How a trip to the desert inspired my garden
Garden designer Martha Krempel found the mesmerising landscape of the American desert solved the conundrum of how to design her small courtyard garden in London. Pictures Clive Nichols
We pulled up at a gas station with a hot dog cafe named Diggety Dog near Dolan Springs, south of Las Vegas, sipped coffee and watched a mile-long train rattle across the desert on the horizon line, distant and surreal. From the west, a purple-grey dust cloud gathered, heading across our path, and from the way waiters wiped tables and scooped cups oblivious to these visuals, we surmised this was just a regular day in Detrital Valley – and so the scene was set.
The hyper-real visuals and sheer scale of the American desert revealed itself to us each time we left a city. Mesmerising and liberating, the miles of land and road stretching out before us was dominated by colourful layers of Paleozoic rock. We would see an intermittent brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), an occasional ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), or a cactus forest creeping up a hillside near an intense red mountain range as we travelled though the land. We slipped down through a fissure in the rock one day, to see the marvel that is Antelope Canyon, on Navajo Reservation, sculpted pink sandstone washed by rivers and time.
Playing around with the surreal in our home and garden back home in London, a 2m-high cactus is planted inside the house next to a full-height, fixed-glazed window, while outside sits a large fireplace with cooking hearth, blurring of the boundaries playing around with the norm. The cactus, Euphorbia ingens appears to be growing out of the wooden floor from a planting pit recessed into a tanked subterranean slot. As you stand inside and feel the presence of the cactus and look outside to glowing hearth in the garden, the notion of inside and outside is vaguely and pleasantly blurred.
When it came to creating our garden, I replicated the colours of the desert and those of the striped rocks of The Painted Desert in Arizona using, as my green layer, the chartreuse green of Seslaria autumnalis, coral Rosa Lady Emma Hamilton (= ‘Ausbrother’) and Anemone x hybrida ‘September Charm’.
The geometry for our courtyard garden, a corner plot in North West London was complex: 54m2 of impacted clay, viewed on four sides and needing an access point on all four sides too. I sketched out the geometry many times but it was as our road trip through Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California took us in a loop, that the narrative of the garden began to take shape.
Exploring the east rim of the Grand Canyon we looked down and saw the deep silken-green ribbon of a river far below us and the idea of a pathway, like the river, linking all the entrance points, formed the basic geometry and crystallised the design in my mind. Our family’s journey echoed this small, looped stretch of the Colorado River known as Horseshoe Bend; the garden has become a metaphor for our journey and the time we spent exploring the desert.
Although I would have dearly loved the National Tree of Arizona the palo verdi tree (Parkinsonia florida) in my garden for its intense, green, April-display akin to our blossom season, I am perfectly content with my 8m-tall Betula nigra Heritage birch, with its peeling cinnamon-mauve bark, and fresh-green leaves affording us shade in the summer, and buttery-yellow autumn display – for us, its scale in some ways replicates the majesty of the desert.
Born in Yorkshire with the standard village garden of shrub roses, hedgehogs that ate our French marigolds and a lawn ruined with too much football, I was introduced to and fascinated by a magazine called Arizona Highways sent to us by my aunt Therese from Arizona, from the 1970s onwards and thus began my love affair with The Desert.
Martha Krempel is an award-winning designer based in London. She studied fine art and sculpture before going on to train at the London College of Garden Design in 2014.
Read more about international wildflower spectacles and Martha's trip to the American desert