What I love most about my basement flat is lying on my bed gazing out of my French windows onto the magnolia tree, passion flower and climbing roses planted by my predecessors. It’s a superior view to any painting, wallpaper or furniture at home. Even from indoors, the exterior overwhelms the interior design.
Bricks and mortar do not a home make. What lies beyond the four walls is equally (and often more) key to the interior. I caught up with landscape gardener Nicola Lesbirel, who cultivated the rooftop of Sir Terence Conran’s latest project, The Boundary in Shoreditch.
“More and more people are making one of their walls glass,” Lesbirel told me over the phone while taking shelter from the rain – even diehard gardeners take time out. “Almost every single small West London garden that I’ve designed in the past ten years is because someone has done an extension. Instead of installing a back door, the whole back wall is made of glass doors that open onto the garden.” Cutting-edge home owners, like my sister George, now crave a linear room (rather than rectangular) that runs into the outside space keeping the same type of flooring. “It’s aspirational and popular at the moment,” explains Lesbirel, a gold award-winning gardener at Chelsea Flower Show. “But even if you find a material that you can use in both kitchen and garden, it will appear different over time and be affected by the weather.”
Like the attention-seeking feature wall, the view through glass doors is the focus of the room. The grass is (literally) always greener through a window pane making the garden integral to the interior. Architects talk about framing the view. “When planning your interior, you want the picture outside to look attractive.” Guerilla gardener Richard Reynolds told me yesterday, “It’s as important as the paintings on your wall. A friend moved into a flat in Forest Hill where the garden was very clever in terms of interior. They’d put fiery red dogwood shrubs right outside the window; they let in plenty of light but are bright blocks of colour.”
Like knitting, planting and pruning are wallet-friendly antidotes to credit crunch stress. Trend forecasters like Joe Swift, regular on BBC Two’s Gardeners’ World, predict that 2009 will be the year of biodiversity in city gardens with a more relaxed and informal planting style. The key message is that gardening shouldn’t be hectic. “Without getting too ‘open-toed sandals’ and spiritual, there is something about that contact with nature.” Says Lesbirel. “It’s fairly instinctive in the same way that having animals around helps you unconsciously feel the benefits.”
Since the market crashed and our household budgets with it, some of my most unlikely London friends are mucking in to create vegetable patches. Extortionate bags of pre-washed salad prompted George to sow her first seeds - my namesake ‘Annabel’ French beans from Gardening Direct. A utilitarian vegetable patch is attractive to look upon in a different way to a flower bed – it’s an earthy and reassuring view. Growing your own rarely saves money in reality. “Growing vegetables and salad in this difficult time gives people back a little sense of being in control of their lives and their finances. Usually with London gardens, most people would like a patch, even if it’s just a small area for herbs. Everyone likes the idea of being able to graze,” knows Lesbirel from city clients. Perhaps it’s a sign of immaturity but I’m more liable to laze in my funky Penguin deck chairs (bought at mydeco.com) than rake the soil for spuds.
I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the ‘instant gardens’ of TV makeover shows by the Charlie Dimmocks of the garden centre. All that decking without digging gives gardening a bad name. The impatient home-makers buy shrubs in bulk at bank holiday weekends. Theirs is a whirlwind romance with gardening. Quick fixes like a new rug or wallpaper work better indoors than their garden counterparts - artificial grass, mirrors and low-maintenance conifers. “Too many people think of the garden as simply another room in the house. Plants are not silent furniture in a room” complains Reynolds. Unlike new furniture, a garden won’t bestow instant gratification. “It’s the process of tending a garden that makes it quite different to painting the walls or hoovering a carpet. I think of it as having a pet, another member of the family.”
Reynolds was right when he told me that the magnolia tree outside my bedroom window was something of a status symbol. In the words of the English poet Alexander Pope, “All gardening is landscape painting.” Nothing beats a room with a view.