AN URBAN OASIS Making the most of a sloping garden
Designed with terraced levels and planting chosen for height and colour, an awkward sloping garden in south London has been completely transformed
When they moved into their 1960s townhouse in Crystal Palace, south London, management consultant Judith Jackson-Merrick and her husband Dave, a structural engineer, inherited a neglected overgrown garden with a steeply sloping lawn. ‘As we’re end-of-terrace, the garden extends along the back and around the side of the house,’ explains Judith. ‘The shape and the incline were challenging, but there were some exciting opportunities, too.’
Two years after they started work, Judith and Dave’s unpromising plot is a lush, secluded and multi-faceted outdoor space. There are areas for relaxing and entertaining, mature shrubs and trees and a year-round profusion of foliage, flowers, herbs and vegetables. Judith explains how they achieved such a dramatic transformation…
IN THE BEGINNING
We bought this house back in 2013 as a renovation project. Work on the inside areas was the priority, so we didn’t tackle the garden seriously for about three years, though we were talking over ideas from day one. It was clear that it would take some time and a bit of imagination to get the best from our tricky plot. I envisaged a vegetable bed and lots of flowers and foliage for year-round colour and interest. Bifold doors lead out from the kitchen-dining area to the garden, so I wanted it to work as an extension of the living space, with a barbecue, eating areas and places to relax that would catch the sun throughout the day.
Dave and I make a good team as we’re both quite creative. We saw straightaway that we needed to terrace the garden and make several levels rather than having a single, unmanageable slope. It involved a lot of thought but, fortunately, Dave’s work in structural engineering means looking at things in 3D is second nature to him! After we’d walked around the garden and taken measurements, we thought through the design together and
Dave used visualisation software to build up a 3D image. It was a fantastic help, as you can move about inside the virtual space and get a real sense of the different heights and planes.
‘I like repeating clusters so there’s impact, balance and rhythm through the beds. I’ve focused on purples, pinks and magentas with pops of white and yellow for contrast’
WORK IN PROGRESS
The lawn was planned for the highest point of the garden, where we’ve kept two beautiful silver birch trees. On the next level down is the main patio connecting with the kitchen-diner, so we’ve got that sense of an outdoor room. A curved retaining wall follows the line of the garden as it wraps around the side of the house, then there’s a step down to the main flower borders and vegetable patch.
Digging out the terracing was a two-week job. A huge amount of earth was moved and we couldn’t always use the digger on the slope, so there was a lot of backbreaking spadework involved.
Our soil is London clay, and one of our best investments was 20 tonnes of compost to help enrich and break it down. Dave built the retaining walls and laid the patios and paths. After that, he moved on to the vegetable area, constructing raised beds from larch sleepers and a beautiful cedar cold-frame. He built the cedar shed too, which we designed to nestle unobtrusively at the foot of the slope. With its slightly slanted green sedum roof, it blends in, and from higher up just looks like another layer of planting.
PLANTING FOR YEAR-ROUND INTEREST
Fortunately, a knowledgeable family member was able to help us choose the right plants for our environment. We were given a lot of cuttings too, which gave us a great start. I wanted the large beds to look lush and full, with ornamental planting. I’ve used easy-to-manage grasses and spiky upright salvias, kniphofias and thalictrum for height. They mix in with perennial hebes, lavender and wallflowers, which add shape and structure. In between, there are Japanese anemones, rock roses and a few bedding plants, such as trailing lobelias.
I like repeating clusters, so there’s impact, balance and rhythm through the beds. I’ve focused on purples, pinks and magentas, with pops of white and yellow to create contrast. It was important to have interest all year too, so there are crocuses and dark purple tulips, which flower early in the year, followed by alliums for spring and summer. At the tail end of the season, asters, plumbago, Japanese anemones and cyclamen take us into autumn, and grasses and evergreens form a year-round framework.
THE FINISHED RESULT
There’s been a lot of trial and error along the way. I love climbers and tried several clematis varieties. None thrived in our heavy soil, so I’ve just got one in a pot now. I found that even the hardy cranesbill grows happily in some spots and not in others. On the other hand, our raised beds and cold-frame have been successful.
Even though the garden isn’t huge, we were both really keen to squeeze in a place to grow vegetables, and we’ve produced chard, salads, tomatoes, beans and courgettes as well as herbs, redcurrants, raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries.
On the design side, we use the patio and table area much more than we thought we would, and we’ve realised we probably skimped a bit too much on the outdoor lighting. Overall though, we’re delighted with the garden. It doesn’t need constant attention, but there’s enough to keep us busy – mostly doing jobs such as weeding or pruning, which I enjoy. It’s incredibly relaxing and after a hectic week you can just get lost in it.
SPACE APART Judith relaxes in the lush garden she created with her husband Dave
A RIOT OF COLOUR Clockwise from top left Trained on horizontal wires, Clematis Florida ‘Sieboldii’ will soften and disguise the brick walls of the house within a few years. Free-draining alkaline soil in a large pot provides it with the environment it needs to flourish; the double-headed Lilium Roselily ‘Isabella’ has large, scented, no-pollen blooms and makes a showstopping feature on the patio. Growing in a pot, it can be moved around to take advantage of a sunny position through the season; sweet pea Lathyrus odoratus ‘Matucana’ is renowned for its fragrance as well as its striking, multi-toned magenta and purple flowers; tall perennials, such as Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ and Kniphofia ‘Bees’ Lemon’ provide drama TERRACE PLANTING Opposite Making great use of the space available, each level has its own style and function, from areas for relaxation to vegetable beds. Judith opted for easy-to-grow summer crops including lettuces, courgettes and Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’, which has vibrant, red, yellow and orange-coloured stems