A romantically pretty country garden, on the edge of the city. That’s the dream of the owners of The Old Vicarage in London’s Petersham. Find out how they made it a reality in this excerpt from Great Gardens of London.
Words: Victoria Summerley
Photos: Hugo Rittson Thomas
The Old Vicarage was built in 1899 as the vicarage of All Saints Church in the little village of Petersham. Its owners had always wanted a country garden – something that was verging on wilderness and in which there had been as little intervention in the way of chemicals as possible. Altogether the garden extends to 1.25 hectares– very large for a London garden, even in a suburb such as Petersham.
The garden around the house is a Cutting Garden, a feature that is normally tucked away out of sight along with the garden shed and greenhouse. Here, Mary Keen and Pip Morrison of Designed Landscapes created rectangular beds within a framework of herringbone brick paths, which imposes a formality on the billowing beds of flowers and vegetables.
A picket fence painted in a subtle off-white encloses this part of the garden, while a long herringbone brick path leads down to the main gate through a meadow, lined on either side by an avenue of heirloom apple trees. The long path helps relate the rest of the garden to the area around the house, and to retain a sense of scale.
At the rear of the house, a generous terrace reverses the design, with herringbone rectangles set in a grid of stone paving, echoing the beds at the front. Grecian pots and an old washing copper provide informal containers, while roses and clematis climb the walls of the house.
There are two changeovers in the cutting beds each year, explains head gardener Matt Collins. Spring bulbs such as daffodils and tulips make way for summer bedding such as dahlias, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) and cosmos amid cranesbill (Geranium) and salvias. In winter, the beds are left bare until the first bulbs come up; meanwhile, the design of the hard landscaping provides pattern and interest of its own.
Right at the front, in pride of place by the garden gate, is the vegetable patch, with runner beans, chard and zucchini edged with nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) and calendula.
The overall effect is unapologetically pretty and incredibly colourful. It looks a little bit like Monet’s paintings of his garden at Giverny – relaxed, sunny, informal, productive. The notions of ‘good taste’ and colour coordination become irrelevant; the impact depends on a happy jumble of flowers.
Behind the house, two all-weather rattan loungers sit in the shade of a large black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). They have a grandstand view of the football goal on the other side of the lawn, while behind them a grass path leads through a Winter Garden, where the scent of winter-flowering shrubs such as mahonia and sweet box (Sarcococca) can linger in the green corridor formed by neighbouring trees and shrubs. There are foxgloves (Digitalis) here too, as well as periwinkle (Vinca), Geranium phaeum and hellebores, while spotted laurels (Aucuba japonica) give the impression of dappled sunlight.
A spectacular tree house – more of a village than a single dwelling – dominates the back of the garden, which in late spring is a blur of pink, white, yellow and blue. Pink campion (Silene), cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) and alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria) grow with wild abandon, and Collins simply outlines paths with logs and keeps them trimmed to make walking easier.
Originally, there were elms (Ulmus), but these were lost when Dutch elm disease took hold in the 1970s. In their place are robinias, a North American native which thrives in London and shrugs off pollution. They sucker like mad, so are not a choice for a small garden.
There is always something moving in The Old Vicarage garden: the twitch of a squirrel’s tail as it runs up a tree, the flicker and rustle of a robin or blackbird investigating the leaf litter, or the restless quiver of a dragonfly poised above the pond.
The owners’ Buff Orpington chickens, which live in a run near the shed and compost heaps, also seem to enjoy the chance to return to their jungle fowl roots, scratching contentedly among the shrubs and trees. They seem to epitomize the rural ambience that Mary Keen, Pip Morrison and the owners of The Old Vicarage have managed so successfully to foster here.
Extract from ‘Great Gardens of London’ by Victoria Summerley. Photographs by Marianne Majerus and Hugo Rittson Thomas (Frances Lincoln) distributed by Murdoch Books.