Secret garden is a joy to behold
FROM its exterior, it looks just like any other terraced house in Swansea. Unassuming, functional and well, rather ordinary, it has to be said.
Walk through to its back garden, however, and it is anything but.
Over the past 20 years, owner Tony Ridler has made it one of the most extraordinary gardens in Wales.
So extraordinary in fact, that his is one of just 20 hand-picked plots to make it into a glossy new book being launched on Sunday.
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What makes his garden stand out from the crowds?
Yes, the fact that it spreads out for a third of an acre or so behind the property's very modest facade.
But also for its beauty, now recognised as one of the very best in Wales.
"A garden needs crispness to make sense,'' says graphic designer Tony, who lives in Cockett.
His is modern, clean and simple. It is also awe-inspiring.
"There is so much you can do with only four or five plants," he says.
"It's like fonts in graphic design. There are hundreds of them, but you only really need a handful."
Is his garden minimalist, then?
"No, it's still cluttered," he insists. "Everything should come out that has no reason."
Tony's plot joins 19 others at this Sunday's launch of the book by Times gardening writer Stephen Anderton and award-winning photographer Charles Hawes at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Llanarthne.
Nearly all are from grand mansions.
Tony's is the only one tagged onto the back of a terraced property.
He doesn't mind the difficult clay soil and wet climate.
"I like the wet," he adds.
"I like it leaden, I like stillness, quiet, nothing going on."
"But don't think it's a dull garden,'' says Stephen.
"Far from it; it's just deceptively simple and endlessly refined. Ask Tony if he visits many gardens and the answer is no. But that's not to say he is not influenced by what he sees.
"You might say it's a garden without a house, for it began life simply to provide an approach to his office in the garden, to make it more interesting for his clients.
"It began as a series of formal vistas and spaces, largely defined by shallow steps, paths, sculptures and clipped evergreen hedges of box and yew.
"The openings in the hedges are often only wide enough for one person to squeeze through; it's very much a personal, one-man garden, not a place for exploring while you chat about the planting.
"Sometimes, the path will cut across a vista you have already seen, sometimes more than once, letting you look back to where you started.
"But what sets the Ridler garden apart is this: most classical formal gardens rely on symmetry and perfect balance to bring elegance to a formal space or vista."
The garden, opened occasionally in aid of charity, is not short on colour.
Great swags of rambler roses wrap the scene, and hostas, grasses and clematis, magnolias and a handkerchief tree all help to soften the architecture. There is a whole compartment of luscious hybrid hellebores.
In the vegetable garden (yes, there is one) scarlet runner beans, golden marjoram and dramatic cabbages do the same job.
Topiary is a major part of the garden, some of it growing in the ground, some of it in containers (including 22 rather abstract chickens), some of it forming a flat roof of ash trees, poised over a deck. A score of box bumps, of the especially slow-growing variety Morris Minor, have only grown 12 inches in as many years.
Tony loves his topiary, and the discipline of it. "The more often you do it, the better it gets," he says. And he's right.
This is a garden of variation rather than variety. Hedges in subtly different colours and heights, paths sticking to the same small palette of materials, old timber from Swansea docks, granite setts, stone and brick but varying in pattern to suit the moment and the rhythm of the space, a small number of boldly used containers, lipped with jagged zinc, contain strong effects, from cloud-pruned box to a flat plane of granite setts.
It would be easy to think the garden is too fixed, that apart from clipping there is nothing to do. In fact, Tony is forever changing chunks of hedge or topiary that you or I might feel too sacrosanct to alter.
Stephen adds: "For him, form is everything, and he likes to play with it, to adjust, refine.
"And for all its restraint and cool, it's actually a very light-spirited garden, never heavy, and pieces of trompe l'oeil on the walls bring a touch of humour. It is in fact fun, like the garden of Ridler's hero Sir Roy Strong.
"The two of them should get together — they have a lot in common.''
Discovering Welsh Gardens, £18.99, is published by Graffeg and launched on Sunday.