A simple, Japanese-inspired aesthetic brings tranquillity and cohesion to this commuter-town plot
When garden designer Gemma Diks first saw the garden of this new-build terraced house in Den Dolder, a commuter town outside Utrecht in the Netherlands, it was in many ways the archetypal suburban garden: a patch of lawn hemmed in by other buildings, some narrow perimeter beds and a basic strip of paving that the owners, a young family, had tried to enliven with a selection of pots.
“It was such a flat, two-dimensional space,” remembers Gemma. “You really only noticed the fencing. The owners had chosen some nice plants, but they were struggling to achieve the sense of unity they wanted.”
Gemma’s brief was to make the space more appealing and to include two seating areas and a large storage chest. The owners also asked her to keep the plants they had already selected – a liriodendron, a liquidambar, a cornus and a choisya. “The liriodendron is really far too big for the garden, but it did hide an ugly neighbouring wall, and they loved it so much, we had to keep it,” says Gemma.
Noting the owners’ love of Japanese culture (bamboo and gravel gardens had been mentioned, and the husband practises aikido), Gemma took this as her inspiration. “For me, it was a clear case of less is more,” she says. “In order to create the harmony and tranquillity the owners wanted, I knew we had to use a relatively limited palette of materials and plants.” She painted the fencing black and persuaded the owners to lose the lawn in favour of two distinct areas – a concrete, paved terrace large enough to
accommodate a dining table, and a more informal gravel area. To marry the two, she also used concrete pavers, albeit of a different shape, in the gravelled area. “They give a more solid transition from the house,” explains Gemma. “They also add interest, as well as being easier to walk on.”
To tackle the flatness, Gemma planted a bamboo hedge of Fargesia Red Panda (=‘Jiu’) in the centre of the garden. “People are used to placing hedges at boundaries,” she says, “but I knew this was the thing that would give the garden structure.”
The same bamboo is repeated along one side of the garden, abutting a tall hedge of an existing Prunus lusitanica, which was also retained. Running at right angles into the garden, it helped create a pathway through the space, as well as providing a neatly hidden spot behind it for the storage chest.
The hedges, teamed with several evergreen plants including Asarum europaeum, Asplenium scolopendrium and Ilex crenata ‘Convexa’, give the garden colour and structure all year round, and there is also a succession of ever-changing seasonal highlights – far more than you might expect in a garden of this size. In spring, epimediums give way to anemones, followed by the beautiful autumn tones of the liriodendron and the liquidambar. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ flowers from July to September, and in winter has beautiful seedheads, rimed with frost.
In keeping with the owners’ wishes, Gemma also spared the Cornus kousa var. chinensis, although she moved it from the shade of the back fence to a sunnier spot where it is now thriving. “Before it was overlooked; now its form can be appreciated,” she says. The same could be said of this simple, yet highly effective, garden.
WORDS NATASHA GOODFELLOW PHOTOGRAPHS MODESTE HERWIG / GAP PHOTOS
Facing page A key feature of the garden is the bamboo hedge. Planted in the middle of the garden, it adds height and interest. This page from top This elegant Cornus kousa var. chinensis was moved from a shadier spot by the back fence to a sunnier position where it is planted directly into the gravel. Gemma used the concrete kerb stones that she used for the borders to make paving slabs, which she fixed into the gravel. The long, thin concrete pavers create a transition between house and garden. Echoing the concrete of the terrace, they also unify the two parts of the garden. 87
88 Facing page To unify the space materials and plants are kept to a minimum and repeated throughout, from the two bamboo hedges, to the concrete of the terrace, pavers and edging, and the black-painted fence at the back of the garden and adjacent to the house. This page from topHydrangea aspera ‘The Ditch’ is one of Gemma’s favourites, as much for its delicate, airy flowers as its form, which can be appreciated as a multistemmed shrub by removing its lower leaves. Growing up to 2m tall, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ makes quite a statement, especially in a small garden such as this. The glossy, wavy-edged, evergreen leaves of Asplenium scolopendrium make a good contrast with more feathery plants such as bamboo and grasses.