You don't need to spend a fortune on an ancient, fat-trunked tree. A young specimen, planted into the ground or in a container, looks beautiful and will grow quickly. In a fierce winter it might lose its leaves, but they will return in spring. Just plant in well-drained soil, so the roots don't get waterlogged.
Astelias, similar to blade-like phormiums but with shiny, metallic foliage, are the secret weapon of every gloomy basement, courtyard or stairwell. Aptly named Astelia Silver Spear will brighten the space immeasurably, so this is a case for buying a good-size specimen — three, if space allows. Happy in a container as well as in the ground, astelias form a large, handsome clump of elegant sword-like silver leaves.
Mix silver, white and ice pink
With less architectural punch but with even more sheen to its rounded foliage is Convolvulus cneorum, but this popular sub-shrub needs free-draining soil and a sunny spot in the garden to thrive. It is the ideal, but little-used, choice for a winter window box where you want to add a little sparkle. A perfect partner to underplant would be baby cyclamen, with silver-marked leaves and white or ice-pink flowers.
Use large, glossy-leaved evergreens to catch the light and create impact. During this mild winter, Fatsia japonica's showy cream flower clusters are still intact, providing another reason, aside from those huge, palm-shaped leaves, to make this underrated shrub a frontgarden focal point. On a fence or wall that faces the house, give yourself a view to lift light levels as well as your spirits, by planting winter-flowering Clematis armandii Snowdrift, which has a double whammy of large, glossy, oval leaves and almond-scented white flowers that will appear any day now.
There are other ways to lift light levels permanently, especially relevant for small, dark spaces that see little sunshine, even in summer. Don't overlook the obvious — simply scrubbing down a wall with soap and water can cheer up the view. Kick light into gloom by painting walls a pale colour, but avoid glaring bright white, and instead choose a vanilla shade, or possibly soft pink or pale lemon, which both make plant-flattering backcloths.
Use metal and mirrors
A cement basement or patio floor could be transformed with a covering of lightcoloured paving stones, while a dark part of the garden could be effectively lightened by laying down a bed of cream pebbles over weed-suppressing membrane. The pebbles can be positioned around plants, or you can plant through it by pushing the pebbles aside, scoring a cross in the fabric, tucking under the four triangles to leave a square planting hole, and replacing the pebbles afterwards.
Steel is a great way to bring light into an outside space. No need to carry it in by the sheet — instead just invest in a few large polished metal planters that will do the job with pizzazz as well as add a crisp, contemporary note.
The obvious ploy to reflect light is mirrors, but use with caution. A small one will just look as though it's there for a lipstick check, and a large panel might just reflect people, not plants, as well as provide a potential crashlanding for birds mistaking it for a through route. Instead, copy the garden designers' nifty trick of using panels of acrylic mirror — safer and weatherproof — and fixing large-grid trellis on the top, so that you get a great 3D effect as well as reflected light.