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Evening Standard - Need-to-know basis

Nov 8th by Pattie Barron

When confronted with the 100ft back garden in her new north London flat, Nicola Gammon approached the redesign of the large space in a sensible manner.

Need to know basis

She wanted the ultimate outdoor room, so followed the same route an interior designer would take: she created a mood board. "I took loads of tearsheets from magazines and stuck them on a huge piece of card, and scribbled notes in the margins, along the lines of: 'Sleekterraced lawn; summerhouse with Eastern decoration;luscious structural planting; outdoor shower and patio heater; deep sofas with lots of cushions and shelter overhead; water with movement and sound...' When I had completed my words-and-pictures wish list, and decided precisely what I wanted from my garden - a space for plants, for dining, for entertaining - I took my ideas to a friend who is a landscaper, Olaf Henderson, and he drew up a design incorporating all of them." Once the design was approved, Henderson made a huge soakaway to improve the garden's poor drainage, adding masses of gravel, sand and topsoil. He built up the low brick boundary walls with a modern take on trellis - horizontal battens - and made a simple arbour for the right-hand side of the garden, which grabs most of the sunlight, setting it on a decked platform. He fulfilled Gammon's wish for roomy outdoor sofas by making deep solid benches made from new oak railway sleepers that weren't unsociably seeping with tar. The weatherproof cushions Gammon provided for them were propped against deep rendered planters, painted white, directly behind them. He laid a new lawn, adding stepping stones, and made a long vertical rill, plopping water lilies into it; she sourced Australian shade sails to act as overhead canopies and found a second-hand Amdega summerhouse in the For Sale ads in the local newspaper.
So far, so great. The plant buying, however, Gammon approached rather less sensibly. She did what most of us do: "I impulse bought. I went to the garden centre and said, 'I'll have one of those and one of those.' I couldn't resist and I thought they were all wonderful." No prizes for guessing what happened when the lavender - yards of the stuff - tried to settle its light Mediterranean roots into the typically heavy clay London soil: it died. In fact most of the plants, settled into totally unsuitable quarters, perished, and Nicola, then vice-president of a heavyweight IT company and not used to failure, realised she should have kept the care tags and taken note. "But the care tags were ugly so I threw them away and when I looked up how to prune the wisteria and when, somehow it was never the right time. How was I to remember? I thought, what I need to know - and probably lots of other busy Londoners, too - is how to look after your plants, and when." Ripe for a new career challenge, she started to research the idea of an interactive gardening website on which you register your garden's plants and are then given monthly e-mail reminders of what you need to tackle at that time. The need for such a website was clearly warranted: Gammon talked to TV's The Flying Gardener, Chris Beardshaw, who gave her four vital statistics. "He told me that on average people spend about £1000 a year on their gardens, and £300 of that is on plants. Within a year, 30% of those plants are dead. And 90% of the plants die because they are put in the wrong place altogether. The figures alarmed me, but confirmed that the website also needed to tell people what to plant in the first place. If subscribers incorporate their garden's location and soil type, including its pH, when they add a plant to their list, they are told whether that plant is a wise choice for them or not." Gammon set up a website with an initial database of 500 plants. "I'm not a horticulturist, and was nervous about launching a site that wasn't credible, so I went to Capel Manor and Kew horticulture schools. They refined the whole site for me, incorporating pruning and even propagation details." Now the site is two years old, has nearly 4,000 plant details and care instructions in the database - if members search for a plant and can't find it, Gammon will add it to the ever-increasing list - and over 2,500 subscribers. Gammon invites leading designers to paste up their gardens as inspiration, complete with planting lists, and members are invited to showcase their own gardens. "Further down the line, I'd like to build into the website the facility for people to assemble their own mood boards online, and for them to store sculptures, features, ideas, as well as plants." Gammon's own garden planting, like that of Shoot's subscribers, has a happy ending: "I gradually replanted, using my own website advice." Phornium Yellow Wave, content in the semi-shaded confines along the base of the white planters, thrives and so does a wisteria over the arbour, agapanthus and dictamnus. Gammon just couldn't do without lavender so this time around, along with a pair of Magnolia grandiflora, they're happily nestled in the suitably free-draining compost of the white planters themselves.