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 charlotterowe.com
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.