Man with a plan to make his garden grow serenely

Spencer Viner makes the best of his small Bounds Green space

“Not a clipped affair, but in a small space you must have discipline” was the first remark I noted from Spencer Viner during a visit to him and his garden near Bounds Green. We had not yet stepped out of his kitchen door into the graceful, calm beyond, but the tone was already clear. However, his “not clipped” should be read as not stiff or military, rather than taken literally. He certainly does clip, but his pruning is to create space, light, order, balance, rather than tension or dominion.

Spencer’s choice of career as a garden designer arose from a particular form of work experience. His parents cared for their north London garden, but his eyes were not opened to plants and landscaping until he spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel. He worked there under the guidance of an elderly man from Poland, and discovered what he wanted to do. Having studied landscape architecture at Leeds, he returned to Israel to be a domestic garden designer for five years till the pull of family brought him back to London.

Spencer’s emphasis is on foliage, shape, form. He tries to expand people’s knowledge of plants, coaxing them away from the mundane. Beyond naming a well-known chain supplier and expressing a preference for grouping similar plants together, as opposed to the “mixed salad” approach, I failed to get him to say which plants he finds mundane. But his own garden, which is in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) Yellow Book for the first time this year, is a persuasive argument for limiting the palette, resisting temptation at the garden centre, etc. Although the gentlest of people to talk to, he is given to bracing comment such as: “A lot of gardens get lost in a muddled concept. You have to keep to an idea.”

When Spencer moved to Brownlow Road seven years ago, the back garden was just paving and scruffy grass. He has been working on it ever since, making it beautiful. There are no designery tricks, nothing aggressive, expensive or alarming, just a small area made to seem spacious, serene, aquiver with leaves, breeze, light, accompanied by ringing notes from a set of low-pitched wind chimes. Without being “Japanese”, the tendency is zen, with modernism in the mix.

The kitchen door into the garden leads past a large Echium to a paved terrace with a pergola supporting Clematis viticella, Trachelospermum jasminoides and Wisteria japonica. The pergola is above a singular table, made from ancient grey Spanish wood studded with sharp stones, topped with a sheet of glass. The stones, sticking up like rows of teeth, were for separating fibres for textile production.

Sitting at the table gives a view of the garden. It is enclosed within what seem like walls but are sheets of marine ply, variously greyish blue or white, with pleached limes planted at intervals along them. Ahead is a weeping willow, invisibly contained so it will not grow huge; to left and right are rectangular beds planted with Hydrangea paniculata, Hydrangea villosa, Prunus “Accolade”, Cornus kousa, Miscanthus “Morning Light”.

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Spencer has three sets of two concrete manhole rings as plant containers and one set as a lily pond. They look great, their matt, unobtrusive grey a foil for Eucalyptus niphophylla with Cotinus “Grace”, Bamboo phyllostachys nigra, and an olive tree. A lot of Spencer’s plants would grow too big were it not for his love of the art of pruning. He says: “You can enjoy so many trees if you go in for hard pruning … where you can’t spread out, you can go up.” His small garden, containing a catalpa, a Scots pine, a willow and a number of limes, is living proof.

Spencer Viner’s garden at 94 Brownlow Road, Bounds Green, is open for the NGS on Sunday, September 2, from 2pm to 6pm. Details of his garden design practice are at