Gardens: A cultivated urban wilderness, the Medcalfs’ garden is an Edinburgh oasis

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A MATURE garden that has required minimal effort for a decade sounds like a dream come true.

With water features, lush planting and a design aimed at providing secluded relaxation, it sounds like hard work. Planting in a “matrix” style has given one Edinburgh couple a woodland haven in the city. Soft round the edges, the garden in Portobello has echoes of Japanese water gardens but without being bound by formality.

The owners, Barbara and David Medcalf, wanted a garden that was a place to relax, and relatively low-maintenance. “Being Aussies we wanted a space for a barbecue and outdoor seating, and some kind of water feature,” says Barbara. “We were not long back from a holiday in Japan and were really captivated by many of the gardens we had seen there. We obviously don’t have the discipline or aesthetic sense of a Japanese garden, but there are faint echoes in the textural grasses, the hidden vistas and the use of water.”

They commissioned the Edinburgh-based garden designer Dug Macleod of Stone Wood Water Light in 2003 after hearing how he incorporated water and natural forms. The garden was mostly grass, and a large conifer was quite a dominating presence that the Medcalfs wanted removed, however Dug persuaded them otherwise: “They wanted rid of the conifer but I thought it was a nice feature and breaks the area up.”

He then set to work installing a pump-fed stream and pond, water features which draw together a substantial part of the garden. The pond and stream are now well established and newts were a welcome arrival later on. The fact that the water feature has been adopted by the hardest-to-please wildlife is a great compliment, Dug says, but newts and pumps don’t mix, and he has ensured they are not harmed by locating the pump inside a fine mesh planting basket. This allows water to surround the pump while protecting the newts from its mechanism and strong pull.

The planting is a mix of foliage and colour. As with most of his gardens, Dug planted two-thirds and left the final third for the owners to make their mark on. The slightly woolly-around-the-edges feel is laid-back and low-maintenance – just what the couple wanted. There is a patio and decking beside the suntrap side of the house. Lush planting includes black bamboo, eucalyptus, carex grasses, epilobium (a white flower cultivar of willowherb) and Jasmine officinal. Phormiums and a bay tree thrive in the sheltered position, and there are ferns such as asplenium and shuttlecock. Hebes and box hedging provide more evergreen texture.

Outside the garden lies an embankment and lots of woodland plants have blown in and self-seeded from the green band next to the road, such as foxgloves, cornflower, buddleia and wild strawberries.

A bridge connects the side entrance to the main garden and railway sleepers form a pathway in one of the timber landscaping features that complement the layout. The seating area is designed so that the whole garden cannot be viewed at once. The conifer separates the front of the garden from the side, where the pond and seating are. Ten years on, it is an example of a garden that has matured in keeping with its design concept. In matrix gardening, the planting is laid in layers under a tree canopy and it finds a balance to become self-sustaining and to emulate a woodland setting. The concept greatly appeals to Dug as a designer: “If you can design it so that the weeds look all right for a while then it makes it easier for the gardener to look after. The aim is that, if the garden were left for a couple of years, it would look the same.” The concept allows space for the initial planting to fill out and for the owners to add to it. This garden has barely changed from its inception.

Barbara adds: “We have not added all that much: a few flowering plants and irises near the pond. We love our mature trees but over the years some of the grasses have been cleared as they thrived too well. We are not great gardeners, and I am much happier being the one who cuts, chops and prunes rather than nurturing seedlings. I still think of our garden as a work in progress as I can see how it could be developed to start to reflect more of the Japanese ideal if I dedicated time to it.
“We have only made one concession to having a garden for our daughter and that was to put the wrought iron cover over the pond. But we kept it free-form and rustic – to try and balance safety with what we consider to be the rusticity of the garden as a whole.”

It’s not just the Medcalfs who find the garden blissfully relaxing. Barbara says: “Half the neighbourhood cats seem to congregate here, we have an urban fox who visits regularly, squirrels and the newts. Despite the cats, there are also plenty of birds to spot.” k

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