The garden in brief
What Small, south-facing, urban garden. Where Brighton, East Sussex. Size About 45 square metres. Soil Sandy loam, improved with compost and grit. Climate Coastal. Hardiness zone USDA 9.
Andy Sturgeon’s garden in the middle of Brighton, which he shares with his partner and four “mainly teenage” children, is a masterclass in how to make the most of an overlooked and sun-baked space. When he begins to describe what was there – an irregular-shaped plot extending from an apex at one end to the side of the house at the other; wall-to-wall paving; no mature plants to provide structure and shade – he says: “It was a tiny, hopeless garden, I’ve no idea why I bought this house.”
It did have one saving grace, though: two 180-year-old flint walls, which Andy was excited about. Just 18 months later it is now a remarkably private garden with two terraces (the lower one, at the side of the house, providing a secluded seating area), beautiful textures and all the other elements that Andy had jotted down before he started: a family-sized dining table, a pond, somewhere to cook and, essentially for this Chelsea gold medal-winning plantsman, masses of plants.
Structure is key
Removing the paving and nearly five cubic metres of subsoil, chalk and clay meant that he could lower the garden by half a metre, giving him more scope to plant a number of big shrubs including a multi-stemmed Osmanthus heterophyllus and Chionanthus retusus (both more than 3m tall when they were put in) and two trees, a Betula pendula and Koelreuteria paniculata. These are key to providing immediate structure and privacy, as well as shade for seating, and to satisfy Andy’s passion for shade-loving plants. Using a number of other big elements – such as chunky pieces of Purbeck limestone for the retaining walls of the main terrace and a stainless steel pool that provides a large surface to reflect light – helps to make the space feel bigger, as does the charred timber fencing covering a repaired brick wall on the east side.
All in the stone
By keeping the landscaping to a minimum and by using different forms of the same Purbeck stone – cobbles for the main paving, rough blocks for the retaining walls, sawn and honed pieces for the steps and for the bands on the lower terrace – all of which tone with the flint and the lime mortar in the walls, Andy has achieved a cohesion that makes the garden feel restful and uncluttered. “What I really love about Purbeck stone is that it contains greys and browns and creams, and is a different colour depending on how it’s been worked.”
While most of the planting is young, and will fill out and scramble up the walls in seasons to come, Andy admits that he’s squeezed in as many plants as he can. A succession of bulbs including cyclamen, muscari and tulips add pops of colour from winter onwards, followed by fritillaries, alliums and gladioli. The coastal location means that more tender plants such as Digitalis isabelliana Bella (= ‘Isob007’) and evergreen Crinodendron patagua and Leptospermum scoparium ‘Kiwi’ are thriving. The shade cast by the Chionanthus retusus has allowed Andy to grow what he calls ‘little gems’, many of which he used in his Chelsea 2019 garden, such as Aspidistra, Chloranthus sessilifolius ‘Domino’ and Beesia calthifolia. Thanks to these pockets of shade, and other patches of sun, it has now become a richly planted plantsman’s garden.