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The Secret Gardens of Spitalfields

September 25, 2010
by the gentle author

During these last months of Summer, Luis Buitrago called me each time he came to tend the gardens of Spitalfields. With the gracious permission of the owners, I was able to visit these hidden enclaves of green that are entirely concealed from the street by the houses in front and the tall walls that enclose them. If you did not know of the existence of these gardens, you might think Spitalfields was an entirely urban place with barely a leaf in sight, but in fact every terrace conceals a string of verdant little gardens and yards filled with plants and trees that defy the dusty streets beyond.

Luis Buitrago is a gardener and landscape architect who came to Spitalfields ten years ago and lived here for four years while working on the renovation of 7 Fournier St, where he created his first garden which you can see above. In subsequent years, as the news of the charming Luis’ unique talent to conjure horticultural magic has spread, he has become the preeminent gardener in Spitalfields, designing and maintaining the gardens of many of the resident luminaries that discretion prevents me from naming. It makes for a very satisfactory arrangement, because Luis has become uniquely experienced in the special challenges posed by these shady humid locations and when he comes over to do the weeding and watering, he can simply run up and down the street going in and out of all the doors, moving from one garden to the next.

The incarnation of modesty, Luis did not reveal that he has a degree in classics from the University of  La Mancha, instead he simply explained that he found himself teaching at a school in South London and had an itch for something more. His three passions were languages, architecture and gardens and so he chose to study landscape architecture at the University of Greenwich.

“In Spitalfields the gardens are quite particular, they are micro-climates that are very shady and very sheltered.” explained Luis, in the gentle tone that is his characteristic mode of speech. “My approach to number 7 Fournier St, which is quite a small garden, was to create the feeling of a hidden woodland glade. I used large ferns to create the shade and planted birch and, over the years I have worked on it, I have added pieces of architectural salvage I have picked up.” I visited this garden one hot July afternoon when Luis had just watered it and I was astounded to walk from the street through the house and be transported into the cool of the garden where shafts of sunlight penetrated the green shade and every leaf glistened. The most mature of Luis’ Spitalfields gardens, this has a such diversity and detail that I could happily have passed my afternoon in this peaceful retreat.

Over in Princelet St, I discovered a much larger more formal garden with a playful cat that insisted on being photographed. “The nice thing about this garden is that you think it’s finished when you get to the end of the path but then there’s more.” said Luis, as he led me down the path with the cat following along behind us.“The tall walls make it mysterious and the owner has placed pieces of statuary to be discovered that give it a magical atmosphere. But in such humid conditions you have to be very careful with planting and you tend to go for texture rather than flowers.” he added. There was no sound of the city to be heard, birdsong filled the air and I loved all the deep contrasted foliage of this extraordinary lyrical garden full of shadow and drama.

Back in Fournier St, Luis showed me a shady courtyard between the house and a guesthouse. “There is a symmetry of structure here but the planting is asymmetric,” he informed me as I inhaled the heavy scent of Jasmine that lined the walls, “On this side I planted Hydrangea and on this side is a Strawberry Tree. The garden is simple but very effective because it is enclosed like a box.” Again, I wondered at this secret space that, paved with shining marble and sheltered from the blinding sunlight, could be anywhere in Italy or Spain.

Down in Walden St, we walked through a terrace of nineteenth century cottages to discover a garden exposed to the sun, “This is just four years old, quite a hot garden, and the owner wanted it to feel bright and enjoy the sunshine, so big structures were out.” revealed Luis, gesturing at the blue sky,” I had to choose plants that thrive in dry sunny conditions, sheltered all around by walls, so I was able to grow Echiums that are quite tender and Verbascum have been successful here. They have seeded themselves and there have been more each year.” Let me admit, I especially enjoyed the modest informality of this garden, sitting upon the oak bench here I could easily imagine I was in the Cotswolds rather than Whitechapel.

