AS YOU arrive at the Loanhead home Lucy Head shares with her partner Jason Russell, their garden, which was highly recommended by Chelsea silver medallist Stella Rankin, owner of Kevock Garden Plants, and described by Lucy as “a plantsman’s garden, a contemporary woodland”, is nowhere to be seen.
In its place stands a collection of wooden fences and sheds, dominated by a tall silver birch that leans slightly to the east.
The walk up the steps to the couple’s first-floor flat fails to reassure. True, the collection of bulbs in pots at the foot of the steps and the stylish, wooden alpine box raised above a set of shelves are brilliantly practical and full of charm. But, standing alone, they fall short of the number of photographs required for a garden feature.
Surreptitious glances out of the flat window reveal the outline of tiny plots measuring six metres by seven metres. “We don’t want you to look out of the window, we want the garden to come as a surprise,” says Jason, adding to the mystery. It helps, he suggests, if you understand the background.
A garden designer who trained in horticulture at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and also lectures part-time at the Scottish Agricultural College, Jason came to gardening by an unusual route. “A passion for tropical fish developed into a passion for the plants grown in their tanks.” Following a stint tending a walled garden near Stow, he established his own business 11 years ago and was soon joined by Lucy, an artist and graphic embroiderer. She brings her artistic talents and a shared love of plants to the range of private gardens the couple design and tend.
The purchase of their flat, with its tiny outside space, presented an opportunity to put Jason’s design expertise into practice. In a brief that not even the most demanding of clients would dream up, this included the silver birch – “easy at this time of the year, when its light feathery foliage filters the sun, but more tricky in the summer, when it casts deep shade over the space”– a tender Polylepis australis, chosen for the beauty of its rich, brown peeling bark, and a shed large enough to house three bicycles and a collection of gardening tools. Jason’s passion for fish also had to be represented.
The overall style is contemporary, yet softened by a range of traditional plants that were chosen to ensure a succession of spring, summer and autumn colour. The list of 97 varieties reveals the couple’s knowledge and passion. Lucy says, “The planting is a mix of clipped box balls, a carpet of Saxifraga fortunei, Epimedium, Hepatica, Sanguinaria, Maianthemum, Tiarella, Roscoea mixed through with Mecanopsis, Dicentra, Thalictrum, Digitalis, Luzula nivea, some unusual climbers and lots of other treasures.”
The garden is reached along a narrow cobbled path that leads between two fences towards the metal shed door. Here, Jason stands aside and throws open the wooden door on the right. “You go in first, the garden may not be as you expect,” he says. This is a major understatement.
In front of me, hidden away like a precious jewel in a cardboard box is a wonderful garden: a stylish, skilful blend of contemporary design and beautiful planting, cleverly set off against a background fence painted matt black.
The L-shaped design, an advantage as a portion of the garden is hidden, is dictated by the shed, a layout that also dictates the form of the dominant feature, a raised L-shaped pond built from concrete block and render, and painted brown to tie in with the rusty metal. “See how deep this is,” Jason says, handing me a child’s fishing net. I push it down and the water level reaches the top of the net – a depth of a metre. The depth and regular lifting of debris from the surrounding trees is, he explains, the reason the water in this fish-filled pond stays so clear.
Although the couple use the garden for entertaining, they knew a table and chairs would take up too much room. But the sides of the pond make a surprisingly comfortable sitting space, as does the raised corner bed. This is the home of the Polylepsis australis, which rises out of a bed of Hebe vernicosa, used as a change to box. A small, round barbecue, enclosed in stone with a round rusty lid, is used for cooking.
Limiting the choice of materials to grey stone paving and stone and rusty metal – a pair of cut-out panels, by metal worker Andrea Geile, hang on the fence on either side of the silver birch and illustrate this point. Andrea’s rusty plant supports are also used in the beds, where they add character and charm.
“In this small garden, we have more wall space than floor space,” Jason says, “and that had to be maximised.” Perhaps the most striking of the plants is the Cercidiphyllum hedge that runs along the back wall, an inspired choice that ensures spring and autumn interest. Large plants, incorporated into a small space, he points out, add drama. As an example, he cites large-leaved varieties such as Gunnera manicata, rheum and Persicaria amplexicaulis here – a versatile plant that thrives in a wide range of soil conditions and aspects – as well as bamboo Fargesia murielliae, a reliable choice “handy for providing instant height and quickly hiding wall space.
An Acer micranthum in the corner facing south-west will one day become too large, but in the meantime its delicate, fresh foliage is enjoyed well into autumn. Another autumn choice is the climber Rhus ambigua, with spectacular reds, yellows and oranges. “Another fab early autumn plant is Saxifraga fortunei. It flowers late in the year, when most other herbaceous plants have given up.”
For Jason, who loves the woodland feel of layers, the challenge has been to create a low-level foil of plants that knit together in a loose, naturalistic way. Here plants such as acaena and maianthemum form this carpet. He then introduced a layer of clump-forming plants, including hepaticas and epimedium, which in turn lead to larger plants such as box and astranthia, highlighted with a succession of bulbs and later-flowering perennials. “It’s very experimental, but the results have been fantastic, and of course the joy of my own garden is the opportunity to play and push the boundaries.”
Next Sunday, Jason and a team of students head to Chelsea for a second time, where their exhibition, The Plant Explorer’s Garden, will appear in the Small Garden category. The theme reflects a modern-day plant explorer. “It could be you or me,” he says, “someone who enjoys travel and whose garden is inspired by travel.”
Designing the garden and getting it right on the day is a challenge, but one that the students rise to with enthusiasm. Jason says, “My role is to help realise their vision, direct and support, ask questions and guide.” A role he fills with skill, wit and enthusiasm.
• Twig Garden Design (www.twig-design.co.uk, 07790 522916); Andrea Geile (www.andreageile.co.uk)
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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