Leaves and Timbers

Tropical looking

back garden in Dalkey


We were contacted by our clients in late 2017, just as they were completing their new house build located in an attractive south Dublin suburban location, not too far from the sea.

It’s ‘L’ shaped sheltered courtyard garden had created a warmer micro-climate capable of supporting some special tropical plants that I had been coming across of late. Recent enthusiastic conversations with Billy Alexander at Bloom about a shared interest in tropical plants from the Canary Islands and New Zealand, and then at his relatively new garden venture ‘Kells Bay’ truly inspired a shared interest and love for leafy green foliage plants. How they can obviously set-off flowers but also how these plants can complement each other through texture, form and scale. They can marvellously and innately give subtle variations in colour to create an inspiring green scene that offers a visual delight at all times of the year rather than just at peak flower times in the summer and autumn.

This blank canvas, measuring 9m x8m, with its ideal micro-climate and sheltering walls was too good an opportunity to pass!

I’m not quite saying that I rubbed my hands with glee, but I was close too it, and soon set about talking to my clients to see if they would be willing to entertain something more exotic rather than a traditional style.  Fortunately, they readily agreed and entrusted the design fully to myself.

The only requirements set by my clients included wanting to have some form of sitting out area for entertaining family and friends and that the rear wall be softened, although they did not want to use climbers that would need managing on the nice stonework. They also wanted a storage shed.

Design Concept

The garden had a pre-installed low terrace wall (around 80cm high) off-set around 1.5m from the rear large sliding door to deal with an existing level change in the garden; the architect had located some steps to one end of the wall to allow access to the upper level and I saw no reason to change the positioning or the steps or the wall.

To the rear a second wall, of similar height, was built up to the front of the rear granite wall, creating a garden terrace and a perfect opportunity for planting up the front of the rear garden wall without using climbers.

As the house had extensive rear floor to ceiling height windows/sliding doors, I was conscious that the garden would need to look really good and enticing when viewed from the house, as it would all be visible at the same time.  I felt that the repeated use of the foliage plants around the garden would really help me in this regard, as this is a way of providing unity, and of encouraging the eye to be cast around the garden thereby helping the viewer to see it as a single design picture.  Unity of materials would also provide assistance to create an uncluttered scene.

I felt that the lower level around the house could have a walkway leading to the steps and then the upper level would be used to install a simple garden path leading to a circular seating, entertaining area immersed in the planting.  Alongside this, I was convinced that some bespoke timber structures would work really well at selected locations in the garden both contrasting with the neutral finishes to the house and offering an enhancement to the natural granite walls to the rear boundary.  I really wanted these to stand out within the design to create a characterful space.

The Design

The garden was laid out with composite decking close to the house to the lower-level set at the same level as the interior to create a lovely inside-outside feel when the rear door is full open, with some corresponding soft planting to the margins.  The decking wrapped down the small side area also creating an optional shadier sitting area and access to a small garden shed unit, which was clad in beautiful cedar timber.

Moving up the short flight of stone steps, finished in reclaimed flag stone, one passes through the first timber feature, a bespoke moongate, designed to be a gateway to the beyond and an extremely attractive, artistic feature in itself, of interest when viewed from all directions.  I asked the wood-maker to make the moongate from a single central arcing spine attached to which would be the horizontal “ladder” elements to give the piece depth.  The construction and fitting of this element was very complex as it also needed to look like it was disappearing below ground to allow for walking underneath with no trip hazard.  It looks truly magnificent in the garden.

From the moongate, a simple pea-gravel pathway follows a natural meandering course to a circular deck space enveloped by the rich planting in the upper part of the garden.  With the high walls surrounding, the garden is in around 60% sun, 40% shade at all times: thus, the way the sun moves across the garden is paramount to proper placement of sitting areas as well as plants – these were key design decisions.  The materials and finishes were selected to complement the contemporary aspects of the house (off-white for the terrace walls, which were a simple block work and cement render construction), a soft mid-brown colour for the deck, the pale flagstones for the step covering and repeated as large stepping stones that were placed along the gravel path.  These latter complemented the beige colours in the attractive existing natural granite stone wall at the back of the garden.

