Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Paying homage in Homerton

On Sunday, between bouts of torrential rain, I went to see my friend Philip's garden, which was opening under the National Gardens Scheme. Philip lives in Homerton (next door to Hackney) and his garden is typical of a terraced Victorian house: narrow, and with a shady side return (the garden faces north-east). He and two other neighbours open as a group, called Lower Clapton Gardens. Philip and I were at university together (Edinburgh, since you ask), but whereas I studied dinner-party subjects, Philip studied botany, which is much more useful. Everything in his garden looks incredibly happy and well-tended and it's difficult to believe that 15 years ago, when he moved in, he inherited the typical London bombsite garden, with scabby grass and some rubble down the end.
He's designed the garden well, too, creating a sense of adventure and mystery effectively by splitting the garden in two. Stepping stones through the lawn lead you to the right of the garden, to a pot filled with hakonechloa and framed by shrubs. Behind this is the second section, which has a lean-to greenhouse filled with Philip's exotic, tender specimens, a seriously good compost heap, and, at the back, in the shade of a huge potted agave, a secluded seating area with benches and cushions. At the side of the house, there's a little pool in a pot surrounded by hostas. It's a fantastic example of how to create a green oasis in your average urban backyard.

That's the great thing about NGS garden visiting: there's always something to inspire you. Unlike Chelsea show gardens, these are real gardens, tended by ordinary people with the usual demands on their time (day jobs, young families, elderly relatives) in plots that are very like one's own in terms of size and situation.
The other two gardens were completely different from Philip's, yet also fascinating. One, owned by a plantaholic called, appropriately, Rose, was so full of interesting plants (including a wonderful pawlonia) I almost forgot to go home. The other was a tiny patio garden, owned by Annie, who seemed to be the sort of person who would create a garden at the top of Everest if that's where she found herself. Crammed into her tiny plot were flowers, herbs, even a huge papyrus in one corner. She'd laid her patio herself, with engineering bricks, and had found a neat solution to the perennial London problem of taking garden refuse through the house. (In a garden of this size, there was no room for a compost heap.)
If you've ever had to take rubbish through the house, you'll know that the bag breaks just as you reach the living room carpet or a pristine sanded floor. You can buy "tip bags", but they cost around £20. Annie had recycled one of those big white one-ton bags in which builders' merchants deliver aggregates, which is perfect for the job, since it's big and tough. The tragic irony is that she got it from some builders who were concreting over the garden next door. What a pity the owners couldn't have signed it over to Annie instead of embarking on the sort of 'home improvements' that contribute to environmental damage.