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Garden Tour: A Sociable Urban Garden With Imaginative Planting

Named ‘City Living’, this innovative three-tier garden at Chelsea shows the power of plants in a city environment

Houzz Contributor. I’ve been writing for interiors magazines for over 10 years and… More

Garden designer Kate Gould is passionate about turning our cities green. And, as her latest gold-medal winning creation for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show proves, you don’t need a huge space to make a big difference. The three-storey construction of rusted metal, concrete and wood could conjure up a typically harsh exterior of an inner city apartment, but some imaginative planting and the addition of seating, a water feature and an amazing illuminated wall has turned it into a vibrant, sociable space.

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Garden at a Glance
Show RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017
Garden designer Kate Gould
Prize awarded Gold Medal and Best Fresh Garden

Photos by Chris Snook

Consisting of a ‘basement’, ‘mezzanine’ and ‘top floor’, the City Living garden brings plant life to areas that are often neglected. As well as demonstrating how outdoor spaces can be made accessible in unexpected ways, the design also provides green corridors for wildlife, which are so valuable in urban areas. This is Gould’s eighth year at Chelsea and she welcomed another opportunity to get her ideas seen and discussed by housing developers. “We should be thinking about doing more for our cities. There are lots of options – green walls, roof coverings – but a lot of them have to be built into the infrastructure of a new building rather than added to old, just in terms of viability.”

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Raised beds containing orange Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and purple Salvia ‘Caradonna’ segue into smart seating on the top level of the construction. “I would have loved to have used zinc cladding, but I had to think about my budget,” says Gould. The screen, which looks like rusted metal, was designed by Gould and made from Corten weathering steel. The same criss-cross design appears on the stair treads leading up to this level and the drainage gully in the basement level. Bright cushions and a Yucca australis help to create a tropical atmosphere in what could have been an austere space.

Cushions, Bristol Upholstery.

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A pergola made from rusted scaffolding tubes provides subtle shade and protects this area from being overlooked by neighbours. “The idea was that if you were next door to a taller building this would offer you a degree of privacy,” says Gould.

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Gould and her team constructed the entire building and gardens. “Without the greenery, the combination of steel, Corten and wood was really, really hard. But as soon as we added the plants it all began to soften down,” says Gould. “It just shows that a bit of green can make a huge difference to people’s lives in cities.” Each level of the imagined apartment block is planted differently. “The basement level is very sheltered so you can get away with hardy, shade-tolerant tropicals. Up a level its planted like a generically warm garden would be, and the top-floor roof terrace is planted for the sun,” says Gould.

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On the mezzanine level, shrubs such as Pittosporum tenuifolium block out an unappealing view and are a haven for insects and birds. The solid teak stools can also be used as sidetables.

Arbor stools by Mark Gabbertas for Gloster, Birstall.

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Even a space underneath a stairwell has been planted in order to create a ‘green route’ to and from people’s front doors. The terrazzo panels on the stairwell are full of tiny little lights, which create a magical effect at night. This part of the project was all done by hand. “The end result is amazing, but it did involve cutting up 3.8 miles of fibre optic cable!” says Gould.

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The basement level features the same criss-cross Corten screen as the roof garden, and it gives the impression that it runs right through the building. Gould chose a wide variety of plants and wasn’t limited by the size of the areas she was working in. “The tree ferns are always going to have big canopies, but it’s nice to have them in a small space because they play with the scale. If you just put lots of small things in a small space it looks busy and even smaller.”

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The raised beds are at different heights around the garden, which creates a more natural look. Gould used sustainably sourced bamboo decking on every level, including here in the basement.

Decking, Loknan Architectural.

See some more ideas for patio flooring.

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Glazed white bricks lighten this area, add quirky texture and give the appearance of the side of a building. Aristolochia littoralis tumbles down the wall, softening the finish.

White glazed sawtooth bricks, Ibstock.

Be inspired by our low-maintenance garden ideas

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Anglepoise gave Gould a choice of colour for this giant lamp, which is three times the size of the classic model and a brilliant way to play with scale. “We picked the orange from a RAL chart so we were able to match it to other pieces like the bench and criss-cross drain gulley.”

Original 1227 Giant Outdoor wall-mounted lamp, Anglepoise. Porcelain floor tiles, CED.

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This tiled area is bordered by an orange drain gully. “Rather than an ordinary black slot drain, we had one made with the same criss-cross pattern that’s on the screens and the stair treads.”

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Gould’s screen design can be seen again in the basement. This is her favourite level because of the hardy tropical plants here, including ferns, aspidistra and Philodendron xanadu. “My default setting is generally green and lush – I find it quite restful.”

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Gould encourages building planners to look beyond the minimal ‘greening’ requirements and think more imaginatively about ways to introduce plant life. “I’m all for breaking up floors to create space for planting. Nothing has to be solidly paved over. People don’t necessarily need 2m wide pavements.”

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The Ibstock sawtooth bricks, used horizontally nearby, have been laid vertically here to create a sculptural look in this tranquil area with a subtle water feature. “Water actually trickles down the bricks into the trough below.”

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This is the larger of the garden’s two extraordinary green walls. “Normally green walls are 100-150mm deep. These are nearly 500mm deep, which meant we could plant big things with room for proper root growth.” The planting here is ‘graded’ like each of the garden levels. “We’ve used shade-tolerant plants at the bottom working up to sun lovers at the top,” explains Gould. Plants here include Melianthus major, schefflera and heuchera.

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Rather than overwhelming this area with lots of bright colours, Gould has worked with plants with subtly different shades of green, including the Buxus sempervirens box hedge and Angelica archangelica (in the foreground). “If a space is quite small you can still make it really inviting by using different shades of green.”

Nourish sculpture, Speller Sculptures.

Which is your favourite level in this garden? Tell us the Comments below.
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