Gardening: Ground force in the city

Urban Jungle
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The Independent Culture
Slugs, cats, shade, builders rubble - not to mention small babies and feckless friends - the life of an urban gardener is not always a happy one. In the first of a new series of regular columns, garden designer Joe Swift explains how his own patch in the city evolved to suit his changing lifestyle and how you too can make the most of your small piece of urban jungle.

IN 1993, Hackney in north-east London was the place to acquire a bargain flat plus garden. As a first-time buyer I could either have a shoe box in Finsbury Park or a huge three-bedroom flat set on two levels with an 80 foot by 20 foot garden. There was no choice.

I got stuck into the garden straight away. Empty except for a skyscraper of an ash tree at the far end - through which the builders had decided to erect a wall and which has been dying slowly ever since, exposing the ugly blank walls of a light industrial unit behind - it was an alluringly blank site - a thrilling empty canvas on which I could freely express the ambitious outdoor design ideas I had recently acquired at college. It was also my first chance to create a garden without any constraints from clients. It felt like heaven. I could do as I pleased.

The original design concept came quickly: a trio of succeeding circles - the first gravel (which instantly, and for obvious reasons, became known as the cat tray); the second, a pond (known, gruesomely, as the cat's dinner) which, in the fullness of time would be crossed by a bridge; and the third, a raised circle, paved with brick (we called it the stage) in order to catch the evening sun.

Under the stage I could bury all the unwanted stones, old bricks, shards of glass etc, that you would expect to find in an average London garden, and thus save myself the hassle and expense of carting them away. The circles would be linked by paths and pergolas covered in scented climbers, which would lead you meanderingly through the garden.

Unfortunately, and also inevitably, there was a considerable gap between my enthusiastic plans and what I would now call budget restraints. I was broke. Luckily I was also designing and building gardens for a living, and had a constant, if erratic, supply of unwanted materials and plants. I became skilled in persuading clients to donate various shrubs and perennials to the Joe Swift garden fund: "I really think the cistus clashes with the clematis. One of them will have to go!" Over a long period my vision started to take shape.

The pond was dug by Bob, the best digger in town. However, it remained a 10-foot wide pit for two years before I got around to buying the liner. I remember this because I had two bonfire-night parties and used the pit for the fire. The wood came from the still-dying ash, topped up with a collection of friends' redundant furniture.

The excess topsoil from the pond was used to create a raised bed behind the stage, which I retained with old British Telecom telegraph poles. There was a time when BT were giving these poles away free to anyone who could pick them up and take them away. So, armed with a chain saw, I filled up my truck with sections and got the prize trophy of a beautifully turned finial, which I used to accent the ascent to the stage.

I was getting there. But then my circumstances changed completely. In 1995, my girlfriend moved in and we decided to get married. As a wedding present, a carpenter friend donated a weekend to build my long-awaited bridge, it was fantastic. My vision was nearly complete when along came young Stanley (my son).

Stanley changed everything. The pond had to go and what's the point of a bridge without a pond? You can't ride a trike on a gravel area, and anyway cat shit has a way of getting stuck in the tyres.

I tried hard to delay the final moment when the pond had to be removed ("I'll fence it off soon, honest"), and these tactics were working reasonably well until one fateful night when a friend decided to smoke a cigarette out of the window, knocking the hose pipe (which I had been using to keep the pond filled) off the windowsill and by accident siphoning the entire contents of the pond into the drain. Two days later I went out into the garden and discovered the sad remains of the fish (goldfish, the aptly-named ghost koi, tench and golden orphs) scattered around the beds. It was hard to know who was the most gutted, me or the fish! The local cats were still sleeping off the effects of their unexpected banquet.

What was I to be, except philosophical? This spring I have redesigned my garden; our lives have changed and we need a more functional and flexible outdoor space in which to live and let the kids (we now have two, aged two and six months) play. A large rectangular deck is now set where the fated pond had once been, and a steel blue concrete (yes, concrete) terrace is ready to be poured in next week.

I realise now that my garden is not just a space that's been designed, it's much more than that. It has become an accumulation of memories and experience: triumphs as well as small tragedies, hard-won knowledge about what is needed to make a city garden work, and an understanding of its function; how to make it fit in with our own tastes and changing circumstance. It's become part of our history.

Joe Swift can be contacted at The Plant Room, 47 Barnsbury Street, London N1