What shall I do about the garden?

Image above: The editor’s back garden in spring 2019

Taking the plunge and going for a makeover

Five years ago I decided I needed to do something about my garden. I was living on my own, overdue for a hip operation and really couldn’t be bothered with it, certainly not mowing the lawn. With a garden the width of your average terraced Victorian house, the bushes on either side virtually met in the middle in the summer, forming a cool, dark, miniature glade, dubbed ‘the Secret Garden’ by my daughter’s friend.

The cats loved it, but I fear it may have been frowned upon by the neighbours, though they never said anything. I decided it was time for a couple of blokes to come round with a chainsaw and a shovel. When they removed the bushes which had really been too big for such a small garden, casting the neighbours’ space into deep shadow, I realised they had been holding up the rotting fences. Those went on the bonfire too and I was left with what suddenly appeared to be quite a big open space, with a just couple of remaining treasured ferns and roses.

Image above: The back garden in spring 2023

Working with an expert plantswoman

This was the beginning of a friendship with Aila Cinar, an international garden designer with over 30 years’ experience, who is based in Chiswick. She has steadily built up a portfolio of clients whose gardens she looks after, many of which she has designed from scratch. Her speciality is providing gardens which require little maintenance, with pest and disease free plants which are drought resistant and provide all-year-round interest.

Images above: Aila pruning in a client’s garden; delivering plants with her dog Lamur

She transformed my garden, so it is lovely to sit in or look out on at any time of year, and requires minimal effort on my part to keep it looking nice. There is no boring lawn to bother with, there is a seating area in a sunny spot, a windy path of stepping stones to get there, and the rest is just plants, of varying shapes and sizes, colours an structures which work well together.

She is an expert plantswoman, and as she is fluent in several languages, she knows all the names in all of them, as well as their Latin names. More importantly, she knows where they will look good and thrive, and what will do well next to them. She asked me first of all for a list of my favourite plants and then supplemented my choices with a variety of plants I’d never heard of.

Every now and then I like to mess with her head by planting something she hasn’t pre-approved. Mostly they have stayed in situ, and she has had the good grace to say she even likes some of them.

Image above: All year round interest

Setting up business with knowledge gleaned from Lapland, Berlin, Greenwich, Kent and the Loire Valley

Where did she get her encyclopedic knowledge of plants?

“I studied garden design for five years at the University of Greenwich and at Hadlow, a small agricultural college in Kent which specialises in horticulture”.

She grew up in Lapland, where there are 0.2 people per square kilometre. Her village had eight houses and the nearest shop was 40km away.

“We had one ornamental plant in front of the house, a Monkshood”. Everything else around was wild.

“I could run free in the forest and I spent a lot of time on my own as a child immersed in plants”.

If I am making her sound like Gerda in The Snow Queen, it is just that her upbringing explains her affinity with plants.

Through an international student exchange she was able to study landscape architecture in Berlin; she had industrial placements at a botanical gardens in Finland and in the gardens of the Villandry Chateau in France, so she knows the history of European gardens and understands how formal gardens work too.

Image above: Aila’s own back garden, which doubles as her nursery

“Most of the year in London we don’t use the garden; we sit inside and look out at it … you need to create a painting to look out at”

Tractors, diggers and chain saws hold no mystery, she learned soil science, how to run a business, and how to design by computer. Plants are her passion, but flowers not so much. She thinks the English have an obsession with flowers, based on a country garden fantasy, and she does not understand why we don’t appreciate stems and foliage more, which can do as much to provide colour and visual interest as any short lived blooms.

“Most of the year in London we don’t use the garden; we sit inside and look out at it. People do extensions and have huge glass widows; you need to create a painting to look out at.

“Lawns are for kids and football. I try to get rid of lawns, they are not wildlife friendly; a variation of plants gives biodiversity.”

Image above: One of Aila’s lighting designs

Another of her bugbears is our failure to use rainwater properly.

“Rain water harvesting is a big issue. How many home-owners complain about their water bills, but won’t have facilitated the recent rain to feed a tank from their roofs?

Aila’s top recommendations for garden plants which provide all-year-round interest

I asked Aila for her top ten garden plants. It was a little like asking a mother to choose between her children, but we got there (nearly). We got it down to a list of 13.


“Corokias are so versatile. They are pest and disease free. You can use it in different ways: clip it into shapes, like topiary, use it with garden lighting; the underside of the leaves are white, so it looks like a cloud at night.”


“Abutilons give you nine months of flowers in lovely bright colours.”

(The picture above was taken in November)

Cercis canadensis 

“It’s a tree which is known as the ‘forest pansy, which gives great autumn colour.”

Muehlenbeckia complexa

“You can use Muehlenbeckia complexa as a climber; you can shape it around a metal structure and make instant topiary; you can trail it down to give ground cover. You can use it in all sorts of different ways, but never put it in the ground because it will spread; always put it in a pot.”

Images above: Iris Chinensis; (L) photograph by Tom Murphy VII; (R) winter foliage

Iris chinensis

“Most people think of flowers when we think of irises, but the chinensis looks like bamboo. It’s evergreen, a metre and a half tall; the foliage is there all year round, looking lush and exotic. I’ve used it all over London because it works, although it only flowers for three weeks in early summer.”

Garrya elliptica

“This is a nice wall shrub with long catkins, a foot long, in January, when nothing else is growing, and it’s stunning.”

The aptly named ‘silk tassle bush’.


“Why I like gingkos is that in Hiroshima they are the only plant that grew back. The have existed since before the last ice age.”

The female plants have horrible smelly fruit, don’t they?

“I met a Chinese woman picking up the fruit in Chiswick. She showed me how to peel away the flesh and roast the nut. The Chinese believe it increases the flow of blood to the brain and if you eat the nuts you will live longer.”

Dicksonia antarctica – tree fern

“New Zealand tree ferns only grow 30cams in ten years. They don’t need roots because they take their moisture from the air through their trunks, so they don’t take up much space in the ground.”

Aspidistra elatioris

Aspidistra is a genus of flowering plants native to eastern and southeastern Asia, particularly China and Vietnam. They grow in shade under trees and shrubs, their leaves coming more or less directly from ground level.

Aila learned something from me about aspidistras – that the Edwardians were fond of them and George Orwell had written a famous novel called Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I learned else something from her – that the Germans called them ‘Schuster palme’, or ‘shoemakers’ plants, as shoemakers tended to work in dark spaces and you can put aspidistras in the darkest part of your garden and they will survive.

Equisetum – ‘Horsetail’

“These also date back to before the last ice age. They were dinosaur food. I love the simple vertical structure of it, especially against a red wall.”

Hydrangea quercifolia

“This is the oakleaf hydrangea. This one comes from the Chateau de Chaumont in the Loire Valley, where the first garden festival was held, older than the Chelsea Festival.”

Mondo grass

Here we have to agree to disagree. Aila likes the plants because they give all year round colour other than green, and they form thick clumps of ground cover. I just think they look like spiders.


Favourite flower? The tulip, which I don’t think needs further introduction or explanation.

Aila’s landscape gardening company, Ailand, is a member of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme. See her current offer on landscaping and garden maintenance here:

Gardens by Aila Cinar – Club Card offers

She welcomes visitors to her garden, where she keeps a variety of quite rare plants,and you can say hello at her stall at the monthly flower market in Chiswick High Road on the first Sunday of the month.

Image above: Aila and her daughter at the Chiswick Flower Market


Aila Cinar
Tel: 07990 574476
Email: aila@ailand.co.uk

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