Despite the unpredictability of the British weather, the idea of outdoor living has always appealed to me. In another life I’m convinced I lived somewhere tropical; the Caribbean or South East Asia perhaps. When Country Life International drops onto the doormat I ogle at the mega-bucks houses in Sydney, Barbados, Marbella and Thailand, their sumptuous living spaces merging into wide verandahs, sunlit terraces or lush tropical vegetation. I want to be there, living the dream, gliding effortlessly between my luxury living spaces.
Back in the real world I’d still rather be outdoors than in, but if I must be indoors I prefer to be as close to nature and the elements as possible. No surprise then that the garden that came close to being my number one at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was created by a designer who I’ve long admired for gardens that bridge the gap between indoors and out.
I first became aware of Irish garden designer Paul Martin at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in 2014 where I so admired his garden for sponsor Vestra Wealth entitled “Vista”. Paul’s stylish, gold medal winning garden oozed contemporary class, incorporating a generous entertaining area centered around a huge cantilevered dining table. Enveloped by a cool blizzard of agapanthus, nepeta, tulbaghia and Hydrangea arborescens, the garden fizzed and sparkled with summertime chic. Slick, glamorous international style combined with meticulous attention to detail are Paul’s trademarks, marrying perfectly with the type of clientele his sponsors work with day-in, day-out.
Paul’s latest Chelsea garden, based on the idea of mindful living, ticked all my boxes. As well as being superbly crafted it was also subtly masculine and beautifully controlled. The hard landscaping was dominated by smoothly polished and precisely cut limestone, here and there channeling cool water down the left hand side of garden. Where the rivulet plashed gently into a final pool, the limestone was cut out just sufficiently to hold a couple of bottles of fizz. Perfection. And then there were great chunks of Corten steel, as bold and manly as an old leather sofa. The use of this rudimentary material, once omnipresent in Chelsea gardens, was criticised by some commentators as out of date, but I could not disagree more in this context. The character of the rust-coloured surface complemented brilliantly the tender greens and flaming oranges of the planting and provided a fabulous contrast to the virginal limestone.
Paul’s planting was a treat. Resisting the urge to throw everything at it, the designer worked with a tight palette of well-chosen plants, leaving bare earth (again controversial) where the design called for it. Between the masculine, sculptural forms of Dicksonia antarctica, Blechnum tabulare and Rogersia “Irish Bronze” crept little jewels such as Sagina subulata “Senior” (above, to the right of the ferns) and Melica altissima “Alba”. There was a nice mix of quieter moments, for example the woodland planting beneath the multi-stemmed trees, and riots of bright colour. Here again the lovely bearded iris I. “Kent Pride” featured, rising above a cool sea of swaying green foliage studded with the luminous blooms of Trollius chinensis “Golden Queen”, Geum coccineum “Cooky” and baptistas in shades of creamy yellow and dirty plum.
I can give or take the idea that mindfulness, a concept very much in vogue at the moment, influenced this garden as much as the blurb suggested. Paul’s design was intended to appeal to a busy urban client with a love of Far East travel, yoga and a need for a relaxing space. That may well be the case, but for me this was a garden would suit an International city slicker, probably a single man, that wanted to display his wealth and exceptional taste. An illuminated image of Big Ben and Westminster Bridge behind sliding shutters, the feature I liked least in the garden, positioned Vestra Wealth’s garden firmly in London where, let’s face it, we’d all like to relax more, if only we were not working hard to afford such priceless views.
Paul, as charming an Irishman as you’d expect him to be, was kind enough to let me and Him Indoors stroll around his garden on Wednesday evening for which I’d like to extend my thanks. As I have two gardens, if there were a second I could have taken home it would have been this one. Now, where’s that yoga mat?