A downsizer's garden that makes the most of a shady situation
Me and My Garden: Valerie Duffy’s city plot
Valerie Duffy in her city garden in Rathmines. Photograph: Damien Eagers
If ever there was an urban garden that magically overcomes the many challenges of its small size and its shady situation surrounded by overhanging trees then it’s the Dublin plot of Valerie and Mark Duffy.
Wonderfully tranquil, supremely elegant and with its own deep-rooted sense of place, it’s an outstanding example of how a very small outdoor space can be exceptionally beautiful in the right hands. All of which makes it hard to imagine that just five years ago it was a shady, somewhat forgotten area to the rear of the Kelly’s previous long, narrow Dublin garden.
“When we sold our old house, we kept a section of the garden as a site on which to build our new home,” explains Duffy.
Thus began a collaboration between her and her architect husband, Mark, where the relationship between their new garden and their new house – a sleek, light-filled, modern building with floor-to-ceiling windows – was a fundamental element of the design from the outset.
While they both have an innate understanding of what it takes to mould and sculpt an outdoor space, what has really coaxed this city garden into leafy, lovely existence is Duffy’s understanding and appreciation of the horticultural possibilities and potential of the site as well as its challenges, difficulties and limitations.
A skilled, thoughtful gardener, her knowledge of plants – of their preferred growing conditions, their preferred planting partners, their growth habits and varying seasons of interest – as well as how they can be combined to create a visually satisfying and enduring planting scheme, is the bedrock on which this remarkable garden is built.
“I’ve always loved plants, always loved gardening. I think I get it from my father who was a great gardener in the traditional sense and grew almost all his plants from cuttings or from seed. Like so many people, I find it very therapeutic, especially during these strange times.”
From the very start she knew that the garden’s success would ultimately depend on the careful selection of a particular community of plants to give multiple seasons of interest.
“In a small space like this it’s all about the edit...every plant has to really earn its place. As we spend quite a lot of time away, they also need to be varieties that are able to survive and thrive without being mollycoddled. So to give them a really good head-start, we imported the very best topsoil that we could get our hands on.’
Architectural foliage plants play a key role in the design, their lush leafiness offering a pleasing counterbalance to the angular lines of the building. Examples include the tall, handsome specimen of Pseudopanax laetus that grows in one shady corner, its evergreen canopy cleverly crown-lifted and shaped by Valerie to allow her to underplant it with other low-growing, shade-loving, choice species including the graceful Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), the hardy Begonia grandis ssp. evansiana and the tatting fern, Athyrium filix-femina ‘Frizelliae’, a dwarf variety with wonderfully ornate fronds.
In another shady corner, the garden’s elegant, smoke-grey timber fence provides the perfect backdrop to the finely cut foliage of a miniature copse of Japanese acers, bamboos and the lovely Fatsia polycarpa ‘Green Fingers’.
In a bright, sheltered spot, a lovely seating area where pools of sunlight filter through the overhead canopy of a silver birch tree (carefully saved during the building process), the giant paddle-shaped leaves of a container-grown ornamental banana strike a lush, tropical note.
“I love the colour green: it’s so restful, so calming, so unifying in terms of how it pulls a planting scheme together,” says Duffy. “I think it’s not always appreciated enough by gardeners.”
Pops of vivid colour are also threaded through the space like precious beads; the spice-red, tubular flowers of the cigar flower, Cuphea ignea, the scarlet spires of Lobelia tupa, the brilliant-blue blooms of a shrubby salvia, the luminous pink bells of Clematis ‘Princess Diana’.
The latter is one of many different kinds of climbers Valerie grows to make the very best use of the vertical growing space and sheltered conditions that the garden walls and fences provide.
Others include the evergreen star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, a somewhat tender species that thrives in this courtyard garden’s very protected microclimate, filling the summer air with the intense scent of its tiny white blooms. So does the evergreen Clematis ‘Winter Beauty’ whose fragrant, bell-shaped flowers appear from December to March.
As an ingenious and handsome solution to the problem of how to safely and easily repaint the fence/walls without damaging the plants, Valerie trains these climbers against rectangular sections of steel reinforcing mesh suspended on hooks.
“That way I can gently lift both the mesh and plants away from the fence/wall when required without harming them.”
Lovely as they are, it’s not just about the plants. A tiny, knee-high rectangular pond filled with glimmering goldfish and fringed with ferns is yet another magical element of this pocket-sized city garden, a delightful touch that creates yet another layer of interest.
Along with the garden’s raised bed and shallow steps, it’s simply constructed out of cast-concrete, a material whose pared-back simplicity looks right at home within the contemporary design.
Equally notable is the fact that there’s no lawn; the latter would have inevitably struggled to grow well within the garden’s dappled shade. Instead a winding path of paving stones meanders its way though fine pebble softened by a carpet of self-sown sedum, all babies of the parent plants growing on the house’s green roof.
Others that have happily self-sown here include dieramas, foxgloves and violas. The effect is charming, a soft sprinkle of plants that gently blurs and softens the edges of the hard landscaping and can be subtly edited as required. Like everything else about this wonderful city garden, it somehow feels as if it was always meant to be.