Little wonder: Jane McMorland Hunter has broken every rule to create an Eden in miniature

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 02 March 2008 01:00
Emma (right) with Jane, whose garden boasts Spring Surprise, Pleniflora and Trailing lobelica © Teena Taylor
Emma (right) with Jane, whose garden boasts Spring Surprise, Pleniflora and Trailing lobelica © Teena Taylor

Maybe she's been forewarned I can be bribed with cake, because when I arrive at the Fulham home of the garden writer Jane McMorland Hunter there is a strong smell of fresh pastry and an apple loaf cooling on the side. Her house is full of interesting things: it's piled with books, as McMorland Hunter worked in the gardening department of Hatchards in London's Piccadilly for 23 years, and here in her hall is the beautiful old hand-painted sign they used to take to the Chelsea Flower Show, saved from a skip.

But it's the garden I'm really interested in. From all the rooms you get glimpses of this miniature 4x4 (metres) affair – small, but beautiful. McMorland Hunter is the champion of the really titchy in all matters horticultural, as demonstrated by her book, The Tiny Garden. "You get people explaining in [the National Gardens Scheme's] The Yellow Book that theirs is a small garden, only quarter of an acre, as if that were really small," she laughs. "Having a really tiny garden is completely different."

McMorland Hunter set out to write a book about the most unpromising of outdoor spaces, with suggestions for side-alleys, staircases that lead to dustbins, and plots that spend all their time in the shade.

"I've always gardened," she says, with childlike enthusiasm. "When I was little, I think my parents decided I was cheap labour. We lived in the country, with acres of lawn, and when I was five or six I was given, of all things, a lawnmower. The awful thing was, I was actually pleased."

Today, McMorland Hunter's own tiny garden disobeys many of the standard rules about small spaces. Keep it formal, the convention goes. Restrict yourself to planting a few things, so you don't make it feel smaller by stuffing it with plants. Instead, she raises hundreds of annuals. "My friend has a conservatory and is good at starting them off, then I grow them on and plant them out in her garden and mine."

In summer her front garden is drifts of colour – cosmos, verbena and aquilegia – making a flowery screen that distracts prying eyes from looking in but lets the light shine in through a veil of blooms.

But it is her back garden that most epitomises her philosophy. "You have to work out why you actually want a garden. My garden is an outdoor dining-room, because that's top of my list of priorities – eating outside and having friends over." Indeed, on closer inspection, elegantly grouped into this tiny space are not one but two dining-table sets. "One for when you want to be in the sun, and one for privacy and shade on a hot summer's day."

On the cold day I visit, the view from the kitchen window is dominated by a potted witch hazel, "Rubin", covered in twisty, fiery-red flowers. "People say that you shouldn't grow witch hazel in a town garden, but I think I'll get a few years of joy out of this before it gets too big," McMorland Hunter explains. "You have to be practical when a garden is this small."

One of the best things about her book is the illustrations – a veritable sourcebook for any miniature garden. Trelliswork, mirrors and paint effects all appear, though her recommendations for planting up fire escapes might raise a few eyebrows among the health and safety conscious.

Even the deprived possessor of a single flowerbed is encouraged to stay positive: "You have an advantage over someone with room only for containers," she says; "just make sure the soil is top-quality." She is also a big fan of absolutely tiny lawns, although admits that's not standard advice, either. "It's just so lovely to be able to sit out on even a tiny patch of soft grass."

The biggest questions I want to put to my hostess are how she resists the urge to keep accumulating plants and how her garden has remained a usable space when she clearly loves plants so much? "It's a fine balance," she admits. "I have friends over for supper such a lot, so I have a permanent pile of jumpers in the kitchen [for visitors to wear outside] when it gets dark. They know to move past the plants gently." n

'The Tiny Garden' (Frances Lincoln, £12.99) is out now in paperback

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