With Floating Steps Airy Planting and Tricks Of Perspective Verena and Henry Day’s Plot Looks Bigger Than it is
With big glass bifold doors opening onto the garden from their kitchen, Verena and Henry Day wished they could look out onto a more attractive space than the one they’d inherited when they bought their Victorian terrace in Brixton, South East London, in 2017. “The garden was in a sorry state,” remembers Verena. “There was a lovely fig tree overhanging at the back but, because of its shadow, there was just an ugly, muddy patch underneath. We couldn’t put a table anywhere as the ground was too uneven except for a concreted bit outside the kitchen, which we needed to keep clear to be able to open the bifold doors!” It’s fair to say that the garden hadn’t been loved for a fair while. The area of tired concrete, complete with an ugly manhole cover, outside the back doors stepped up to a scrubby lawn. The steps, like the retaining walls made of decking boards, had rotted through. The back wall was broken, beyond which a no-man’s land filled with rampant Russian vine obscured the fenced boundary.
DESIGNING A NEW SPACE
The garden was in such a mess that the couple were at a loss as to how to tackle it. “But then a friend met garden designer Seonaid Royall of Sprout Up (sproutup.co.uk) at a party and gave me her number,” says Verena. “Seonaid came round a few days later and we told her what we wanted.” And it was a tall order. The Days needed this small suburban garden to work harder for them, to be a place where they could eat out in the summer, and to look better when viewed from indoors. Living near leafy Brockwell Park meant there were lots of great open spaces nearby, so a lawn wasn’t necessary. But with two young, wildlife-obsessed boys, the couple wanted the garden to be insect-friendly, so all-over paving wasn’t an option. “We needed a redesign that was light on maintenance, too,” adds Verena.
Everything went according to plan, and it only took 11 and a half days to create the new garden from start to finish,” remembers Verena. “I was a bit anxious when it was in progress, and felt the floating steps looked really prominent without planting. But Seonaid was right, they lend a lightness to the garden. We have a light under the biggest one and it looks so cool at night.” The finished garden exceeded Verena and Henry’s expectations, with the elements complementing each other and unifying the space. “Henry wanted the horizontal fencing while I was indifferent about it,” says Verena, “but it makes everything more coherent. And I love the herringbone brick in front of the kitchen, it’s such a nice colour and pattern.”
Verena admits that she never thought she’d enjoy gardening, but she’s getting a lot of joy from all the plants. “They’re my favourite bit of the redesign!” she says. “They flower throughout the year and there’s always a buzz from bees. We even have a house for them.” Seonaid, too, was thrilled with the way the project turned out. “I loved the shapes on the page at the design stage, and they got better and better as they were built. The way they create three functional rooms that the family use constantly is great. The materials look fantastic together and are weathering well, each working to bring in more light. Clients who are willing to try something different in a small garden and trust that I can bring them what they need are a joy to work with!” Verena loves how the house now flows from their black-and-white kitchen into their outdoor room. “When the weather allows, we have our coffee outside,” she says. “We dine out there in the summer and we have space for a barbecue by our table under the fig tree. My sister thought we were mad painting the fence black, but it looks stunning when the alliums flower against it. She’s now won over! “We’d never have thought we’d ever have a garden as nice as it is now. It makes such a difference to the way we live.”
Seonaid immediately saw the potential of the space. “I liked the view straight down the hall and out into the garden, and that it felt like a walled garden with two old brick walls,” she says.
STRETCHING THE BUDGET
Seonaid felt the garden should be an exciting place to explore and created a design that lures everyone outside. “It’s a small space and I wanted to make it feel more generous,” she says. But the budget was tight, and the Days were worried about the cost of the renovation. “I worked on a Pinterest board with the clients to expand their idea of what was possible,” says Seonaid. “To stretch the money, I created the steps with off-the-shelf sizes of stone. The back step was one smaller piece of stone and the front step was two, which made it affordable but created the feel of large slabs. I wanted each terrace to push into the next with an overhanging step and, because they’re offset, it tricks the perspective. Up the side, I placed stepping stones, to indicate this was a path.” Outside the bifold doors, a defined threshold was created using brick pavers in a herringbone pattern. This area both helps prevent gravel entering the house and complements the London brick the house is built with. To get a depth of planting so the garden looks like a green oasis from the house, Seonaid created planting strips that cut across the plot.
Blooming clever! Designer Seonaid created the illusion of plentiful planting using smart designer tricks: Tall plants such as alliums, Verbena bonariensis and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’ were used to add architectural structure. They’re all airy, with ﬂowers atop tall, not-too-leafy stems, so they don’t enclose the area. Taxus cubes are planted among the ﬂowers as mini hedges. Their geometric shape adds solidity and structure. Plants that move in the slightest breeze suggest that more are growing than are actually there. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ is planted in the beds to provide low-level movement. The tall stems of gaura ‘Whirling Butterﬂies’ and perovskia ‘Little Spire’ add to the feeling that this garden is constantly in motion.
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