Gardening: In the outdoor green room: Dramatic effects can be achieved even in an urban back yard. Helen Chappell meets Anthony Noel, the ex-actor turned gardener whose miniature plot is becoming a box-office draw

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'I LIVE and let live with my plants,' says Anthony Noel, surveying his tiny garden in Fulham, south London. 'I let them party on their own.' It's a policy that clearly pays off in his 40ft by 17ft back yard, overlooked by offices and warehouses and backing on to a railway line. The mind-boggling lushness and variety of the vegetation crammed into this space is the result, he insists, of the sociable nature of the plants themselves.

'I think they enjoy each other's company,' says Noel, a fashionable garden designer and ex-actor. Of course, it also helps to be enclosed by old brick walls which create a warm, sheltered microclimate. Facing south-east and having their roots protected by slabs of York paving must have something to do with it, too. Whatever the secret, it is obviously something few green things can resist. They flourish here with shameless abandon.

Plants are only half the story. The hard surfaces and ornaments are more than the grudging and optional extras they seem in many British gardens. Here they have taken on the role of theatrical scenery and props, suspending the reality of this humble site and replacing it with outright fantasy. White daturas stand sentinel either side of the fountain - a large river god mask spouting water on to a heap of broken stone pillars. A pair of blue-and-white striped watering-cans are jauntily tilted towards criss-crossing jets of water. Wirework obelisks jostle rare Acanthus spinosissimus Paeonia 'Joseph Rock' and purple agave for border space, canary ivy smothers a trio of pillars topped with stone pineapples. In the corner, looming over the blue hostas, the box topiary, the postage-stamp lawn and the gobsmacked visitor is a gigantic stone urn - 7 1/2 ft high and weighing half a ton. 'I believe big objects in a small garden can actually give an illusion of space,' Noel points out. 'The scale here is a bit mad, but I think it works.'

If the garden is a bit mad, the interior of his house is hardly sensible. The hall and kitchen are painted to resemble the interior of a vast marquee - all Regency stripes and gilded tassels. 'I plan to paint the sitting-room walls to resemble blocks of stone,' he announces, 'with battlements just below the ceiling. It should go nicely with a new red carpet.' Not to mention his Regency-style furniture and prints of Brighton Pavilion. These trompe l'oeil skills were picked up from a decorative arts course taken at the Victoria & Albert Museum and from the murals of his hero, Rex Whistler. 'The V & A was before I went into acting,' he explains, pouring the tea. 'I was always fascinated by visual beauty.' He attributes this to an early childhood exploring his grandparents' hotel in Devon - a stuccoed Nash house surrounded by a formal garden. 'I remember playing by the lily pond and in the lavender hedges when I was four. It was my first impression of a garden. I thought it was magic.' At nine he was taken to see the white garden at Sissinghurst, which 'knocked me out'.

After he decided not to follow his father into the law, his next step might have been horticultural college. But gardens took a back seat as his theatrical leanings took over. He graduated from the Guildford School of Acting and had an early run of theatrical success. A leading role in the farce Six of One was followed by a part in Hi-de-Hi on TV - not exactly Hamlet, but for a beginner thrilling stuff.

The life of a jobbing actor - constant touring, theatrical digs, low wages - soon began to pall. 'I remember sitting alone in miserable digs one Christmas, thinking, 'There has to be something better than this. I miss my friends, my home and my garden. I'd be better off staying in London, even if I have to work as a labourer.' It did not come to that.

Having just moved to this Fulham maisonette and acquired his first garden, he filled his 'resting' time by transforming the tiny back yard - smashing up the concrete paving with a sledgehammer. The noise may have plagued the neighbours, but the work began to feel distinctly therapeutic. In went the urns and the York slabs, along with the plants in white, blue and purple. Friends and neighbours were impressed. One friend asked him to landscape her plot in Chelsea, while another offered a rusty fire escape to disguise with plants. A third friend persuaded him to enter his new garden for a place in the Yellow Book - the handbook of the charitable National Gardens Scheme and the bible of the nosiest garden-visitors in Britain. An NGS judge appeared to look over the garden and was greatly impressed. Then the visitors began to arrive, queueing half-way down the street to get in. 'That was it for me,' he recalls.

He abandoned his dream of being a big star in the theatre, and set about turning himself into a high-profile garden designer instead. Word got round and he soon appeared on radio, on Gardeners' World on television and in glossy magazines. He was asked to design the planting for a 200ft conservatory at the Turnberry Hotel in Scotland - 'a terrifying first exercise with someone else's money'. His idea of painting flowerpots with Regency stripes and growing box trees as lollipops in pots became a much-imitated trademark. 'I thought all the interest in me would blow over,' he says, 'but fortunately it hasn't. I do find I'm absolutely full of ideas, and there aren't enough hours in the day to fit them in. I feel very lucky to find something I can do and love doing.'

At the moment he is juggling an impressive set of commissions - designing the London garden of a pop star (no names, of course), a countess's roof garden in Chelsea, a symphony of pink, black and blue flowers somewhere in Kensington. Does he ever miss the smell of the greasepaint, the nervous moments in the green room just before the curtain rises? 'Well, I'll always love the theatre, but there's no reason why gardening has to be fuddy-duddy and square. I really do think it is coming back into fashion. The Nineties is going to be the age of the garden designer.'

Gazing out of his kitchen window over the washing-up, Anthony Noel has obviously found himself a new kind of green room. The clematis and ivy-clad garden outside is as theatrical as any stage set, its foliage shifting with the seasons to form a succession of backdrops. In the future there may be a Noel garden at Chelsea, and he'd like to write a book and even present a television gardening programme - which would certainly bring his career full circle. In the meantime, there is an audience to entertain when he opens the garden to the public for the last time this year. 'Gardens should be controlled romanticism,' he is muttering over the sink, 'nothing too primped, a bit overgrown . . .' Today's opening is not until 2.30pm, but stage fright is setting in already.

Anthony Noel's garden is open to visitors today from 2.30pm to 6pm; admission pounds 2, OAPs pounds 1. Proceeds to charity. The address is 17 Fulham Park Gardens, London SW6 (071-736 4890).

(Photograph omitted)