I’ve enjoyed an extraordinary week, having taken advantage of a fabulous opportunity to visit two gardens in London with the Garden Media Guild. On a glorious sunny day, myself and a group of fellow members (I’m a newbie probationer), accompanied by our tour leader Mike made our first visit to Mona Abboud’s award winning Mediterranean/Australasian planted garden in Highgate for a remarkable experience.
The beauty of the garden is striking at first sight – from an elevated veranda, it is immediately apparent that Mona’s garden has all year round interest – colour and structure with evergreen planting are key elements to the design.
Mona is a most welcoming and entertaining gardener, with an engaging sharp sense of humour as well as a talent for imparting expertise when it comes to her garden, its Mediterranean theme and the plants she nurtures so well. Mona has a passion for plants native to New Zealand, corokia in particular, for which she holds the National Collection and has over 40 cultivars. Mona has a commanding voice and projects it with great warmth and colour, which is reflected in her views on rhythm as an essential element of a garden.
Having created the garden over the last 22 years, Mona described how there was very little growing when she arrived, grass and self seeded fruit trees – just one apple tree now remains. A fan of the late Beth Chatto’s work, in particular her ‘right plant, right place‘ mantra, Mona began by conditioning the clay soil in her garden with 350 tons of material. Planting started with the likes of fremontedendron and ceanothus ‘Concha’ , however these are short living specimens and soon went to ‘plant paradise’ to be replaced by more ‘in your face’ plants such as pseudopanax, tetrapanax, schefflera, lophomyrtus, sophora, euphorbias and bamboo to name but a few and of course, corokias.
Mona’s view on perennial planting could be seen as controversial, she described how she loves the garden in February/March before the ‘fluff’ of the perennial season gets underway. Acknowledging that perennials can be the icing on the cake, Mona also likes her cake without it!
Guiding us through her garden, Mona explained her creative platform; being a musician she firmly believes in rhythm as an underpinning necessity, for without it interest in a garden is quickly lost. She described how her garden is planted using colour and structure – there’s a background of green shades but Mona explained that for her a tropical garden would be too green with a resultant flat lack of rhythm. Her method is to combine lush verdant plants with those sporting foliage of bronzes and grey/blues to achieve balance and lasting interest.
Plants dominate in this garden, however there are man-made additions. In a collaborative design effort, Mona worked with artist Jay Cockrell to create this stunning bamboo wall and Ed Elliot carved a beautiful cedar sculpture displayed in front of dacrydium cupressinum.
When asked if she has any help, Mona described how she carries out 80% of the gardening herself, enlisting assistance with the occasional heavy work – a great example being the 2016 construction of a low dry stone wall along the perimeter of the garden using 6 tons of granite sets which now encases a long raised bed (which required 25 tons of soil to fill it!).
On her website, Mona describes corokia as
‘ a genus of three species of evergreen shrubs endemic to the forests and rocky areas of New Zealand. They have alternate, obovate to lance shaped leaves, and small star like yellow flowers followed by red, orange or yellow berries‘
This genus is entirely new to me and what I’ve learned from Mona’s garden is that it has a multitude of foliage colour and hue and can be used for both specimen planting and hedging. In addition, it is a great replacement for box hedging, firstly as it isn’t affected by box blight and secondly, the leaves shine in sunlight whereas box foliage doesn’t. Corokias do require light and well draining soil, but they are drought tolerant and can thrive in poor soils. They are H4 hardy and so can be grown in most areas of the UK.
During the tour, we were treated to evidence of self seeded tiny plants, which Mona will leave in situ until bigger and stronger, covering with small cloches in cold weather. Giving us tips for propagation, Mona advises that they are’t easy, but:
- Take soft wood cuttings at the end of September (they are on the Australasian time zone!)
- Use a free draining medium, John Innes 2, sand or even bark
- Bottom heat is essential
- They need to be misted every day without fail!
Mona proudly showed us her own cultivar ‘Mona’s Magic’, currently about 10 inches high and being protected in a newly constructed raised bed which is a ‘theatre’ for corokias previously living in pots. I was particularly taken with the golden hues of ‘Welsh Whisky’.
I’ll leave the detail of individual corokias to the expert – Mona’s website provides information about a range of cultivars and she has also published a specialist book on the genus.
There are some fabulous specimen plants in the garden, including acacia dealbata (currently in full glorious flower) restio paniculatus, arbutus × andrachnoides and the magnificent podocarpus totara
Future of Mona’s Garden
Mona has generously bequeathed her garden to Perennial, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society and the garden will live on and act as a London hub for the charity in the future. An additional piece of land is being developed to house a large greenhouse for the cultivation of corokia – a definite ‘watch this space’.
A final view of the garden as we leave, ready to enjoy Sue Whittington’s garden at Southwood Lodge in Highgate. Mona gave us a great heads up on what to expect – a classy garden for a classy lady, and it didn’t disappoint – next blog post will be along shortly……