Today I’m so chuffed to introduce you to a wonderful project: 1A Hungerford Road, an eco house with exotic front garden and green roof. I actually happened to stumble across it when I was driving past yesterday afternoon. I immediately went back home (in my neighbourhood), grabbed my camera and returned to find the most amazing and inspirational project.
It was a pleasure to meet David Matzdorf and his partner who yesterday had an open house for charity. How lucky am I to have stumbled across it. It is such an interesting project that I decided to ask David to tell you the story so you get it from the horse’s mouth.
What’s your background. How did you start getting interested in eco and urban jungles? When I was 21, in 1975, I was part of a group that squatted an uninhabited tenement estate in Marylebone. We formed one of the first tenants’ co-operatives, registered as a housing association and persuaded the council to sell us the estate, which ended up comprising 50 flats after we had modernised it. In 1982, the council built a new block adjacent to our flats and constructed a rather boring garden in the shared courtyard. The co-op tenants persuaded the council that we could do a better job of managing the garden. A group of co-op tenants gradually replanted the entire garden and I got involved in looking after it, which led to an RHS qualification in horticulture in the mid-90s, having in mind a career change that never happened. I ended up as the main gardener in Marylebone through the 90s. The garden is still there and still very good, although the tenants who took over after I left have changed the style somewhat.
When did you build the house, get planning and how did the sloped roof come about? By 1995, I was looking for a site to build a house, because I couldn’t remotely afford to buy a house or flat in central London and 20+ years of living in Marylebone had spoiled the prospect of moving to the suburbs. It took 3 years to find the site, which I bought in 1998. It was the first scrap of land that I had found where no one thought you could get planning consent for a house – thus it was inexpensive – but I reckoned differently.
The intention was always to build a sustainable house, which was somewhat less common in 1998 than it is now. That went down well with the local planning authority and overcame the inevitable petition that was submitted in opposition to my planning application. The green roof was always part of the plan. Aside from its eco-credentials and its value in combating the petition, it also doubles the size of my garden. I had become accustomed to messing about in a communal garden 45m x 30m. Here, my entire scrap of land is 15m x 12m, including the footprint of the house. The more garden I could scrape together, the better. The green roof also has the challenging side-effect of giving me two totally different environments in which to experiment with plants.
The curve of the roof was a response to planning restrictions, as indeed are most of the peculiarities of the house. The planners mandated a set-back of 5m from the street and my entire plot is less than 12m deep, so perforce I have a wide, flat house, built precisely to the land boundaries at the rear and both flanks, with a wide-, flat garden to the front and a green roof on top. The planners also restricted the height of the house to 1 storey at the Northeast end, to avoid overshadowing the garden of the adjacent house. The curved monopitch roof was a strategy that achieved maximum height in the middle, but still got down to the required height at the end.
Planning consent was granted in October 1998. Piled foundations were constructed in Spring 1999. The main construction contract occupied the rest of 1999 and 2000. I moved in at the end of June 2000 and the house was finally completed in May 2001.
Your love for plants is evident. How does one start an urban jungle and sloped roof full of greens? That’s an unanswerable question. The following all help: a qualification in horticulture, not being too precious when experimental plants expire after a cold winter or a dry summer, a great deal of patience, an eye for unlikely plant combinations and a focus on a garden as a venture in place-making and habitat-creating, rather than an exercise in competitive housekeeping.
It’s important that you are seeing the green roof after fifteen years of continuous experimentation. I’ve made many of the mistakes by now and their evidence is long-since faded. You saw some of the residual mistakes: the two varieties of invasive grasses, the daftness of a strip of gravel at the top of the access ladder and some ineradicable weeds. But most of the balls-ups have happened already and I have outlasted them.
The key period was around 2004-2007. That’s when I realised that I could grow a lot of really quite big plants in shallow soil, having semi-stumbled in the combination of a minimalist irrigation system and no fertiliser. Most specifications for green roofs, other than the bog-standard Sedum mats, involve fertilising regimens and no irrigation, which constitutes a recipe for grasses and other weeds to take over. I do the opposite: the choice plants get irrigated before they die, but the grasses and weeds do not get the fertiliser that enables them to take over.
How do you choose your plants and where do you source them from? Anything that is drought-resistant and has chance of coping with shallow soil will get a go. I do a lot of swaps, sourcing unusual/rare plants with people on internet forums, especially the one I co-run at Growing on the Edge. Sometimes I’ll see perfectly common garden species at a local garden centre such as Boma garden centre and will buy a few small, inexpensive plants to experiment with.
Until the financial crash, there were several specialist suppliers of unusual and exotic plants in England, but most of them failed after people no longer had the money to indulge their desires – combined with three successive hard winters between 2008 and 2011. There are still a few left, but they tend to focus on large specimen plants for super-rich people who want an instant garden. That’s not what I do.
What’s the biggest challenge in having an eco house and walled exotic garden? Staying healthy enough to look after them as you get older.
Any tips how you keep your plants alive and get them to thrive? There’s no substitute for a proper college course in horticulture. I did my RHS certificate at Capel Manor college in the 90s and every move I make is informed by the basic botany, genetics, soil science, pruning techniques, composting practices and plant biology that I learned then. That and actually spending time in amongst your plants, observing them quietly and drawing conclusions about why they look good, bad, healthy or unhealthy.
Can you tell us a little bit about the National Gardens Scheme? Not much that you cannot glean from their website. They have been, for many years, the Great and the Good doing Charitable Works and they have been gradually dragging themselves, with increasingly effective good intentions, into the 21c. world of diverse London. Last year their annual formal reception was held at Broadwater Farm community garden in Tottenham. That was profoundly important for them and it was great success. Upmarket garden owners from all over London trekked up to a notorious council estate in N17 and some of them were able to learn from the local gardeners. The NGS deserves a great deal of credit for this, but it was not before time.
You run an international forum for exotic gardening enthusiasts. Can you expand? We can be found here.
In the first years of the century, the whole “exotic gardening” movement or craze (choose whichever word you prefer) used to commune and share information and experiences on Essex garden designer Paul Spracklin’s “UK Oasis” website. In 2007, he suddenly decided to stop running it and I contacted scores of his members to say that we desperately needed a replacement. Australia-based English horticulturist Peter Richardson did most of the website design, but for the past 5-6 years, the site has been run by me in London and Kev Spence in Loughborough Leics.
We have about 1400 members worldwide, including some pretty serious plant-hunters and suppliers, people who run well-known exotic gardens in places like Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Cork and Kerry, international experts on Tree-ferns, rare Palms, Aroids, Agaves & Yuccas, Japanese Orchids, Aloes and other types of plants. I’m a moderator, a site admin and the “green roof guy”.
The theme is basically: growing things where one might not expect them to be able to grow. Pushing the envelope. It’s an English-language forum, but as well as members in the UK, various regions of America, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa, we also have contributors in France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Madeira, Spain, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Philippines, Brazil, Japan and China.
I also fell in love with the house and although I was awarded entry there just wasn’t any time to take pictures and show you how wonderful the inside it. When I mentioned to David that the inside has nearly got as many plants as outside, he said that if there’s a shelf anywhere, a plant will find a way on it.
I have to thank David for his generosity of answering my questions late last night and for being such a great host. I hope he will let me come back and take pictures of the inside of the house. Thank you for the inspiration David.
This post will stay live until Monday 15th June.