A tropical retreat in an urban setting

Alison Ryan has transformed the outdoor space at her garden flat into a lush, tranquil haven for entertaining her friends and family and doing yoga practice. Alison has installed large, shady trees, decking and stepping stones to create a relaxed space.

TODO alt text

Alison Ryan has transformed the outdoor space at her garden flat into a lush, tranquil haven for entertaining her friends and family and doing yoga practice.

Fact file

The owner: Alison Ryan, who is a costume designer in the film industry

The problem

‘When I first viewed my flat, the garden was one of the factors that swung the sale for me, even though it needed a lot of work. I could see myself spending plenty of time outside in the summer months, entertaining my friends and family and doing yoga practice – so it would have to be a tranquil space. I didn’t tackle it straight away though as I had other priorities in the flat.’

What I did

‘The garden isn’t huge – it’s only 20ft long – but to me it looked big and I wanted to create impact. I went through so many gardening books for inspiration that I almost had too many ideas and was unsure where to start.

‘What I definitely knew was that I didn’t want a lawn. I was looking for a few secluded areas where I could retreat as my neighbours have balconies that overlook the garden. Most of all, I wanted lots of sculptural plants – the exotic types that I had only ever seen in huge gardens.

‘I needed advice, which was why I called on a friend, Ruth Crafer, for help. Ruth is a landscape gardener and photographer who has designed some amazing gardens, so it made sense for her to redesign my space.

‘Ruth and I talked through ideas and she came up with a look that would make the garden appear much bigger by adding different areas of interest – this included using height from plants and texture in the materials for the hard landscaping. Ruth also ensured it would be low-maintenance by incorporating decking.

‘I didn’t have a huge budget, so it was lucky for me that Ruth persuaded her carpenter brother Leon to help us. He cleared and prepared the space, while I started buying plants from a wish list that had been drawn up by Ruth. She and Leon tackled the decking, which took around a week to lay. It then took a couple of months and quite a few shopping trips to ferry all the trees and plants in the back of her estate car. We worked most evenings and weekends to get it completed.

‘I spent most of my budget on large plants that would form focal points – these included banana trees, a tree fern, an Indian bean tree, a date tree and a tall bamboo for shading, which all came from Hillside Nurseries in Middlesex. I bought smaller bedding plants from Homebase and B&Q.

‘I’ve learnt so much from this garden project. Like many people, I expected to place the plants I’d bought close to the fencing in neat rows, but Ruth positioned the larger trees inside the garden and added different height plants in groups, with hidden stepping stones that I have to walk around. This means the space is full of surprises and changes with the light levels.

‘There’s a dining area at the back of the garden, plus a place to relax and read under a shaded pergola and lots of sunny decked areas that are perfect for my yoga practice.

‘Now that the plants are established, it’s so lush and vibrant – it’s just like a tropical oasis. It’s fabulous; better than anything I ever imagined.’