A deceptively simple small garden designed by Sheila Jack
Designer Sheila Jack has transformed this small city garden from artificial lawned-anonymity to a charming woodland-inspired plot that’s a peaceful social space for a family with grown-up children. Words Kate Jacobs, Photographs Lisa Linder
With dappled sunlight falling on lush ferns and mounds of grasses tousled by the breeze, this city garden is a welcome refuge from the hot and dusty summer streets beyond. The tranquil simplicity of this small plot belies the huge transformation that has been worked here by designer Sheila Jack.
When her photographer friend Lisa Linder moved to this Victorian coach house in Hampstead, 20 years ago, Lisa and husband Neil needed somewhere for their two young sons to burn off energy and so the whole plot was hidden under artificial grass. In the intervening years, the London clay compacted under many thousands of football sessions, so that by the time the boys had grown up, water was regularly pooling on one side of the garden and threatening to damage the boundary wall.
Coming to Lisa's rescue in 2018, the project began with the excavation of huge trenches for drainage pipes, as well as land anchors, that now hold the wall in place. With little horticultural knowledge but a strong sense of aesthetics, Lisa wanted somewhere lush and green, with space for her still sports-mad sons to play table tennis. Sheila steered her away from the idea of a lawn towards a buff-coloured gravel.
“Grass was always going to be a struggle in this shady space. These Cotswold pebbles are smooth enough to walk on barefoot and bring light into what was a dark spot.” The same soft, buff tone flows seamlessly from the gravel to the terrace of York stone by the house, enhancing the sense of space.
The paving slabs have been arranged in irregularly spaced stripes, interplanted with low-growing Soleirolia soleirolii. “This design helps with water permeability and provides a strong graphic counterbalance to the loose, organic feel of the gravel area.”
To the rear of the garden, the boundary fence is blurred by a curtain of mature Hedera helix and fronted by an existing Betula pendula and acacia, along with another double-trunked Betula pendula near the house.
Between the birches is a multi-stemmed Betula utilis subsp. jacquemontii, added to lighten a gloomy corner and distract the eye from the awkwardly obtuse angle.
These trees informed Sheila’s decision to create a woodland feel here.“I jokingly refer to it as the ‘glamour woodland’; an excuse to plant a pretty but reasonably self-sustaining scheme of plants suited to the partially shaded conditions.”
Key plants include shaggy tufts of forest-dwelling Hakonechloa macra and ferns Polystichum setiferum and Blechnum spicant. The planting is loose and naturalistic, with hummocks and mounds gently defining the central open space, as though plants have self-seeded there, and the planted areas improved with topsoil, as the clay and rubble on the site was unsuitable as a growing medium. Sheila and Lisa wanted the garden to be largely green and the perennials were chosen for their muted charms.
“I wanted subtle, delicate flowerheads on wiry stems, and a variety of interesting flower shapes, but nothing too brash.” So, floating among waves of grasses are the fluffy, crimson spikes of Bistorta amplexicaulis Taurus (= ‘Blotau’) and the airy umbellifers of Selinum wallichianum, each creating seasonal interest without stealing the show.
The family all love the new garden, and the couple’s sons spend just as much time out here as ever. Now it’s established, the garden needs little in the way of watering or maintenance, although the plants do find themselves carefully manicured by Lisa, who approaches them with her photographer’s eye for visual perfection.
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