planned the planting so there’s always an extra layer of interest whatever the time of year. The hellebores and Clematis cirrhosa ‘Wisley Cream’ start the show in January, with Clematis ‘Early Sensation’, forget-me-nots and bulbs such as Fritillaria meleagris, tulips and narcissi taking over in the spring. Roses and perennials such as Acanthus spinosus burst into life in the summer, and later-flowering plants such as Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ light up the garden on drab autumn days.

Annette had also noticed that the family used the original garden mostly in the evenings, and so she decided to use plants with white flowers, such as Rosa ‘Snow Goose’, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ and Zantedeschia aethiopica ‘Crowborough’, which would come into their own at night. “It’s nice because you can see them glimmering when you sit out here in the dusk or the darkness,” she says.

As there wouldn’t be enough room for Max to kick around a football in the garden, Annette was also keen to include somewhere for him to play. Including the wooden beams as a feature in the garden was a neat solution to the problem, allowing a swing to sit seamlessly within the overall design.

Make room

As well as working out how the family could squeeze the maximum enjoyment out of their small outdoor space, Annette has also incorporated lots of clever ideas to make the space feel larger, and lusher. The simple but striking arrangement of wooden beams acts not only as a support for the swing and as a frame for some of the planting in the garden, but also as a divider. “It gives an impression of greater depth in the garden and creates a bit of curiosity, so you can say to yourself, what is there, around the corner?” she says. Height is also used to good effect. The walls and trellis on three sides of the space are thickly covered with climbers, so the garden feels lush and green with only minimal use of valuable floor space. To create even more room, Annette has moved bulky items, such as the bike shed and the wormery, into the front garden.

All this space-saving means there’s plenty of room in the garden for entertaining. “We can have dinner parties out here with eight people – we take the kitchen table outside and have space to seat everyone,” Annette says. Renzo is a keen cook, so there’s also a surprising range of fruit, vegetables and herbs in the garden including strawberries, artichokes, tomatoes and chard.

A green study

A simple colour scheme, dominated by green, adds to the sense of space in the garden. The use of one major colour creates a harmonious look but by using different shades, shapes, textures and patterns in the planting, Annette has created an overall effect that’s far from monotonous. The bright, acid shades of the Alchemilla mollis flowers and mind-your-own-business, picked up by the painted beams mix with the fresh greens of the bergenias, the silvery-grey tints of the olive tree and sage and the deeper, darker tones of Trachelospermum jasminoides and ivy to create an interestingly varied effect. Meanwhile, the use of plants with different leaf shapes and surfaces, adds texture.

A similar approach has been taken with the hard landscaping. The raised beds are built from the same yellow bricks as the house, with the pebbles on the floor echoing the colour, but adding another texture. And just as white flowers add highlights amongst the green, splashes of terracotta, from the tiles in the patio to the large, decorative urns add warmth through the garden.

Upcycle

Although the garden has the cohesion that comes from designing and building a garden from scratch, Annette has managed to use many elements of the original garden in her design. Most of the raised beds were already in place – “I liked them and there was no need to change things just for the sake of it,” she says. Yorkstone slabs which had previously been part of a terrace, were used to build the new patio and to create the stepping stones leading through the back section of the garden. Annette also kept some of the existing plants – reinvigorating them with new compost and lashings of worm tea.

Given how successfully Annette has combined old and new to create a modern, sophisticated look for the space, it’s a surprise to find that this is the first garden Annette has designed and that she counts herself as a beginner when it comes to gardening. Being an architect is an obvious advantage, but Annette insists that designing the garden proved to be much more demanding than any building. “It was quite overwhelming at the beginning because I had to consider how the garden would develop over time and how it would change with the seasons,” she says. “In architecture, I have to think about maintenance and how the building will age but I don’t have to think about how it will look in winter without leaves or how much it will have grown in five years.” However challenging the process though, Annette’s solution to a perennial problem has staying power.

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