Gardening: Wolf's lair in a town garden: In this London house you can't tell where indoors ends and outdoors begins. Anna Pavord meets its keeper, a man who hates gardening

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The Independent Online
'EVERYTHING in a garden should be a visual delight,' says Ed Wolf, with an expansive gesture that takes in the furniture, the paving, the trees, the planters bulging with wallflowers in the back garden of his terraced Hampstead home in north London. We all know about the 'should'; it is the 'how' that is the killer. Unpicking the various elements of Mr Wolf's garden provides some clues.

First, the link between the garden and the house itself. The one needs to flow naturally from the other. The Wolf garden is typical of thousands in London: about 15ft wide and twice as long. But the house melts into it in a way that makes both seem bigger. From the kitchen, you look out at the garden through a forest of bamboos, kentia palms and ficus. (Mr Wolf's business is office landscaping.) Where you would expect the back wall of the house to be, a ribbed wall of glass slopes like a tent, and more glass roofs the space to the boundary wall. You look through the forest of greenery inside to evergreen aucuba, pyracantha and ivy outside, and are never quite sure where the house ends and the garden begins. This is a clever trick, though not one you can bring off without the help of an architect.

Glass double doors on the left open on to the garden itself. The first thing you notice are the good brick boundary walls on either side, rising to about 6ft. 'I did not want to wait until our very ugly fence had fallen down,' Mr Wolf explains. 'That might have taken 10 years, a long time in any person's life.'

The walls of yellowish London stock brick are finished with two courses of clay roofing tiles, topped by bricks laid short-end on. All the joints have the mortar raked out. Details such as this have a disproportionate effect on a garden. And the smaller the garden, the more your eyes bore into each inch of it. The texture of these Hampstead walls, topped with long, thin troughs stuffed with wallflowers, is as important as any plant.

Less than half-way down the garden, the brick gives way to wooden fencing, custom-made from pressure-impregnated timber and washed with a light green stain that allows the texture to show through. Again the detailing is simple. Wide upright boards butted together are joined by much thinner strips nailed on top. The effect is of wide-ribbed corduroy.

At the bottom of the garden, the fence wraps round to form a shed. 'It cost no more than a ready-made shed,' says Mr Wolf, a touch defensively. He believes that simple ideas, executed with care, are what make a garden work. The custom-built shed uses an awkward triangular space in the most effective way. And the fact that it is indistinguishable from the fence reduces the number of warring elements in the garden. You do not want the whole area to look the same, of course, but there is a balance to be struck between homogeneity and the discord that can arise from cramming too many disparate ingredients together in a small space.

Mr Wolf is very clear about what his garden is for. It is not for gardening. He 'detests gardening' with the vehemence of a man whose whole working life has centred on plants. He talks about 'installing' rather than planting things. His plants are leftovers, spares from other jobs. The garden is primarily a space for living in, 'to read or have our meals in', and it is very successful.

The design is simple and fluid. From the double glass doors, you step straight on to a small area of brick paving. A shallow, rounded step rises to a brick circle, laid herringbone fashion. The bricks are tiny, no more than an inch-and-a-half wide, and were imported from the Netherlands where, before the age of Tarmac, they were used to make roads.

As with the wall, the space between the bricks is important. They are laid in sand without cement. Mr Wolf waters them to encourage mosses and lichens to zig-zag among them. Beyond the circle lies an area of York paving, with another shallow step up. The stone slabs are laid flat, with at least two or three inches between each one. Again, the gaps are colonised by small creeping plants: selaginellas and the like.

Up the step is another area of stone paving, with the shed on the left-hand side and spare bricks stacked on the right to make a final raised section. Here a huge selection of pots and planters wait for the summer season.

Containers play an important part in the garden. They add an eclectic air to a layout that could otherwise seem too sombre, too restrained. Chimney pots stand like random chess pieces, some with clay pots in their tops. Their height brings wallflowers closer to smelling point. Other hand-made pottery containers are shaped like big oval cache-pots, with handles at either end and glazed in shades of mustard.

Most of the colour in the garden comes from the flowers in the containers: bulbs in early spring, wallflowers, geraniums in summer. This is enough. In town gardens, foliage will always be a more important element than flowers. It gives a lusher, more luxuriant effect. It is bulkier. It softens hard edges.

Nevertheless, I would want to try a larger variety of shrubs and of flowers in the pots. But that is because I would want a garden to garden in, not the low-maintenance, outdoor living room that Mr Wolf requires. What plants he has do their job well. Pyracantha covers much of one brick wall. Mahonia leaves splay around the foot of a large philadelphus, which curves over almost the whole width of the garden to make an arch framing the back half.

A tall, elegant birch tree stands at the apex of the garden. Aucuba, now at its glossiest and studded with brilliant red berries, makes a bulwark on the right-hand side. Between it and the glass wall of the house sit a table and chairs, painted dark green. This illustrates another of Mr Wolf's firmly held views. In a small garden, furniture should not be white. It draws too much attention to itself. The green fades magnanimously into the wider landscape.

Mr Wolf makes it all look easy. But underlying his seemingly relaxed approach is a deceptive perfectionism. It shows in his clothes. It shows, too, in small details, such as the neat brass-edged sockets set into the floor tiles for the bolts of the double doors. In the garden it is evident in the way the textures of natural materials, such as stone, brick and wood, are manipulated in contrasts of foliage and paving. Such a pity he hates gardening.

Ed Wolf's architect was Paul Wonke (081-209 0438).

(Photograph omitted)

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