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SGD Awards 2024 Winner - George Cullis MSGD

Award-Winning Garden Designer George Cullis's Guide To Making The Most Of A North-Facing Garden

The Evening Standard  - George Hudson - 24th February 2024 • Image - Chelsea Courtyard Garden

This north-facing garden in Chelsea is surrounded by high walls has been transformed into a verdant minimalist retreat. Enclosed is an understatement, when your garden is surrounded by the towering walls of neighbouring properties to the left, right and rear.
In London, though, this situation is very common and was exactly what award-winning garden designer George Cullis faced when designing this space for his client, the owner of a Chelsea townhouse back in 2019.

I spoke to Cullis and his client about how he transformed this space from imposing cavern to minimalist retreat. Before reimagining the space, Cullis took stock of what he had to work with. 

“As gardens go, this was quite a challenge — on either side the walls were more than two metres high, and at the back there is a three-storey building. It was like stepping out at the bottom of a crevasse,” he said.

“It’s also north facing, so making the most of the sunlight the space does get was imperative.”

The homeowner had a minimalist interior style, and wanted the garden to function as an extension of their living space. 

“The garden was brought down to the same level as the interior floor, and with the surrounding walls, it began to feel like another room in the house,” said Cullis

“We knew that in the spring and summer there was a small area of the garden close to the house that received the sun at 4pm, so this is where we made space to sit. The rest of the garden we packed out with planting.”
To boost the light in the space, Cullis opted to paint the walls light grey, and use an off-white York stone paving, bouncing the light around the space.

His client spends her time between London and Singapore and wanted a space where she could enjoy afternoons drinking tea in the garden. It was also important that the planting had some seasonality, providing a contrast from the tropical green of Singapore at certain times of the year.
“I really wanted something lush and low maintenance, but I didn’t want colourful plants,” says Cullis.
The success of the garden is in the planting. Cullis adopted a restrained ethos, limiting the number of species but maximising the textures.

“At the back of the garden is a crab apple (Malus ‘Evereste’) which is filled with blossom each spring, followed by pink-orange fruit in the autumn. The walls are flanked by evergreen and heavily scented star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides),” said Cullis.
“And a Magnolia grandiflora cloaks the left-hand wall and conceals an air conditioning unit when looking into the garden from the house.”
He creates a rhythm through the space, planting key foliage plants in alternating groups of three.
“Grassy mounds of Hakonechloa spill over and soften the edge of the york stone, three zingy lime green Aralia cordata plants rise above the other perennials, and in winter three Helleborus foetidus maintain the rhythm,” said Cullis

Last month, at the annual Society of Garden Designers Awards, Cullis’s design won the Garden Jewel award, with judges noting the garden was “a lush oasis… providing a truly immersive garden experience”.





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