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Producing a hardy, easy to maintain oasis in an urban jungle with Elisabeth Wright-McCalla

by | 22 May 24 | Garden Design, Long Reads

For RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year, I chose to create a compact, modular and therefore transportable courtyard-style garden which could transform any unloved piece of land into a vibrant and immersive, yet peaceful oasis. I called it The Anywhere Courtyard to reinforce this concept of flexibility and from my strong sense that the need for a calm, outdoor sanctuary, where people can go to reflect and be in the present, has never been more important.

Imagining that its final destination would be a nature-deprived, urban space, I wanted to show how it is possible to address biodiversity loss and eco-imbalance relatively simply, with a solution that encourages wildlife through year-round greenery and perennials and is easy to maintain.

The version I displayed at Chelsea has luxury elements, including a central water feature that emerges from a living wall filled with ferns and other lush planting. Requiring an in-situ water source – such as an outdoor tap – to feed it, this isn’t crucial to the success of the garden, but does enhance the sense of an oasis that I was keen to create.

I used modular steel planters that double up as storage-enabled bench seating to structure the garden. The steel is highly durable and, when looked after, can last a lifetime.

The key is hardy, easy maintenance planting, with ornamental trees such as Koelreuteria paniculate, whose drought and pollution tolerance means it does well in an urban setting, whilst offering year-round interest for wildlife. I also used multi-stemmed ficus carica to form a natural canopy of gentle shade over the seating. The raised beds that form the seat backs are filled with a sensory mix of perennials and herbs, including lemon verbena – which deters mosquitos and flies, reinforcing the idea of sanctuary – sage, rosemary and thyme. Tiled flooring evokes memories of sun-soaked Mediterranean escapes, but this could easily be swapped for a cheaper and hardier, site-specific solution.

I interspersed long-flowering perennials – like salvias and agapanthus – in restful whites, greens, purples and pink with grasses, such as lemon verbena. Cistus ‘Snow Fire’ complements Mediterranean gardens with its vibrant white flowers and dark green foliage. Its drought tolerance and low maintenance make it ideal for sunny, well-drained landscapes.

Salvia x jamensis, also known as Mexican bush sage, is a drought-tolerant perennial with vibrant tubular flowers. Its aromatic foliage attracts pollinators, making it a popular choice for sunny gardens and landscapes.

To provide ample nutrients and ensure free-draining soil, I mix horticultural grit with compost and topsoil. Ideally, one would install a drip irrigation system to minimize water use and keep the plants happy and healthy during extreme weather.

I am thrilled to have found a home for the garden where it will indeed become the first bit of green in the entirely concrete landscape of the historic quarter of the Port of Grimsby. Situated in the East Marsh, one of the most deprived wards in the UK and an area almost devoid of greenery, The Anywhere Courtyard will transform an industrial yard at addiction recovery centre Creative Start’s social space, the Black Gull, into a publicly accessible nature haven. I am partnering with social enterprise Create Streets for this project, an organisation that helps communities, landowners, councils and developers create and steward beautiful, healthy and sustainable places and am delighted that the garden will contribute significantly to their ‘Greening Up the Marsh’ programme.



Penned by Elisabeth Wright-McCalla, designer of The Anywhere Courtyard, currently at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show through to 25 May and winner of a Silver Gilt Award. 


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