In a west London suburb, designer Sean Walter has made a multi-layered garden using form and good structure
Stepping through a side gate, I leave the leafy suburb of East Sheen and arrive in a garden that feels peacefully secluded yet deceptively large. What stands out are the geometric forms and lines that construct the garden, while its boundaries seem virtually non-existent. Pleached hornbeam, yew buttresses and evergreen shrubs slot neatly alongside steel-edged paths, Indian sandstone and a metal pergola. It may sound austere, but the strong lines are either broken or obscured by the soft abundant planting of herbaceous perennials, ornamental grasses and climbers. The result is a balance of formal structure and natural finesse, layer upon layer that reveals itself the longer you look.
Designed and planted eight years ago by Sean Walter of The Plant Specialist, the garden measures just 220 square metres. Despite this there is a large terrace with spacious views over a generous lawn. To the side is the main perennial border, which occupies over a quarter of the total garden. What might appear to be a brave design choice is actually a rather clever one. Having such a deep border allows layering of the planting while increasing variety and seasonal interest, a luxury usually associated with larger gardens.
The border is framed on two sides by stately pleached hornbeam. Four metres tall and immaculately clipped, they offer seclusion to parts of the garden, while framing desired views and obscuring others. “Gardens feel bigger when you can’t see them all at once,” explains Sean. They also add height, defining and claiming additional space from the
sky above. Sean’s main aim was to provide the owners with several usable spaces within the garden, corners that would offer privacy and intimacy without compromising the overall sense of space. Beginning with the structural planting and layout, Sean set about creating areas using straight lines and right angles to minimise dead space. The main path, which is kept to the side to allow for other garden features to take centre stage, leads you the to end of the garden, where a studio provides yet another focal point.
Sitting among the robust structure is softer planting, a combination of naturalistic perennials and ornamental grasses, which reminds Sean of his South African roots: “I love the movement these plants have, how they work with the light and offer an informal beauty.” Having co-owned a plant nursery for 16 years, along with a design and landscape business, Sean’s knowledge and expertise with plants were put to good use. He emphasises that “the garden has to look good without too much maintenance”, so he selects plants he knows will perform and behave, those with compatible habits that complement one another and minimise competition. “Ornamental grasses are particularly useful as they offer interest through texture and form during most of the year,” he says.
As I prepare to leave the garden, my eyes wander for one last time, resting on a large rounded planter to the side of the dining area. Standing over a metre high, its contents – a generous hummock of Hakonechloa macra – echoes the shape below, while softly moving in the breeze. A bold statement that somehow remains delicate.
Facing page Enclosed by greenery and flowers, the uncluttered dining area offers glimpses to the garden beyond while providing a comfortable enclosed space to relax in. Dappled light through the Wisteria ‘roof’ above emphasises a sense of shelter. This page, from above left The studio at the rear of the garden provides an extra escape. Painted with Sadolin Superdec Sargasso Sea, it nestles discretely among generous clumps of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ and a neighbouring apple tree. Pleached hornbeam ( Carpinus betulus) gives added height and structure to the garden all year round, helping to disguise the boundaries and make the space feel bigger by associating well with the surrounding trees.