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From tram depot to fern-laden idyll: container garden goals from East London

Clapton Tram owner John Bassam, with his dog Jack
Clapton Tram owner John Bassam, with his dog Jack Credit:  Clara Molden

Those who spend a bit of time on Instagram or are partial to a music video may recognise Clapton Tram. The chic indoor jungle, which has grown up from what used to be a Victorian stable in a former East London tram depot, has been the leafy backdrop to an endless parade of models, pop stars and actors. In many ways, it’s been the bellwether of the rising fashion stock of houseplants and all things botanical.

The tumbling Monstera deliciosa, walls of golden pothos and sprays of spider plants are quite something to behold. But I’ve always been slightly more taken with what happens outside the shoot space, where the bustle of people, equipment and other residents going about their day is momentarily interrupted by an abundant urban garden. 

“It’s just a tiny little car parking space, it’s not a garden,” Bassam explains, before quickly correcting himself: “It’s just… it’s my garden but it’s just a few pots and stuff.”

I see it rather differently. Bassam’s neighbours have kindly allowed him to nudge into their “little car parking spaces” too (his home is on the first floor, so one would struggle to park a car up there anyway), and the end result is a plot comparable to, if not larger than, the average domestic garden plot in London. 

I find it beautiful: a seating area immediately outside Clapton Tram’s heavy double doors opens up to two enormous tree ferns and a smattering of containers boasting Oxalis triangularis, smaller ferns and grasses. One shelved wall is home to glossy green and blue pots, currently home to bulbs, Festuca glauca Intense Blue and a few succulents. Two enormous Willi Guhl planters boast a smothering of mind-your-own-business and lobelia, what Bassam calls his “Tellytubby mounds”. 

Beautiful: Clapton Tram's container garden Credit: Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Turn to the right and the garden evolves into something more romantic. Young fruit trees, willow, laurel and hollyoak nudge against each other, creating soft walls beyond the Victorian brick ones they stand against. Beneath, drying hydrangea heads add another layer of texture. 

Bassam has been here for four years. He grew up under the tutelage of a keen gardening mother but admits he lost interest in the hobby for the 15 years he spent as an interior designer. Shuffling around the roof terraces and sometime back garden of rented properties he eased himself back into horticulture: “I did a lot of stupid things – put a hydrangea in a tiny pot in the middle of the sun – killed a lot of plants”. 

Lobelia: not just for summer Credit: Clara Molden for The Telegraph

So when he ended up buying Clapton Tram he had nurtured surprisingly grand ambitions: “I wanted to buy a few trees that I could, in theory, move with me when I went and found a bit of soil.”

With time, the trees evidently turned up – although Bassam admits that they’re unlikely to leave the depot, now: “It’s not worth thinking about!” he laughs. “They’re in such massive pots, you can’t take them anywhere”. It’s one of the things that makes this garden such an immersive space, I feel. Too often small urban plots are squandered by cautiousness; home to a string of little pots of little things. Successful urban gardens actually benefit far from plants that have considerable scale and height. 

Bassam says his greatest expense where the two prize tree ferns, which he bought from Lyndon Osborn, arguably East London’s tree fern authority. “I’ve never really spent any money on plants,” Bassam explains. “They’ve always been given to me, or been cuttings, so to spend £80-100 on plants you could potentially kill? I had to think about it.” 

But everything else has been done on a budget that would be accessible to most city-dwellers looking to green up their space. The display of pots is a masterstroke: “Because I’ve got so many pots, I just thought I’d stick a bit of emulsion on the first ones but it just came straight off,” Bassam says. “But gloss paint works, and for a 50p pot you can make it look a bit more graphic. Especially as we’re coming into this time of year, you still have that block of colour.” The table has been painted green to match and the surrounding chairs were an Argos bargain.

Gloss paint can transform a cheap pot into a graphic statement Credit:  Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Like most seasoned container gardeners, Bassam has had his fair share of vine weevil (treated increasingly religiously with nematodes in the summer) and there was a time when he would obsessively remove slugs by hand to prevent them from being eaten by his Border Collie puppy, Jack. “We also had a cat poo problem,” he says - large white pebbles now adorn the top of the bigger pots to combat that. 

Otherwise, the space ticks over remarkably well considering it is, essentially, a busy thoroughfare. The thick concrete floor and businesses beneath offer above-average levels of heat and what the tall walls take away in daylight they offer in shelter. For a designer, the plans behind it all have been surprisingly slim: “I just put lots of things in to see how they go, really. There’s not massive method to it all”, Bassam says. 

Nevertheless, you can see that the verdure and variety of this garden come from Bassam’s desires for a slightly bigger plot: “It’s a lot of ideas crammed into a tiny space,” he says, “I still have the idea that a tree represents and orchard and a fern represents a fernery. I have lots of ideas as an interior designer and I change my mind all the time.”

Alice Vincent’s next book, Rootbound, Rewilding a Life, is available for pre-order now. For more urban gardening, follow her on Instagram.com/noughticulture.