From building site to beautiful garden

Anne and Nigel Tomkin's garden once resembled a building site. It is now a stunning space with original features that were inspired by the Chelsea Flower Show.

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Anne and Nigel Tomkin’s garden once resembled a building site. It is now a stunning space with original features that were inspired by the Chelsea Flower Show.

Nigel and Anne TomkinsFact file

The owners: Nigel Tomkins, who is a publishing director, lives here with his wife Anne, a photographerThe property: A three-bedroom detached house built in the 1960sThe location: Shepperton, MiddlesexWhat they spent: The project cost around £17,700

‘When we bought this house in 2006 it was for the potential of the garden and its beautiful views of the River Thames rather than the potential of the house,’ says Anne.

‘After Nigel and I moved in, however, we concentrated on renovating the house. It would be a while before we could reveal the garden in its true light,’ she adds.

By the time they had completed their renovation/extension project, the 25×11.5m back garden was reduced to a ragged lawn and a sad old acer tree.

That wasn’t the only problem. The garden seemed at a distance from the house, which towered 1.3m above ground level to ensure that the floor level would be at a safe height in case of the river flooding.

‘We sketched out several rough designs to minimise this distancing effect, but nothing looked right,’ says Anne. ‘Then we recalled seeing a Chelsea Flower Show garden, where a series of oak cubes led through the planting to a pond, and realised that a similar layout would suit our setting.’

The Chelsea Flower Show garden had been created by designer Andy Sturgeon, so the couple contacted him to discuss a redesign of their plot.

‘We were keen to preserve the views, so Andy advised taller planting on the boundaries, where it would also create privacy from neighbouring gardens,’ says Anne. ‘We also wanted to tie the scheme with the contemporary style of our house.’

Andy suggested a layout of straight lines, with no curves within the space. He thought a rectangular lawn would create the perfect foil to low-maintenance borders of plants with evergreens, perennials and ornamental grasses.

‘As we enjoy relaxing outdoors, Andy suggested two decks in the garden,’ says Anne. ‘A small one edged in rustling bamboo immediately outside our living room, where you can sit with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Then a larger riverside area with a barbecue and dining set for family gatherings.’

Andy also arranged for the Show garden’s oak cubes to be delivered to form a sculpture-cum-path running through the planting to a small summerhouse.

Work began on clearing the garden of tonnes of old concrete paths, stone slabs and huge lumps of clay. However, heavy winter rains reduced the space to a sea of mud, which delayed the work.

‘Fortunately, there was little hard landscaping to do – just the stone steps linking the lower lawn with a concrete riverside walkway, plus some stone strips and a few stepping stones,’ says Anne. ‘We decided to use pale grey Indian sandstone paving that would weather well and blend naturally with the plants.’

Meanwhile, a carpenter built the two decks from iroko hardwood, which weathers to a natural chocolate brown if left untreated. The upper deck connects the house with the garden via five steps, while the lower one is beside the river.

Before work started on the lower deck, two retaining walls were constructed from large oak timbers in order to terrace the gentle slope – with a fall of two metres from the house to the water’s edge – and to create a flat area for a deck measuring 8x3m. It is large enough to seat 16 people comfortably, so the couple can make the most of the space during the summer.

‘It was quite hard to envisage during that first long wet winter when 53 oak cubes were piled in the garden along with all the building materials,’ Anne recalls.

When the weather improved, the ground was prepared for the cubes by levelling the border and laying a base of scalpings. It took a long weekend and three men with a trolley to wheel each cube down the side of the house and manoeuvre them into place.

Next came the louvred fencing that was erected along the west boundary to create a neutral backdrop to the long border.

‘It was so cold that the spirit level misted up, so it was tricky trying to get the fence posts upright,’ says Anne.

Eventually, when spring arrived, Anne and Nigel double-dug the beds and borders, working in plenty of organic compost. Plywood sheets were laid around the perimeter of the lawn to protect it and provide the base for scores of young plants.

‘We put in various ornamental grasses, anemones, verbenas, sedums, penstemons, fennel and ferns that would grow quickly and fill up the space,’ says Anne.

There were larger mature plants too, such as hardy box balls and an ironwood tree, plus evergreens such as hebes, bamboos, hellebores, lavender and rosemary for year-round structure.

‘Next, an automatic irrigation system was fitted, the lawn was sown and we sat back and watched our garden grow,’ says Anne.

The grass seed grew quickly into a lush lawn. Visiting grandchildren seemed unaware that the oak cubes were designed to be a contemporary sculpture – they simply saw it as a fun up-and-down path leading from the upper deck to the lower deck.

A small summerhouse in a far corner of the garden by the river completes the look.

‘Nowadays, we spend every fine evening by the river, enjoying supper after a busy working day, or entertaining friends and family,’ says Anne. ‘Admittedly, our project was hard work – but we have a garden that gives us pleasure come rain or shine.’


Design and planning£4,000
Oak cubes£3,000
Timber decking£2,000
Topsoil and compost£320
Stone paving and gravel£240