When it comes to kitting out homes, designer Abigail Ahern knows what she’s doing. She has a knack for anticipating trends – most recently restoring the credibility of faux plants. Her own home, a Victorian terrace in London (“the area’s gone from murder mile to hipsterville in the 17 years we’ve been here”), is four floors of bohemian glam. But for many years the small rear garden was an afterthought, despite a double-height glass box extension looking out on to it.
Rein in the colour palette, says Ahern. “If you stick to a few colours, any space will look cohesive.” She has opted for shades of green, peppered with white, such as a starry-flowered evergreen jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), and yellow, such as the January-brightening pompoms of mimosa. These plants, like many others, were chosen for their looks and scent. And as with her house, what Ahern’s garden lacks in colour it makes up for in texture. More interested in foliage than flowers, she creates textural contrast between neighbouring plants, with ferns next to grasses, next to cacti. “I use texture like I do herbs and spices in cooking, to add pizzazz.”
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Placing outsize pieces, such as tables and chandeliers, smack in the middle of a room is a trademark of Ahern’s style. “It stops you noticing a smaller space and adds a bit of grandeur,” she says. So she decided to disrupt the garden’s dull linear layout by planting trees in the middle of the space rather than in orderly ranks around the edges. She started with an olive and, over time, added Japanese maple, some eucalyptus, a quince and an apple tree. The resultant jungle belies the plot’s size and Ahern relishes its height. “I work on the first floor of my house, so I wanted a garden I could look into, not down on,” she says.
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That changed four years ago when Ahern and her husband, Graham Scott, snapped up a wooden cabin on eBay. “The cabin pulled the eye down the garden and everything looked so bleak, just a long rectangle of grass and gravel with bamboo planted down the sides,” she says. Ahern decided to apply her well-honed interior design instincts to the garden and the transformation began.
Furniture and lighting Ahern uses the same principles in her garden as inside her house. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
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Ahern claims there’s no structure to this garden, but she’s selling herself short. To navigate the space, she’s created paths using millboard – a synthetic wood often seen in high-end beach resorts. “It doesn’t deteriorate like timber would in all this damp shade,” she says. The shade itself is a conscious choice – Ahern has trained rampant climbers such as Russian vine over wires to give her privacy and create a cool retreat on hot days. Tucked around the garden are numerous seating areas. “Whether indoors or out, the trick is to design a space that you can’t take in all at once but have to explore; it’s so much more intriguing.”
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Lush evergreen planting, lots of fire bowls and a brick fireplace that echoes its indoor counterpart, have given this garden year-round allure. There’s a concrete outdoor kitchen by WWOO, with a Big Green Egg barbecue and fire basket where Ahern makes stews and braises in a Dutch oven cooking pot. She even cooked Christmas lunch here, while wrapped in a blanket. “Apart from the delicious flavours of cooking over a fire, cooking outside feels exciting,” she says. “As soon as there’s a glimmer of warmth we eat every meal here, too.”
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Ahern has never found garden furniture that inspired her, so she looks for indoor pieces that will stand up to the rigours of outdoor life – furniture made from marble, ceramic or wood (which she treats to an annual coat of yacht varnish). It’s the same with lighting, which she has rewired for outdoor use. The garden is peppered with tree uplighters and strings of festoon lights, lamps and chandeliers for a festival-at-home atmosphere.
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Colour and texture Sticking to a limited colour palette lends cohesion. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
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Four years on and there are jaw-dropping changes, not only to what is now a lush, riotous, sun-dappled jungle, full of feathery ferns and gently swaying bamboo, but to Ahern herself. A self-confessed workaholic, she and Scott both work from home, so the garden has become her escape. “It’s my way of decompressing – to come out here and think of other things, or not think at all, just weed and water. It’s incredibly restorative.”
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Structure Millboard paths add structure to Ahern’s garden. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
Scale Outsize pieces add grandeur, says Ahern. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
Sat 5 May 2018 09.00 BST Last modified on Tue 8 May 2018 12.21 BST