`The Situation Since Then. Having been sidetracked by vegetable growing, I'm ready to look at the main garden to see how it can be pulled together. It has been regularly maintained and we have
bought statues which have been plonked around the place.
`The Problem. My husband, Peter, likes to see what he has got but I like more mystery and don't like statues standing forth baldly. We are so opposed that we cannot listen to one another and start huffing if the other even looks like they might say something in or around the garden area. There could be an acceptable compromise, but only if it came from a disinterested quarter.
`So if you feel like writing on `Marriage Guidance in the Context of the Post-Modern Garden' it would be great.'
If I had been more clued up on architectural icons of the age, then Susan Taylor's letter, coming from 10 Blackheath Park in south-east London, would immediately have rung a bell. No 10 was built by the eminent architect Patrick Gwynne, now 81, whose own house, The Homewood, in Surrey, has recently been accepted by the National Trust. It will be its first modern property.
A phone call to the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) revealed that the Taylors' house had been built between 1966-69 for Leslie Bilsby, one of the driving forces behind the mould-breaking Span estates in Blackheath. There are two dozen plans of 10 Blackheath Park in the Riba collection, but none makes clear whether Gwynne was responsible for the garden design. The two were obviously conceived together.
The entrance to the house is at first-floor level, up a twisting snail shell of dark slate, enclosing a pool. Either side are dark banks of Irish ivy pierced by superb stands of yucca.
At the back, the garden seems to have been designed to be viewed from the living quarters, also on the first floor, with bold plantings of yucca, aralia and fatshedera banked in an angular bed on the right-hand side of a paved area adjoining the house. Access to the garden is by way of a sheet-metal deck jutting out from the first floor and connecting by a metal stairway to the paved area, or down a circular internal staircase of blond wood which brings you to rather a dark area under the deck.
Down the right-hand boundary runs a stilt hedge of hornbeam, strongly architectural. On the left-hand side is a boundary of clipped yew, with five sloping buttresses coming out from the hedge at right angles to make four smallish bays.
The planting close to the house, as Mrs Taylor said in her letter, had every sign of having been designed by someone who knew what they were doing. A big strawberry tree fills the difficult angle between the metal stairway and the house itself. From the sitting room, you look straight into its fine crown. Who was it that imagined how this strawberry tree would look, how right it would be, nearly 30 years after planting?
Dr Neil Bingham, assistant curator of the drawings collection at the Riba had the answer: Ivor Cunningham, who in his eighties is still practising as a landscape architect. He was part of the visionary group, including Bilsby and Eric Lyons, who, through the Span estates, brought good modern design into the mass housing market.
To look at the house and its setting as a unified whole was an important part of their creed. It should be the first rule of all garden designers, but, of course, it is not. Cunningham, when we spoke after my visit to the Taylors' house, still remembered it well. "Are the aralias still on the terrace?" he asked and was pleased to know they were.
He said he had drawn up detailed planting plans for the small front garden and the back area closest to the house, but could not remember specifying layouts or plants for the rest of the garden. This may explain why that part still seems unresolved and why Susan Taylorfeels that her garden is like a room with all the furniture pushed to the edges.
The plot is an odd cruciform shape. The area nearest the house with the hornbeam down one side and the yew down the other, opens out into a long cross piece, the horizontal arms of the cruciform, with a vegetable garden filling the left hand part. The fourth arm of the cross, leading to the furthest boundary of the garden, does not quite line up with the first by the house and is mostly laid to grass. The star is a magnificent catalpa, set off centre.
The style of the garden, bold, masculine, architectural, determined, is set by the original planting and any further planting would have to build on this fearless start. This was no place for frippery. Or flowers, in the sense of drifty bits of herbaceous border.
Like the plants Cunningham had already chosen, any newcomers would have to be sculptural, depending as much on foliage as flowers for effect. The iris at No 10, for instance, were exactly right, planted in a bed by the terrace pool. I could see dierama working equally well, planted in a big block along the back of the pool, so that their flowers dipped over the water and reflected in it.
The garden, as Susan Taylor said, did need "pulling together" and it seemed to me that you could do this by defining more deliberately the three separate areas that it fell into: the block immediately behind the house, the long cross corridor beyond and the far rectangle with the catalpa.
One way of doing this would be to vary the mowing regime to get different lengths of grass. By the house it would be close mown, but as you got further away the grass could get longer until at the far end it would be uncut all summer, tall grasses and wildflowers waving under specimen trees with close mown paths wandering through it.
Too fuzzy a solution for the clean-cut house though. It needed something less adulterated. How would it be, I asked Mrs Taylor, if they brought round the stilt hedge and used it as an arcade to separate the formal area by the house from the cross piece beyond? This would build on an existing feature and the new hornbeams could run either as a single line or as a double one with a wide path down the middle.
From the first floor of the house her husband could still see over the top of the arcade to the rest of the garden beyond. From the garden itself, you would get an intriguing sense of a divide that was not exactly a divide and that pulled you on to explore the half-hidden space beyond.
The journey would have to be worth it. In the big empty space at the bottom where the catalpa kept its lonely vigil, I suggested the Taylors planted more specimen trees. There was room for at least five but they needed to be as strong as the existing catalpa and the metasequoia near the house. Cherries and other pretty-pretty trees would be out of place.
The soil seemed acid enough to support lime haters. Perhaps one of the big tree magnolias, such as M delavayi or M macrophylla? Or a gum, such as Eucalyptus debeuzevillei, or the small-leaved gum E parvifolia? The foxglove tree, paulownia, would be distinguished company for the catalpa, as would a ginkgo.
The most intractable problem concerned Mrs Taylor's collection of ornaments, which clung to the edges of the garden like wallflowers at a ball, afraid to tackle the dance floor. She had hoped they would make the garden feel furnished, but they did not hang together in any coherent whole. Ranged along just one boundary were three horses' heads, a sphinx, a white cast- iron urn, a gazebo, an astrolabe and a lifesize statue of Napoleon.
Knowing what my husband's reaction would be if I suggested that we spend the afternoon shifting a lifesize statue of Napoleon, I was loath to suggest the same to Mrs Taylor. Start with the tree planting, I advised, and perhaps swap one or two pieces of the sculpture for four huge red-lacquered pots to stand in the bays of yew. I could see them planted with phormium and cordyline.
If this were my garden, I would be tempted to give Ivor Cunningham a ring to see if he would be interested in picking up the job where it was left off 30 years ago. Good modern gardens are thin on the ground. The Taylors have a great chance to complete an unfinished scenario.
The eucalyptus, magnolias and other trees mentioned are available from Architectural Plants, Cooks Farm, Nuthurst, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 6LH (0403 891772). Ivor Cunningham, landscape architect, can be contacted on 081-979 7241.Reuse content