Oenone Dale, her husband Ashley and two-year-old Joshua have just moved into the kind of place familiar to many city dwellers. It is a mid-19th- century terraced house with a long, thin strip of garden at the back. They are lucky in having good boundary walls of London stock brick, an attractive buff-brown colour, and borrowed trees all around which create a surprisingly leafy oasis.
Oenone is clear about what she wants from the garden. "A place where we can eat outside; an area where Joshua can kick a ball around and let off steam; a sandpit, which can be got rid of later; a place where I can grow herbs". She is also clear on the look she wants: big, bold plants and not too many of them.
You can gauge her style from the inside of the house. In the kitchen there's a vast stainless steel SMEG fridge and not much else. The sitting room is all sofa and serenity, the only ornament a huge orchid with five flower spikes standing in the window. "Columbia Road" she said, when I commented on the plant's size and beauty. "Twelve quid." How do orchid growers live?
The back garden is almost four times as long as it is wide, 64ft x 17ft. Access is through French windows at the level of the semi-basement. Immediately outside is a strip of concrete, with steps leading up to the garden proper. The retaining wall to the right of the steps is of harsh modern red brick. It is doing a necessary job, but it is ugly compared with the softly coloured old brick of the house and boundary walls.
Oenone's first thought was to make a decked eating area immediately outside the French windows. This would be convenient for the kitchen, certainly, but not good for any other reason. The back of the house faces north. Decking here would never get sun and anyway, if the garden is to be roughly zoned into his (Joshua's) and her territory, Joshua, while he is still young, will be happier playing close to the house.
Instead, I suggested putting a slightly raised wooden deck at the back of the garden, full width and protected at its back and sides with trellis panels. The trellis could be stained whatever colour she wanted (pale bluey green, taupe, silvery grey) and would provide a pleasant sense of refuge.
Stretched right across the back of the garden, the deck would provide plenty of space for outdoor living. "A huge Thai bench with cushions," said Oenone decisively, standing among the bent tin, corrugated iron, broken glass and bedsprings that presently litter most of the garden. It would be a good place to sit, with a row of pleached limes behind screening Oenone's and her neighbours' gardens from the ones they back on to.
As a rough boundary marker to adult territory, I suggested a loose divider of uprights and crossbeams running across the width of the garden. She could cover it with wisteria (a passion of hers, she said) roses, clematis and a decorative vine such as the strawberry flavoured `Fragola'.
It could be done with a post either side and one in the middle, but it would be much better to set a pair of posts about 4ft apart on either side and leave the middle open (except for the crossbeam) to frame the view from the sitting area back to the house. After my experiences with our collapsing pergola, I would use green oak for the construction rather than larch or other softwood.
If the decking were 17ft wide (matching the width of the garden) and, say, 10ft deep, the divider could be set 12-14ft in front of the decking to leave room for a little gardening activity. On the right-hand side there is an old brick-edged raised bed, perhaps the remnants of an old- fashioned cold frame, where Oenone could grow herbs.
Between divider and house was 26ft of garden for Joshua. The chief difficulty, it seemed to me, was to work out how he could most safely move from house to garden. Which is not to say that one ought to be too protective. I was brought up on the Arthur Ransome principle of "duffers will drown" and do not believe it is realistic to expect that children can be guarded from all hazards.
The steps that presently lead from the strip of concrete outside the French windows up to the level of the garden are too narrow to look good and too steep to be child-friendly, although I noticed that Joshua had already sensibly worked out a way of bumping down them on his bottom.
The retaining wall of red brick is more than 4ft high and there is nothing there to stop a child who is running backwards after a ball from running right off the edge and crashing into the concrete below. It would be a hard landing.
I suggested the Dales brought in a contractor to remake the steps so that they stretched from their present left-hand edge right across to the right-hand boundary wall, eliminating the retaining wall.
This would make the steps about 8ft wide, provide an elegant introduction to the garden and make it seem broader than it is. The steps needed to be less steep, too, which would require some serious earth-moving. Hence the contractor. All the rest of the work they could do themselves.
Joshua's sand pit would fit well in the corner close to the house on the left-hand side of the steps. Under the rubbish, Oenone had already uncovered an old brick path, about 3ft wide, running up the left-hand side of the garden.
This is a great gift and, although it dictates a particular way of using the garden, I would be in favour of leaving it. The levels will need to be sorted out after the work on the steps but, when that is done, the whole of the area between path and the right-hand boundary can be laid to grass.
It will need to be tough grass, but Oenone was quite clear that the patch had to be green. "It's softer, nicer for Josh, I think. And nicer to look at, too." So no crushed bark.
The disadvantage of the proposed layout struck me as I was driving home. The centre of the dividing screen is going to look temptingly like a goalmouth.
Stylish Plants With Minimalist Appeal
Fatsia japonica: handsome leathery leaves, more than 1ft across, like a fig's but evergreen. Stems topped now with vast panicles of milky white flowers. It likes shelter and some shade.
Euphorbia mellifera: a fabulous spurge, much less tender than has been supposed. Sea-green leaves and brown flowers, which appear in late spring, smelling of honey.
Cordyline australis: elegant habit, like a firework frozen in mid performance. `Albertii' has sword shaped green leaves variegated with red and white.
Aralia elata`Variegata': Deciduous (and without its leaves it is VERY minimalist) but furnished from spring to autumn with pinnate leaves 3ft long. Big, flat heads of creamy flower in August and September.
Polystichum setiferum `Bevis': One of the most fabulous of all ferns, almost evergreen where it is happy, damp and shaded. Very finely cut fronds; elegant, spreading shuttlecock shape.Reuse content