Anyone who ever visited Kevin Wilson's pub, the Town of Ramsgate in Wapping, will know what to expect from his garden. He's a party man, Kevin, and the Hallowe'en jamborees at his pub became famous up and down the Thames. 'We got cows' heads from the abattoir, real skeletons, covered the floor with leaves, hidden lighting, smoke machine. I started at 11 o'clock at night when trade finished, and when we opened the next day, there it was. Partyland.'
After 25 years in the licensing trade, he took up metal working - his grandfather was a Cumbrian blacksmith - and his sculptural forms in fashionably rusted sheet steel peer out like Disney's Fantasia flowers from the undergrowth of his extraordinary garden. He wants to do more work in metal, but is currently looking for a workshop which will give him greater flexibility than his present studio. All offers welcome.
'I've always been an eclectic person,' he says, waving an arm at the collections of glass baubles, lanterns, disco balls and baskets hanging from the branches of various small trees in the garden. 'My mother called me Steptoe. All my pubs have been like this. I've always been arty.'
He lives now in a basement flat in East Dulwich, a dark cocoon lit up with glittering mosaics of mirror fragments and a silvered fireplace. The side entrance to the garden leads through a thick tunnel of kiwi fruit ( Actinidia deliciosa) - Kevin grows it for the leaves, not the fruit. From underneath you see only the hairy stems but when you emerge, slightly dazed, into the light, you see the handsome foliage flung in great sweeps over a canopy of honeysuckle and clematis, climbing roses and an apple tree.
He started to garden here 12 years ago when the 100ft space was divided up into four plots, one for each of the flats in the house. His photo album gives a glimpse of the early days: Kevin in bandana, building brick walls and pillars to enclose a brick terrace, the original first quarter of the garden; Mandy the rottweiler inspecting the trellis and the pots on the terrace; the view over the unused plots beyond, a scrap of lawn, a crumbling shed.
Gradually, with the enthusiastic approval of the other tenants, he moved on up the garden. The photo album shows a young pear tree, a new and larger shed, and his first steel structures made in the metal workshop at Morley College, Lambeth. A tall metal obelisk was anchored to the fence with ropes that soon carried heavy ribbons of clematis. As the water feature built in the first part of the garden became obscured by ferns and hostas, further up he added a pool, now disguised under a veil of duckweed. Over the pool hang shallow metal dishes from a local curry house, planted up with mounds of mind-your-own-business ( Soleirolia soleirolii).
The shed at the end of the garden exploded into a whole new living space, with fancy lighting and loungers. Sitting under the overhanging eaves, thick with creepers and baskets, bottles and dried bunches of grass, with vast raindrops plopping into the dense foliage all round, you are as far from the traditional English garden as imagination can take you.
'Don't ask me the names of anything,' Kevin warns, as we start our journey through the jungle. 'I can scarcely speak English, let alone Latin.' His plants come from all over the place: two cordylines chucked out from a friend's windowbox, a forest of millet from a packet of bird food. Once he bought a bougainvillea from the Hampton Court Flower Show, but Mandy chewed it to bits before he had time to add its pink flowers to the golden hop that scrambles exuberantly into the arms of an apple tree.
'I like gardens that totally encapsulate you,' he says, ducking under the curtains of vine hanging from a platform stretched across the garden above head height. This structure is as close to a tree house as he can get in a garden that had no mature trees. He built the first half on the left hand side of a young Cox apple tree, and when you climb the ladder, you look down on the astonishing tangle of Clematis montana and Virginia creeper covering the boundary fence below. The second half of the platform followed later, accessed by a fancy wooden spiral stair, each tread decorated with a pattern of nail heads. From this vantage point you can look into the heart of a banana on one side and the pewter grey foliage of macleaya on the other. This is the bird's eye view that Kevin's neighbour Jim has, from his flat at the top of the house. 'Just like the Borneo jungle,' he told Kevin.
'I like plants to go wild,' says Kevin, though the montana clematis went so wild it pulled down his obelisk. 'I'm quite flamboyant, quite over-the-top. I want excitement in a garden. I don't want to walk out and see the whole garden all at once. I want mystery.' But sometimes the growth gets too much even for his grand guignol taste. Every year he thins out some of the most outrageous surges. Every other year he has a more drastic clear out, if the wind hasn't already done it for him. The Virginia creeper that started off on his terrace is now curling round the chimney pot four stories up. 'From time to time I just cut it off at the bottom,' he explains. 'When the growth has died down, it's quite easy to pull it off the walls.'
His neighbours obviously love what he's doing, because he's recently taken over the back half of the next door plot. Instead of finishing at the summer house, his garden now spreads in a dog-leg round to the left. Framed in a tangle of self-seeded morning glories is his newly-planted fruit plot with loganberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries and even a pomegranate. He has a mulberry tree as well as a quince and a plum. A new steel wigwam waits to be smothered in vine and Clematis armandii. 'I thought of netting this new patch and having parrots flying about in it,' he says with the wistful air of a showman who can't bear to waste the opportunity for a new piece of theatre. It may yet happen.
Kevin Wilson's garden is open to the public tomorrow evening (6-11pm): 66a East Dulwich Road, London SE22 9AT. Wine will be served and a share of the admission charge (£3.50) will go to Goose Green Primary SchoolReuse content