Each of the four was distinctive, yet all of Luis Buitrago’s gardens share his self-effacing charm – in the sense that they are not demonstrative, lacking in ostentatious conceptions, instead by complementing the environment and the architecture they offer relaxing spaces to seek solace. These are landscape designs that are responses to the architectural space, which have evolved through canny choices of plants that suit the respective locations. I admire Luis’ sense of poetry and romance in gardens, balanced by his practical delight in the act of gardening. I love the way that each of his gardens is like a magic box, playing upon the surrealism of their urban location, and exploiting their high walls to construct alternative worlds that are outside time.

In Fournier St

In Princelet St

The owner of this garden has placed pieces of statuary among the plants for the visitor to discover.

In this courtyard in Fournier St the walls are covered with a curtain of Jasmine, giving a intense fragrance that is strongest at night and lingers all Summer long.

In Walden St

Luis Buitrago with the smallest garden in Spitalfields, that he contrived in two granite troughs in Fournier St.

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Gabriela permalink
    September 25, 2010

    Gorgeous insights!

  2. Gary permalink
    September 25, 2010

    No slug or snail damage to be seen, the advantage of your enclosed gardens,

  3. September 27, 2010

    Absolutely beautiful.

  4. September 27, 2010

    This is a fantastic entry, courtyard gardens hide such secrets behind walls, and so rarely seen.

    Love it, well done.

  5. January 13, 2011

    these gardens are charming and endearing
    such verdant lush foliage is so elusive in countries with hot climates like that of my own
    i have always envied these english gardens, they simply do not compare with the tomato plants and bougainvilleas that greek gardens are known for

  6. JOHN permalink
    February 11, 2011

    What a talented man.

    And so handsome!

  7. Vanda permalink
    February 15, 2011

    Stunning, such lush beauty you can smell it.

  8. Vicky permalink
    May 2, 2011

    Ooo, I want a garden like one of these … please

  9. October 23, 2012

    What beautiful gardens. I’m now the gardener (volunteer) for SPAB in Spital Square. They have some well-established shrubs in the shady courtyard garden but I’m now looking at improving the health of these, encouraging more birds and insects and, with my garden historian hat on, thinking about new planting in keeping with the history of the property and the locality. These shady, damp courtyards – and clay soil – are quite challenging…

  10. James permalink
    January 16, 2013

    very very nice…inspires me to carry on with my own small courtyard garden.
    thanks for sharing.

  11. Lenore Langs permalink
    March 18, 2013

    These gardens are lovely. I am inspired!

  12. May 19, 2013

    Inspirational,Wonderful gardens for a novice to gardening

  13. Miriam Delorie permalink
    June 27, 2013

    Absolutely inspiring…like secret gardens with ‘promise round the corner’. You can imagine the snowdrops and crocus coming up in Spring! regards Miriam

  14. Moyra Peralta permalink
    September 16, 2013

    Working my way slowly through the SL archive: so MANY of the write-ups just do your heart good. This one especially today. Would that my own gravel garden had half the atmosphere of these.

  15. Tom PB permalink
    September 5, 2014

    Luis, your talent is fantastic and it looks like the garden has always been there.
    Lovely 🙂

  16. Georgina Briody permalink
    October 26, 2015

    Saw some of these gardens this year, 2015 – little gems.

  17. Linda Hayes permalink
    July 15, 2017

    Hi ,photo,s take me back in time ,I was brought in the streets,
    Do they have open day to there gardens ??

  18. Lesley Spencer permalink
    May 25, 2019

    Totally inspirational. Getting to grips with out garden.

  19. February 2, 2021

    Delighted to find you. I live in a terrace of 18c silk workers cottage in the countryside quite near to Dublin city. My garden is much larger, doesn’t have walls and the area has many mature broadleaved trees. Very beautiful but most of my garden is quite shaded, with clay soil. I have planted hedges – mostly beech and some fences and improved the heavy soil with lots of grit and manure. We are in horse country here.
    How lovely to have found your site, and the gardens are stunning. I am planning to come to London to visit Spitalfields as soon as we are released from lockdown here.

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