It’s early May and unless you’re pampering Chelsea Show plants in a five star greenhouse, it’s too early for most perennials to be putting on their show of colour. Spring bulbs, meanwhile, are just about over, so we just have to wait, right?
But I’d read about Eccleston Square in ‘Great Gardens of London’, by Victoria Summerley, so when I noticed its National Gardens Scheme opening this weekend, I thought it would be rude not to go and have a quick look. The looking all worked fine. The quickness, not so well. I stayed until closing time.
At an impressive 3 acres and with a head gardener from a land some 11,000 miles away – which takes you all the way past Australia to New Zealand – there were both incredibly varied and surprising aspects to this garden. I hadn’t exactly expected to see the prehistoric looking Pseudopanax ferox, the almost impossible to grow in its Australian homeland, Wollemi pine, the vibrant kaka beak (Clianthus puniceus), stately – although weedy in Sydney – cabbage tree, Cordyline australis, not to mention a significant collection of wattles. And I was probably even more surprised that they all looked great!
One of the exceptional aspects of this garden is its layout. Occupying a long, narrow site, it could feel both exposed to the roads on all four sides and corridor-like, but the reality couldn’t be further from this. Deep boundary borders immediately enclose you and the full perimeter pathway feels like an intimate, secret passageway. As you walk along, numerous, glorious vistas into the square are offered up, created by a perfectly optimised mix of screening and openings .
The central area is broken into sections, each with a different function, feel and style. A tennis court, barbecue area, children’s play area and open spaces, along with multiple seating options mean that the square is extensively used by residents. Everything about it was beautiful – even the greenhouse – and with a head gardener quite bursting with energy and enthusiasm, its hive of activity is really no surprise.
I spent quite some time studying the flower colours in the garden. Blue was frequently recurring, as Eccleston Square hosts some 70 different Ceanothus species and cultivars (an official National Plant Collection). But there was the unlikely combination of red, pink and white tulips and flowers of the brightest of oranges and palest of baby pinks. It struck me that English gardens often have a seemingly random assortment of plants, and in particular, less thought put into their colour schemes, compared to a typical Australian-designed garden. And yet a jumble of colours often works amazingly well. Is this skill or luck?
And so my learning begins all over again. I’m in my element when I’m learning, so I couldn’t be happier. But it is strange to revisit a style of garden that I’m extremely familiar with and to feel as though I am seeing it for the first time. My first conclusion centres around the fact that Australian gardens, and especially Sydney ones, tend to have a steady, evergreen state throughout the year. Each plant may flower for a few weeks, but outside that time it stands with a bulky, green mass, resulting in an overall ‘green-foliage’, rather than ‘colourful-flowery’ look; more of a steady all-year than showy-summer event. With fewer flowers at any one time, those present jump forward, capturing your attention, and if they are too varied and disparate, they break up the cohesion in a design. In the UK, where things tend to flower all at once, this in itself provides cohesion and therefore colour is less important; specific flower colours won’t jump out at you so much because they are the majority, rather than the minority of the picture.
And when you look at the non-flowering aspects of this garden, they are extremely unified and harmonious. There are a range of green shades, but it is all green. I don’t remember a single grey or silver foliage plant or even one variegated leaf. They are definite, natural, English colours, if not native species themselves. These natural, unified base colours are the perfect backdrop to hold the feature plants together harmoniously.
Diverging plant types also add to this garden’s overwhelming sense of history. Towering plane trees, nearly two hundred years old, set amongst four lines of Regency architecture beautifully complement the younger groves of silver birch. The old with the new, portraying a gentle sense of time and evolution, adds a certain depth to the garden. The broad range of plants and colours enhance this history – anything too fashionable or overly-designed would look quite out of place and detract from this classic, ageless feel.
Finally, the sheer vastness of three acres allows for a fair amount of ‘randomness’. A large Cordyline australis would look wrong in a standard London back garden: it would dominate and look out of place. But set amongst the soaring trees of Eccleston Place its sense of scale is much reduced (unfortunately not well demonstrated in the above photo!). It simply adds interest to the composition, without taking over or jarring an otherwise English scene.
All these factors add up to a garden with endless interest but overall cohesion and serenity. Oh to have a three acre London garden to play with!