Gardening: A kingdom for a stage

Fancy a snoop? The National Gardens Scheme offers the chance to find oases of colour and scent in London
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London is an intensely parochial place. Which, I suppose, is why it has taken me so long to discover the North London Link Line, an extraordinary, beaten-up railway that links Richmond directly with Hampstead and Woolwich. I rode it recently to get to Hackney - way off my patch - and it was like clattering down some overgrown, forgotten ceremonial mall. Massively purple wands of buddleia swept down the embankments and sprouted from blackened bridges. Bindweed swathed chain-link fences and smothered the degrading graffiti with its huge white trumpets. At last! A use for bindweed. I knew it had to be there for a purpose.

Why Hackney? Because of John Tordoff, whose garden at 17a Navarino Road is open tomorrow. He moved there from Wandsworth and for several years lived with the patch of lawn and the scruffy shrubs inherited from the previous owners. He had trained as an actor at Rada but reached a point where, as he said carefully, "I did not have sufficient outlet for my creative energies."

The garden beckoned. All the stagecraft stored up during his years as an actor was reinterpreted in his new role as gardener. In effect he is now the show director, set designer, front-of-house manager and electrician as well.

From his big basement sitting-room, sliding doors, all glass, give straight on to the garden, the long thin shape divided in the middle by yew hedges either side of a central metal arch. Their shoulders slope up to buttress the arch, smothered in the golden-yellow climbing rose `Maigold'. Immediately outside the door, three wide stone steps run the full width of the garden. They don't have to gain much height, so are shallow and generous. They lead up to a rectangular pool where a simple jet plops water out of a carved stone centre-piece.

"I've always thought in visual terms," explained Mr Tordoff. "I wanted a formal garden, surrounding a formal pond with some sort of water feature in it. I wanted it to be a nostalgic place, redolent of Italy, the Renaissance - or perhaps the Alhambra, the greatest of all gardens. A monastery garden surrounded by a cloister."

Well, that's a lot to cram into the average back yard, but the huge advantage Mr Tordoff has is that he understands spaces. He thinks design first, plants second. Most of us work the other way round. It is a great deal easier to get to grips with plants than it is to understand how to make the best setting for them.

So, in this first part of the garden, think Italy: water, stone, evergreen. Sentinel cypresses loom up either side of the yew hedge that marks the end of this particular stage set. Neatly clipped cubes of box punctuate the paving. On one, a crown is negligently abandoned. "Edward the Confessor," explained Mr Tordoff. "I was playing him at Richmond and wardrobe hadn't got anything suitable for me to wear. So I made my own crown, and it's been with me ever since." Shoots of box poke up round the inside like a fright wig.

Four wicker baskets hold variegated hollies, Ilex x altaclarensis `Lawsoniana', the leaves, almost spineless, splashed yellow in the centre. They are clipped into lollipops, and either side of the brilliant blue seat against the right-hand boundary are tall, clipped bookends of yew. Though you can't see it (it's smothered in plants) the boundaries are brick, but on the right-hand side Mr Tordoff has made wire arches to sit on top of the wall, using the squared metal matrix more generally associated with reinforced concrete.

"It's cheap," said Mr Tordoff briefly. And effective, if well-clothed. Wisteria borrowed from one neighbour covers the arches on one side, with the pink-flowered rose `Frances E Lester'. Honeysuckle is borrowed from another neighbour.

On the left-hand side the same squared metal mesh curves over the top of a short pergola. At least, you think it's a pergola until you realise it is a wide arch reflected in a big piece of mirror standing against the left-hand boundary. The mirror reproduces the arch, making it look much longer than it is. It works because the glass itself is well disguised. Bits of rose drip all over it and in front of it is an urn standing on a tall, creeper-clad brick plinth.

"I love creating structures," said Mr Tordoff, waving airily at the arch. "I don't see myself as a plantsman. I've discovered by trial and error what plants need." He doesn't have a car, and most of the plants in his garden have been wheeled home on his bike from Columbia Road, London's Sunday plant market.

There have been errors. The rose `Brenda Colvin' was one of them. Like `Kiftsgate', it's a selected form of R filipes, the most rampageous climbing rose known to man. It gobbles garages for breakfast; despite its lovely smell and soft-blush-pink flowers, it's a monster. But getting rid of it is now as much as a problem for Mr Tordoff as trying to coop it up in its small space.

Dotted all round the area are plants in pots. Even the perennials in the small border running parallel with the pool are in pots: the brilliant scarlet crocosmia `Lucifer', orange day-lilies, grey-leaved lychnis. A little time ago, Mr Tordoff decided the garden was not "cluttered" enough. "I wanted it to be like a Victorian parlour. Many more pots of all sizes. Pots raised on pedestals, pots on steps. Banks of pots." But the pots on the steps blew off in the wind, so he anchored great spikes in the steps and then threaded the pots on top of the spikes. They haven't budged since.

So much for Italy. Act II of the garden is set in Japan, signalled first by tall bamboo poles supporting yet more of Mr Tordoff's favourite mesh, used horizontally and layered with wisteria. The centre section is higher than the two sections either side, so you feel you are going through a doorway of some kind.

The scene change in this second, back section of the garden is astonishing. Mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii - the wretched thing has changed its name) pours over earth and rocks like molten lava. In one corner stands Mt Fuji, modelled from compressed peat, stapled together with wire pins. But you are not supposed to see that bit. Neighbouring cats scraped away the covering mat of green at a critical point.

Through the centre of this spongy soleirolia carpet flows a small, sinuous stream making its way into a semicircular pool. Azaleas and dwarf rhododendrons (sunk in pots of ericaceous compost) grow with acers and ferns.

"It's supposed to be a Japanese stroll garden," said Mr Tordoff. "I broke too many of the rules. But you're still supposed to be going on some sort of journey here. I just wanted to make it as complicated as possible." So in this minute space, you still have a red Nikko bridge, a pagoda (miniature), and a teahouse (full size). On the bank at the back of the garden are foothills clipped in box. Waterfalling down them is variegated ivy. "The stream's source," explained Mr Tordoff.

This will be the fourth year that he has opened his garden for the National Gardens Scheme. Why does he do it? "Oh!" he replied instantly. "The actor's desire to publicise himself. The ego demanded it." Catch the performance tomorrow (12-5pm), tickets pounds 1.50.

Other town gardens open this weekend: 70 Gloucester Crescent, London NW1, Malcolm Turner and the designer Lucy Gent's garden: strong on geometry. Open tomorrow, 11am-3pm, admission pounds 1.50. 5 Greenaway Gardens, London NW3, packed with roses and herbaceous perennials. Open tomorrow, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 1. 8 Dunstarn Lane, Leeds 16, 60 different delphiniums; classic rose borders. Open tomorrow (2-6pm), admission pounds 1.50. 100 Wellington Street, Matlock, Derbyshire. Denise Marriott's secret garden is full of the sound of water. Open tomorrow (1-5pm), admission pounds 1.50