Garden makeover: a secluded tropical oasis in the heart of a city

The owners of this traditional town garden transformed it into a tropical paradise that's packed with color and interest

Real garden makeover tropical style
(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

Antony, a garden designer, and his partner Christopher, have filled their 18x14m garden with palms and exotic plants in a dynamic range of colors that peak in late summer.

When this couple first went hunting for a new home, their approach was somewhat different to the norm. It wasn't the interior that mattered most but the outside space. They asked to see the exterior before anything else, much to their amusement.  

'We found the 1880s detached house 15 years ago down a quiet west London street. We nearly didn’t view it because the online plan wrongly showed the garden as north-facing, when in fact it faces south.'

The plot turned out to be both an ideal size and not overlooked, a rare find in an urban environment. It was when the couple saw that their garden backed onto allotments that they decided to make it their home.

In the decade since they moved in, they have included lots of inspiring garden design ideas to create a tropical oasis with a strong framework of yuccas, bamboos, cannas, olives and cacti. The giant torch cactus is a major talking point amongst the collection of pots on the tiled terrace.

tropical style garden with a patio surrounded by plants

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

The original garden

Standing on the balcony outside their living room, at the top of an iron staircase that leads down to the garden, it is hard to imagine the original garden. Back then, the view was of an untidy rectangle of grass with a straight, tiled path leading from front to back, ending by a diseased plum and old cherry tree. 

At the very back, the level dropped away to a gate that opens out onto an alley leading to the allotment entrance. The 10ft drop from the house to the back fence needed working into any new design.

The plan for the makeover

Addressing the heavy clay soil was top of the to-do list. It was prone to water-logging, making it unsuitable for growing certain plants. As the couple are fans of tropical garden ideas, they were keen to create an exotic look by planting lots of palms. As palms are one of those plants that require good drainage and hate soggy damp soil, they needed to improve the soil. So it was supplemented with around 15 huge bales of topsoil, as well as many bags of grit to further improve drainage ready for planting.

The 10ft fall from the house to the back fence would be addressed with a sloping garden path that brings the planting to eye level before arriving at an area for outdoor eating and cooking.

Based on careful measurements, and bird's eye photographs taken of the entire plot from an upstairs window, various designs were drawn up before Antony and Christopher settled on a sunken, S-shaped path to create the feeling of a journey from the house to the outdoor living area.

Tackling the sloping site

tropical garden with winding path and low brick walls

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

With a fall of three metres from the patio to the end fence, they decided to create a sloping path, rather than have steps at the far end. This allows you to walk down the sloping garden with most planting raised up closer to eye level, rather than at floor level. 

They then began excavating the soil but, the deeper they dug, it became clear that the path would need retaining walls. Reclaimed London stock bricks, which have an aged appearance, were used for the new garden walls to ensure they were in keeping with the surrounding houses and boundary walls.

A builder constructed the walls, as well as fixing a band of trellis to the top of the side boundary walls. This creates more privacy, but without either blocking or stealing light from neighbors. They also installed a contemporary wooden screen two-thirds of the way down the plot as a clever garden divider idea, separating the entertainment area from the rest of the space. 

Adding a circular lawn

tropical style garden with circular lawn

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

They decided on circular-shaped lawn ideas in the end after trying out several alternatives. The first involved cutting the existing lawn into a kidney-shape, before replacing it with a circular shape. A circle allows the eye to keep moving, fooling it into thinking the dimensions are greater. This worked so well, that the idea was carried over into the redesigned garden, containing it within a low brick wall.

Mowing the circular lawn proved difficult because the edges always looked unkempt, so it was replaced with artificial grass which has the advantage of being ideal for their lively terrier, Obi. 

It helps minimise the upkeep, along with an automatic irrigation system that leaves only the pots needing watering with a hose. Most work comes in early spring with the sowing and rearing of young plants. 

Creating a space for entertaining

Outdoor entertaining area in tropical garden makeover

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

Near the top of the wishlist for the new garden was an intimate area for entertaining, with permanent outdoor seating ideas, a good barbecue and practical cooking area. They also wanted a cabin which, whilst providing a focal point to glimpse through the planting, also stores bikes and garden furniture. 

Planting trees for permanent structure

large evergreen palm in a tropical style garden

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

The couple opted for a number of the best tropical plants in their plot. These include a mix of evergreen palms, ranging from the smaller Blue Fan Palm to a Jelly Palm, and Chusan palm that has settled in so happily that it almost brushes the bedroom window upstairs. Beneath that, woven through the permanent planting, is a tapestry of late-flowering perennials and annuals. 

Creating a bright planting palette 

tropical style planting in a flowerbed

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

The garden color scheme is full of tropical brights, using different varieties of zinnias, rudbeckias and verbenas blended amongst clumps of tall orange Mexican sunflowers that the bees love. The plants are all insect-friendly.

Plenty of their plants are grown from seed in a greenhouse on the adjoining allotment, which also has nursery beds for cultivating wallflowers, or propagating plants from cuttings. 

The allotment was one of the key factors for the couple in choosing to live here because it allows them to grow everything themselves, such as flowers and lots of vegetables. It's away from the garden, but still within close reach.

This is a garden that is really lived in, enjoyed, and shared with friends and family. Yes, it was a lot of hard work, but the entire design and work has been a joint effort throughout for the couple. Now it's a source of huge pleasure to them both.

Nicola Stocken
Freelance writer

Nicola Stocken is both photographer and writer, conveying the beauty of gardens and plants through words and pictures that appear in publications all over the world, as well as in greetings cards and calendars. For some 30 years, she has photographed widely throughout the British Isles, meeting the remarkable people behind some of the loveliest gardens, specialist nurseries and unique plant collections.

Her love of plants is second only to that of photographing a garden for the first time, of capturing its different moods as the light shifts from the golden hours of dawn to the deepening pinks of sunset. In her spare time, she plays flute, runs, paddleboards and attempts to control her own garden beside the River Thames.