Small plot, big plans for a Dublin city garden

The size of this city garden proved to be no impediment to the ambition of its owner, who designed it himself

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

Small is beautiful, as someone, somewhere, once said. Except that’s not always the case, is it? Take small city gardens. Faced with the challenges of limited space, limited light and a starved, parched soil, it can be a struggle to create a truly beautiful outdoor space. But not an insurmountable one, as a visit to the garden of Irish garden designer Bernard Hickie recently proved to me.

Hickie lives in the sort of city pad that estate agents once liked to describe as bijoux; both his doll-sized house and garden are examples of how a very individual kind of beauty can be created within the tiniest of spaces when designed with an innovative, creative, original eye. Part of this is down to Hickie’s career as a ‘greensman’ working alongside noted production designers such as Charles Garrad and others to create the outdoor sets of movies such as Serpent’s Kiss, Amongst Women, Waiting For Godot, and Asterix, a job that has given him a deeper understanding than most of the importance of form, colour and texture as well as scale, perspective and careful composition.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s also taught him how to artfully manipulate space to create a sense of place, that elusive quality which always separates the great garden from the ordinary. It’s a talent that’s led him to work as a garden designer, a parallel career that began in 1999 when Hickie was invited to design the Dublin garden of the film producer, James Mitchell. Since then he’s continued to work as a designer both in Ireland and abroad, with a client base that includes many drawn from the world of creative arts.

In the case of his own small Dublin city garden, which measures just nine metres by five metres, it is distinguished by its wonderful air of tranquillity and seclusion, an ambience made all the more remarkable by the fact it’s within earshot of a busy city centre thoroughfare and is squeezed into a narrow plot of land overlooked on three sides by neighbouring buildings.

I say overlooked, but to tell the truth Hickie’s neighbours would find it difficult to see through his garden’s high, leafy canopy, which affords its owner the sort of privacy that most city dwellers can only dream about.

The only uninterrupted view of it is from the house, and in particular from the raised timber deck, an extra seating area overlooking the garden which catches the sun and which, with its birds-eye views, is like the poop deck of a ship – the difference being that instead of a vast ocean, you’re surrounded by a sea of handsome foliage.

From here, visitors can admire the wonderful variety of exotic-looking, architectural plants growing in the garden’s upper and lower terraces, most of them planted by Hickie just over a decade ago, and which combine to give it its leafy, tranquil ambience. “I’ve always been interested in foliage, in the subtly contrasting differences in leaf shape and texture. Flowers, by comparison, are almost incidental.”

When it comes to designing small gardens, Hickie is of the firm opinion that less is more. “Trying to have a garden that’s a bit of everything is not necessarily the way to go, especially in a small space. You’ll get a stronger, more satisfying design if you settle for fewer elements, done well. It’s a process of fine-tuning, of editing.” In his own garden, the hard landscaping is strong but simple, its two rectangular terraces divided by a shallow flight of cast-concrete steps, its beds defined by plain larch edging, its boundaries by horizontal wooden screens painted black. “I didn’t want it to make a fuss. In this garden, it’s all about the plants.”

Which it most definitely is. Examples include the shade-loving tree fern, Dicksonia antartica, its giant leafy fronds and brown whiskery trunk surrounded by low mounds of the Japanese tassel fern, Polystichum polyblepharum, elegant specimens of schefflera (commonly known as the umbrella plant), spiny aralias, black bamboos, glossy Phillyrea latifolia, several tall Pseudopanax crassifolius that look like truffula trees and specimens of the shrubby Tetrapanax papyrifer whose magnificent, jungly leaves are the colour of caramel when they first emerge. Many might be scared of using such tall plants in a small space, but Hickie is quite the opposite. “People often assume that you can’t go tall in a small garden, but if you want to make a tiny space look three times its size, then you go up. It’s a trick of perspective.”

He’s also managed to squeeze in a specimen of the Mexican strawberry tree, Arbutus glandulosa. “I love the way the bark peels off in huge big shards, revealing this lime-green trunk that slowly turns hot orange”, and a small evergreen tree known as the Santa Cruz Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius) with finely cut fern-like leaves. Despite their tender appearance, all survived the harsh winters of 2009 and 2010, and require very little in the way of regular maintenance. “In the early years, I did a little sculpting, a little tweaking. But now the plants naturally sculpt themselves.”

Hickie credits the late Howth gardener David Robinson with encouraging his interest in what he describes as the new exotic garden movement. “He was a friend and a mentor, a man willing to break the mould when it came to experimenting with unusual plants and experimenting with plant hardiness. And so this designer’s next words of advice to anyone with a small garden are “to not be afraid to express yourself, or to experiment.” In Hickie’s case, this means that he’ll soon be ripping out some of the existing understory growing beneath the large shrubs and trees to replace it with some unusual woodlanders such as Woodwardia radicans, Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’, and Meloselinum wallichianum, many of which he has discovered through his friendship with the nursery owners and fellow designers Oliver and Liat Schurmann of Mount Venus Nursery. “I’m such a great admirer of their work.”

Although they play a secondary role, there are flowers in this garden, too. Next to the lower terrace (just large enough for a table and chairs), a fat mound of the tender Madeira cranesbill, Geranium maderense lights up a corner. At the other end of the garden, a huge specimen of the white-flowering rambling rose R. filipes ‘Kifsgate’ has woven its thorny branches high up a tree. Hickie also grows the pale-pink climber R. ‘Cecile Brunner, in memory of his mother, a landscape photographer and an expert gardener in her own right. Despite the fact that he thinks it’s an overrated plant, a Magnolia grandiflora has also earned a space because Hickie loves the scent of its flowers, which remind him of lemon ice-cream.

Other occasional flashes of colour in this green garden come from the dangling flame-coloured trumpets of Brugmansia sanguinea, and the towering blue flower-spires of the tree echium, Echium pininana. The latter is the descendant of a specimen planted by Hickie many years ago, which then seeded itself around. Which brings us to this ultra-talented designer’s final words of advice. “Don’t be afraid of plants that self-seed. Gardens always need that bit of fairy dust.” For more details of Bernard Hickie’s work, see

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