The timber was chosen to create contrasting warm tones and an ambience of escapism in this confined space.  Our highly skilled joiner supplied his expert skills once again to the second timber element I designed for the garden, which is a distinctive timber multi-arched structure used as a backdrop to the rear of the circular deck.  The intention with this arty element is that it is to gradually be encompassed by the voluptuous planting, as if it is the remnant of some unknown larger structure that has been lost within the jungly planting.

Mystery is a fun element of garden design and every garden should aim to have some sense of the unknown or curious to make the space enticing in my opinion.

The Planting

The planting design centres on using foliage-rich species, such as New Zealand Tree Ferns, Schefflera and Agave but even with its small size the garden has such a rich variety of sun and shade spots that it is possible with the right approach and careful placement of the planting to make this range of plants work as a cohesive whole (unified by the foliage design as mentioned at the outset).

In the shady parts of the garden, I selected a range of ferns for planting as a repeat, or mirror, to the tree ferns towering overhead including the unusual Crown Fern Blechnum discolor from New Zealand.

In sunnier places, I upped the ante with some species from the Canaries and Madeira including the Giant Herb Robert Geranium maderense producing a profusion of pink flowers held up high above upright stems in its second year, Sonchus canariensis is a tall daisy-like sub-shrub from Tenerife and Musschia Wollastonii Bellflower, an unusual and high risk plant from rocky parts of the Azores that has unfortunately since failed.

I planted an abundance of Aeonium arboreum Tree Houseleek (also called Irish Rose!), along with spiky Agave montana from Mexico, which I complemented with Aloe striatula from South Africa.  These still look fabulous.

These main species of plants were complemented with more routine plants such as the tall Echium pininana, Euphorbias, evergreen grasses and Bergenia to form groundcovers along with hellebores and leafy Hosta in shadier parts.

There have been a limited number of failures but the main plants and essential essence of the planting is still there and thriving.  The garden looks as I had hoped it would after 6 years.  My client has infilled a few gaps with her own choice plants including the shrubby Nandina domestica, which works beautifully with the other plants.  Furthermore, himself added some super specialities from Billy including a gorgeous Black Tree Fern Cyathea medullaris and a Blechnum cycadifolium Chilean Fern.   She has also placed interesting statuettes and quirky objects around the garden, which has added value and extra personality to the design making the space my clients very own sanctuary.


“We had initially contacted Tim, some years back, when we decided that we might improve our existing large garden at that time.   We were taken with his portfolio and the reputation that he had built up for good garden design.  However, a few years passed before we decided that we would down-size to a new home, in nearby Dalkey.  The garden for this was a completely different prospect, being much smaller in scale, easier to manage and tucked away to the rear of the house, out-of-view.  We set Tim the challenge of coming up with an attractive garden including some organic shapes, which would provide ample opportunity for sitting out and also retain enough space for entertaining family when they visited.  We enjoy visiting warmer climes, such as the Canaries, and we felt that we wanted to include continental vegetation in the design.  Tim listened to our ideas and also encouraged us in the direction of using quite lush vegetation.  He also suggested using some quirky and unusual timber features in the design to contrast with stone and plain surfaces, and seeing as we have an interest in art, we decided we would run with that putting our trust in Tim and the team around him.  We are pleased to say that the entire process from design, through to bringing in a contractor and specialist suppliers was handled by Tim on our behalf and has resulted in a unique garden that we are very satisfied with.  Whilst there were some changes on the way, we have kept a close relationship with Tim throughout the process and he has remained on board to help steer us through future maintenance that may be needed.  It is also true that we wanted a garden that we could take on ourselves adding our own touches as we go, and Tim has been very open to this and encouraged us in this way.  We can see that he is excited to revisit the garden, as we are to show it to him, and we look forward to seeing how it will develop in the coming years, hopefully keeping in touch with Tim as we venture on our new journey with plants.

K and C P, Dalkey, February 2019

architectural design, decking, exterior living, garden rooms, house and garden, low maintenance planting, moongate, Outdoor dining space, Planting design, Small garden, steps, stone walls, timber features