City lim­its

At­ten­tion to de­tail is key in this small Lon­don gar­den, designed by Char­lotte Rowe


A small Lon­don gar­den has been turned into a com­fort­able space for en­ter­tain­ing, thanks to clever plant­ing and at­ten­tion to de­tail

Small is, of course, a rel­a­tive term. I re­mem­ber a lead­ing nurs­ery­woman giv­ing a talk in which she ex­plained how you could di­vide win­ter aconites ev­ery year to fill your gar­den, ‘even if you only have an acre or two’. But for those of us who can only dream of hav­ing one acre, never mind two (and that’s surely the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple to­day), de­sign­ers like Char­lotte Rowe are a god­send.

“I love small gardens,” she says. “Ev­ery inch mat­ters, so they have to be very finely de­tailed. You can do them quite quickly, and I en­joy the chal­lenge of mak­ing awk­ward spa­ces re­ally work.” Rowe, who set up her west Lon­don-based prac­tice in 2004, has designed around 230 schemes since then. Most of them are small Lon­don gardens such as this one, a tiny, east-fac­ing court­yard be­hind a new-build house in Is­ling­ton.

The clients, a cou­ple in their late thir­ties, had no pre­vi­ous gar­den­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but they came to Char­lotte with quite an ex­ten­sive brief. As keen en­ter­tain­ers, they wanted to in­clude a break­fast bar, a dance area, a day bed, a fire and – last but not least – a hot shower. Given that the plot was off-cen­tre to the house and 38 square me­tres in ex­tent, fit­ting ev­ery­thing in with­out it look­ing clut­tered was al­ways go­ing to be a chal­lenge. But it’s ex­actly the kind of chal­lenge Char­lotte rel­ishes.

An ini­tial pho­to­graph shows just how un­promis­ing the orig­i­nal plot was: the de­vel­oper had en­closed it with pal­let-like fenc­ing, which only made it feel smaller and more claus­tro­pho­bic, while the ground was bare rub­ble. Char­lotte’s so­lu­tion was to di­vide the area into sev­eral sep­a­rate but in­ter­con­nected ar­eas, us­ing a grid of large-for­mat, pol­ished con­crete paving slabs to im­pose order, with dif­fer­ent lev­els to break up the space. A ter­race the width of the house leads down, on the left, to a sunken area that fea­tures a tim­ber-topped day bed and a built-in bench f lank­ing the out­door fire, which forms a sculp­tural el­e­ment in its own

right. “Fires are a bit of a trade­mark for us now,” Char­lotte says. “Ages ago [the de­signer] Lu­ciano Gi­ub­bilei did one in Lad­broke Square that I re­ally liked, but I couldn’t find any­one to make one for us, so in the end we con­structed one our­selves for my own gar­den, and since then we’ve designed a lot.”

Like the fire, all the fur­ni­ture was spe­cially made for the gar­den. “There’s a great range of out­door fur­ni­ture th­ese days,” Char­lotte says. “Ev­ery­one thinks it should be cheaper than in­door fur­ni­ture, but it’s not. When you fit a kitchen, you might spend a lot on ap­pli­ances, then save money by buy­ing Ikea car­casses. But gar­den fur­ni­ture has to be much bet­ter made if it’s go­ing to stand out­side in all weath­ers, and ev­ery screw and fit­ting has to be stain­less steel – which is why it’s ex­pen­sive.”

On the right-hand side, a larger raised area forms the dance floor, with a pol­ished con­crete break­fast bar can­tilevered out from the bound­ary wall and, ris­ing from the thickly planted bor­der, the hot shower. “Our gardens are very struc­tured, but we also do very rich plant­ing,” Char­lotte points out. That’s cer­tainly the case here. Each el­e­ment of the de­sign is framed by a dense mix of plants, with a deep bur­gundy and rus­set colour pal­ette. “One of the clients is from Brazil,” Char­lotte says, “and we wanted the gar­den to look lush and leafy for him.”

“In a small gar­den like this, where you see ev­ery­thing at once, ev­ery plant has to work all year round,” she adds. Here she’s used small trees, such as Acer gri­seum, Mag­no­lia kobus and Ar­bu­tus unedo for height, with shrubs, such as Pit­tospo­rum to­bira ‘Nanum’, for struc­ture, un­der­planted with Euphor­bia chara­cias ‘Humpty Dumpty’, Per­si­caria am­plex­i­caulis Tau­rus (= ‘Blotau’), Acan­thus spinosus and the grass, Hakonechloa macra. “We used to use a lot of Stipa tenuis­sima,” Char­lotte says, “but we’ve found that it only lasts five or six years.”

As the pal­let fenc­ing couldn’t be re­moved, Char­lotte’s so­lu­tion was to clad it in thin strips of wood to form a trel­lis, sup­port­ing climbers such as Trach­e­losper­mum jas­mi­noides, Ake­bia quinata and Clema­tis ‘Per­rin’s Pride’. To give the im­pres­sion of solid walls, ma­rine ply was at­tached, given a thin ce­ment ren­der, then painted the same ma­rine blue as the trel­lis­work. It’s a clever fin­ish­ing touch, typ­i­cal of Char­lotte’s long ex­pe­ri­ence and her abil­ity to trans­form un­promis­ing sites into at­trac­tive, use­ful and hard-work­ing gardens, bal­anc­ing strong ar­chi­tec­tural el­e­ments with so­phis­ti­cated plant­ing.

USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Find out more about Char­lotte’s work at char­lot­

In a small space that’s al­ways on view, the gar­den has to work all year round. An Acer gri­seum pro­vides height and struc­ture by the pol­ished con­crete break­fast bar, while sword ferns, grasses and bold peren­ni­als, in­clud­ing al­li­ums and eu­phor­bias, spill from lushly planted beds.

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