Gardening: TROPIC OF HACKNEY

Michael Leapman visits a lush, exotic garden that feels far more Equator than east London
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The Independent Culture
THE DIARIST John Evelyn went to Hackney, a salubrious settlement just north of London, "to see my Lady Brooke's garden, which is one of the neatest and most celebrated in England". That was in 1654, now Hackney is part of the Greater London sprawl, its horticultural pretensions long abandoned.

That did not deter barrister Thomas Kibling when, six years ago, he found his dream house there, in a Victorian terrace wedged between a noodle factory and a small, dreary public park. Gazing at the barren patch of lawn at the back, just 14ft wide and 40ft long, he closed his eyes and pictured his dream garden. It needed a lot of imagination. Had he pleaded temporary insanity, most juries would have sympathised.

Yet today, the unpromising space has been transformed into a lush subtropical extravaganza, crowded with palms, ferns, and even a fruit-bearing banana tree.

"I wanted something that wasn't conventional and that was quite dramatic," says Thomas, as the banana fronds rustle in the slipstream of a train rushing by on the railway track just beyond the noodle factory. "I didn't want flowers particularly. I wanted low maintenance."

Importantly, he wanted a garden to complement the look of the house that he has decorated and furnished in minimalist style, white walls, mostly bare wooden floors and very little furniture.

"When the doors from the living room are folded back there's no division between the house and the garden. The contrast between the minimalism of the house and a garden that looks almost overgrown is quite important to me."

To begin the transformation, he dug up the lawn, put a path down the middle and brought in tons of topsoil to make two broad beds on either side of it. Planting got under way when a friend gave him a cordyline. These are usually grown as small plants, indoors and outdoors, for their elegant foliage, but today this specimen stands at 12ft high. He supplemented it with a yucca and a few bamboos, none of which are reliably hardy in an English winter.

The garden, though, is well sheltered, with 10ft walls on two sides, the house on the third and a long ground-floor extension on the fourth. Thomas thought it was worth taking a chance, but he quickly recognised that he was undertaking more than he could cope with by himself.

"I realised that if I didn't organise it properly, it could all go horribly wrong and end in tears. The plants were expensive and I wasn't prepared to take that risk. I had to have expertise, and the books don't really tell you enough."

So, on the recommendation of a plant supplier, he made contact with Annie Guilfoyle, a young and innovative garden designer then halfway through a degree course at Middlesex University. From the beginning, it was clear that the match between designer and client had been made in heaven.

"In a confined space you must be choosy about what you grow, and without Annie I wouldn't have been able to do it," says Thomas. "What she has is confidence. She knows what she is talking about and where to put things. If you're going to spend pounds 400 on a mature plant, you want to know it will survive."

For Annie, it was a chance in a million: "I would like to find more clients like Thomas, willing to do something a bit different and alternative. My approach has always been modern, but finding people who are willing to accept that can be hard. He's a fabulous client because he's passionate about the garden but he's also very trusting in terms of new ideas.

"My ideas might frighten other people but he's quite happy to be brave. This garden isn't about colour - it's all about textures and shape. Thomas doesn't want too much colour. It's very refreshing to have that as a brief: most people want colour all the year round."

The banana tree was put in just after Annie arrived on the scene. "Everyone told me there was no way I could grow bananas," says Thomas. "It was a challenge, and I took it very seriously."

Bananas die after they have produced a crop, but, if fed, they put up new shoots all around their stem. From the one original, there are now two large trees surrounded by younger growths.

Annie and Thomas agreed that the ba- nana, with its top reaching well above the wall, was one plant that did need protection. So every November they chop off all the leaves and carefully swathe the stems in bubble-wrap. "It looks architectural, a bit like Stonehenge," Annie reports.

The plants that surround the bananas are left to fend for themselves, and none has so far perished. Among them are trachycarpus, hairy-stemmed palm; the umbrella-leaved Gunnera, often called giant rhubarb; an olive and a loquat - both producing fruit; and black-stemmed bamboo which, in common with many of the plants, needs to be cut back several times a year to restrict its height and keep the deep ebony colour of its stems.

One of Annie's favourites is Phormium tenax, the statuesque bronzey-green New Zealand flax that produces a magnificent flower on a mahogany stem every two or three years. She is fond, too, of the fast-growing Pittosporum tobira, with green leathery leaves and creamy summer flowers smelling of gardenias. The Hedychium, or ginger lily, gives a late autumn dash of colour.

Not everything can be counted as subtropical. The popular Choisya ternata is there for its glossy leaves and fragrant late summer flowers. Euphorbia robbiae is used as ground cover because it thrives beneath the dense shade of the banana leaves. So does woodrush (Luzula), an ornamental broad-leaved grass.

The overall effect changes with the seasons, as Annie explains: "In the early spring or winter, when the banana leaves aren't here, you get so much more light. We have Hemerocallis (day lilies) lining the path on both sides. In early spring it's quite green and lush, then it gets greener on top in summer.

"When there's strong sunlight the rays are filtered through the leaves and the garden is covered in a soft blue light. When it rains the greens are very dark." At night, carefully placed lights give the view another fresh aspect.

Many plants occur more than once in the garden. Annie thinks this brings coherence to her composition: "Some clients get worried about repeating things because they think they should have one of everything; but it brings a real sense of unity and strength to the design."

That philosophy is used to especially good effect in their latest project. Last summer she and Thomas created a spectacular new planting area on the roof of the single-storey extension running down one side of the house.

First they strengthened the roof by building a platform above it out of scaffolding boards and poles, painted metallic blue. They acquired 24 aluminium containers and filled them with just black-stemmed bamboo, Phormium tenax and Pittosporum tobira.

The effect, when seen from a high window, is extraordinary, and it will be even more impressive as the plants put on bulk and height. Thomas likes the metallic effect of the containers and scaffolding, a theme continued in the silvery foliage of some of the plants.

Because the garden walls are so steep, cats cannot intrude, so blackbirds nest safely among the leaves. A small water feature provides a haven for two toads.

To say that Thomas is delighted with his garden would be an understatement: "What's really important is that in a busy life, with so much tension and pressure, it's so relaxing to come back to this garden. It has such a tranquil quality about it.

"I love to see how quickly things like the bananas and the gunnera grow in summer. You can almost see it happening. You look down on it and think: how can these things grow in the middle of London? The answer is that you choose carefully what you plant. I have a wonderful sense of achievement."

If John Evelyn could visit the Tropics of Hackney today, he too would be impressed. Thomas Kibling's garden is certainly not as big as Lady Brooke's, and probably not as neat; but it must be just as awe-inspiring.

Annie Guilfoyle can be contacted at Creative Design on 0171 603 8284

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