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…


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’


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.


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.


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

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