Gardens: Suburban outfitters

The leafy avenues of south London may seem like the heartland of conservatism from the outside, but as Anna Pavord finds out, their gardens reveal hotbeds of creativity and diversity
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The Independent Online

Garden history is usually told by way of the great names that swept each others' work away over the centuries: Henry Wise, William Kent, Capability Brown, Humphrey Repton, John Claudius Loudon. But the kind of garden history I like is more intimate than that, knitted into the front gardens of a row of Victorian terraced houses, or speaking of the dreams and preoccupations of the first occupants of the semi-detached, half-timbered villas of 1930s suburbia.

South London, where such vast swathes of land were colonised as London spread over the villages of Earlsfield and Tooting, Streatham, Norbury, Thornton Heath and Croydon, is a particularly good place to read a much more domestic kind of garden history than historians generally write. Take Manor Way, in leafy South Croydon. The houses are individual, plenty of pebble dash, bow windows and diamond panes. Late Twenties, so a plaque on one of them says. But the gardens have altered more than the houses and just along this one road you have an entire picture book of the history of gardens over the past 80 years.

Just as some of the houses retain remnants of Arts and Crafts styling – tile hung fronts, fancy brickwork round curved porches (and a lovely old timber gate at No 43) – so some of the gardens still have in them trees and shrubs that by their size I'd guess would be survivors from the original gardens. But it's not just their size that suggests that era. The choices made by those first gardeners are so much of their time: laburnum, the purple-leaved plum (Prunus cerasifera 'Pissardii'), Japanese stuff such as maples and fat-trunked flowering cherries. I'm very fond of this Thirties, crazy paving look, but unfortunately these survivors are now reaching the end of their natural lives. The beautiful big Japanese maple at No 39, for instance, sadly looked as though it was on the way out. Will off-street parking take its place? I hope not.

Beds of Hybrid Tea roses in front gardens along Manor Way speak of the Fifties, when size mattered more than general health and vigour. Of all plants to fall out of favour with post-millennium gardeners, the Hybrid Tea rose is perhaps top of the list, so I was glad to see them flourishing here among the crazy-paved paths. The Seventies survive here too, with beds of heathers and once dwarf conifers, now spreading stealthy arms far further than their original owners would have thought possible.

Brave and (I would guess) young gardeners have brought the neighbourhood into the present day with a front garden of icing white pebbles, punctuated with spiky bronze cordylines. When I saw it, red poppies were bouncing out of the pebbles too. They were a nice touch. But the thing that most intrigued me was the remnant of a fancy rockery on the corner of Manor Way. As a development, the whole road is generously laid out – wide pavements with equally wide tree-planted grass verges. Was this rockery (real, big rocks and topiaried lonicera) perhaps a bit of set-dressing by that long-gone developer, a come-on for potential buyers? And to whoever is still clipping the wobbly lonicera, well done.

Closer in towards the city, the houses tend to be older: long rows of Victorian and Edwardian terraces, with rather small spaces where the front garden should be. But there are surprising bits of infilling, such as Titchwell Road and Multon Road in Earlsfield where in the late Thirties pairs of deep-gabled, Snowcemmed houses patched in the land behind the Edwardian terraces of Loxley Road. Victoria Orr moved to Multon Road five-and-a-half years ago, more for the garden than the house. It's a lot wider than most London gardens (40ft) and long enough (70ft) to be able to hide a trampoline in the bottom half of the plot behind a screen of broom and waving stems of the elegant giant reed, Arundo donax.

The planting here is strong and modern: bananas, gorgeous tetrapanax, a tree fern throwing monumental fronds over its cowering neighbours and the biggest phormium I've ever seen. "Juggling plates" is how Orr describes her gardening. "You concentrate on getting one bit right and behind your back another bit is crashing to the ground." But standing on the terrace by the back of the house I didn't hear any crashing, just the quiet bubbling sound of water, half hidden in a wide cream bowl, home to two frogs. More water trickles into an excellent raised fish pond that used to be a vegetable bed. A third, miniature water garden has recently been planted up with bright green equisetum and a dwarf water lily.

"I always feel cheated if there's no water in a garden," says Victoria, explaining the arrival of this third feature. And it helps to anchor an arrangement of herbs in pots, ranged against the boundary wall: variegated mint, 'Hidcote' lavender, chives and thyme, all grown in handsome terracotta pots. What I miss in a garden are good foliage plants and there are plenty of beauties here, including two extraordinary Montezuma pines, with drooping clusters of needles on branches that twist and bend like snakes coming out of a basket.

The pines are close to the house, strange sculptures to admire from the huge windows that look over the back garden. On the other side is the monster phormium, inherited when the Orrs first moved in, another splendid sculptural piece. Cannas are paired with both the phormium and the pines, the yellow striped leaves of the canna 'Pretoria' an especial favourite of Orr's. Bright yellow clumps of the Japanese grass Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' gleam out from shady areas under a multi-stemmed gum tree, carefully pruned each year so that it stays a manageable size. The best yellow of all, though, comes from the stems of the elegant bamboo by the front door, one of the best clumps I've ever seen.

In the back garden, jungle planting reaches its zenith in the far right-hand corner where the vast paddle leaves of bananas splay out against a background of bamboo, making the neighbouring mound of narrow-leaved Hebe parviflora angustifolia seem equally exotic. Trailing stems of holboellia thickly curtain the whole of the back fence. But even in this garden, modern, and full of plants (loquat, astelia, cordyline) that had scarcely been heard of ten years ago, there is a piece of its Thirties past. On the back boundary, the biggest tree in the garden, is a venerable purple-leaved plum.

Victoria and Craig Orr's garden at 28 Multon Road, London SW18 is open tomorrow (2-6pm), £2. Also open this weekend, Nigel Buckie's garden at 19 Montana Road, London SW17 (bananas, palms, and agaves) open tomorrow (1.30-5.30pm), £2; Mike and Gail Werkmeister's secluded garden at 13 Cambridge Road, London SW20 open tomorrow (12-6pm), £2.50; 200 diverse plots at the Golf Course Allotments, Winton Avenue, London N11 open tomorrow (1-4pm), £2.50; Lucy Sommers's garden, with an emphasis on foliage and texture at 13 Queen Elizabeth's Walk, London N16 open tomorrow (2.30-6pm), £2.50.