The garden behind Joe and Agata Mills's new house in London's Chiswick is small, just 6m x 4m, but they had big ideas for it. Joe, who had previously been growing beetroot, beans and salads in the window boxes of their flat, wanted space for even more fruit and veg. They wanted a seating area, space for a barbecue and a sandpit for Milo, now 21 months old. Agata was planning a sleek, modern kitchen in a white, top-lit cube at the back of the house, and saw the garden as an extension of that space. She wanted the glass doors leading outside to fold back seamlessly against the walls. They both wanted a garden that looked as crisp and modern as their house.
Fortunately, they brought in garden designer Lucy Willcox at an early stage. That meant outside work could go on at the same time as the stuff inside, which proved to be critical. For a start, Lucy suggested raising the level of the outside space to that of the kitchen floor. It was the key to providing the seamless transition from house to garden that Agata wanted. All the building material could be carted through the house without having to worry about the sitting-room floor.
The Mills own a couple of hairdressing salons in the West End and, for 10 years, Joe had been cutting Lucy's hair. He'd heard all about her "moment of truth" when she chucked in her job as a TV director and took a course in garden design at the Inchbald school in London (the most demanding year of her life, she says). She did her work placement with the brilliant landscape architect Christopher Bradley-Hole. She then got a job in his practice but left to work on her own when she had her first baby.
Did it help, I wondered, to be given a brief as detailed as the Mills's? "Yes. Provided it is realistic," she said. Theirs was demanding and very specific. Lucy saw that she could provide everything they wanted. The puzzle was to do it in a way that was also aesthetically pleasing. The design had to fit comfortably into the space. And it had to relate to the house.
Small spaces are more difficult to deal with than big ones. You need to limit the amount of different materials you use. Ipe hardwood is the dominant feature of the Mills's garden. It's been used for the floor and to build the tiered series of planting boxes that runs along the right-hand wall. Narrow horizontal slats of the same wood are fixed on top of both side walls to increase the sense of privacy. A solid fence would have made the place too much of a prison and the bonus is that the slats cast interesting shadows on the wooden floor.
A narrow border runs along the back of the garden, where an old pyracantha provides an evergreen screen. This was one of the few things that was kept from the original garden and it's a great gift. So is the established clump of black-stemmed bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) in the back right-hand corner. The border is not much more than a metre deep, raised up behind a white-painted retaining wall.
The planting here relies more on foliage form and texture than it does on colour. That was one of the important lessons Lucy learnt during her garden design course. She's used astelia, low variegated euphorbias, saxifrages, wispy Stipa tenuissima, geraniums and Salvia x sylvestris 'Mainacht' all woven together with clumps of the neat little sedge, Carex oshimensis 'Evergold'.
A built-in seat fills the back left-hand corner of the garden, with the border continuing behind it. Tulips in delicious, promising bud ('White Dream' and 'Orange Cassini') are mixed with the sedge to give a seasonal spring boost. The seat itself is of ipe hardwood and lifts up so that toys and tools can be stored underneath. Also cleverly hidden is Milo's sandpit, set into the decking just outside the glass doors of the kitchen. When he's finished playing, Agata can easily sweep the sand back where it belongs. A wooden lid fits over the top of the sandpit, so snugly you can scarcely see the joins. Agata's father is a joiner and kept a close eye on the quality of the woodwork.
Growing vegetables was a key element in the brief that the Mills gave Lucy and finding enough space for this proved the most difficult part of the design. The raised beds she created on the right-hand boundary work on six different levels. But the clever thing is that they appear seamless, one space flowing easily into the next. The wall behind, of London stock brick, looks original, but isn't. It replaces a sagging wooden fence, and had to be built to provide the solid backdrop that the raised beds demanded.
The space nearest the kitchen, a wooden box about the size of a tea chest, was made for potatoes. Joe Mills grows them in special sacks, which slot neatly inside the box. "I thought of filling this container with earth, but the sacks are easier to manage," explained Lucy. Two lowish steps are for Milo, partly for sitting, partly so he can climb up and "help" with the gardening.
Photographs of the plot last summer (its first) show the tiered beds overflowing with salads and aubergines, strawberries, tomatoes, beans and beetroot. When I was there, lettuces had just been planted in the front beds. Lucy lined all the planting boxes with thick plastic before filling them with a loam compost. They drain through to the ground below, at the original level of the garden. A long wooden shelf runs along the wall above the planters, with a collection of herbs in nice old clay pots: rosemary, oregano, thyme, parsley, chives.
"Every centimetre matters here," said Lucy, looking around. "And every centimetre works," said Agata. "There's nothing I would change." The work started in February last year and was finished by June. The cost (£18,000) was more than the Mills were expecting, but now it's all done they both say it was worth every penny.
For more information about Lucy Willcox's Garden Design Company, visit lucywillcoxgardendesign.comReuse content