Celebrate spring by getting a little inventive in the garden. Treat the impossible dark corner — every London garden has one — to a spring makeover.
© Gap Photos/Friedrich Strauss
If an overhanging tree or shrub is creating heavy shade, lift the canopy, where possible, by lopping off lower branches to let in more light. Give the soil the best possible kick-start by working in as much well-rotted manure and/or compost as you can.
Make the shade an asset by planting spring-flowering woodlanders that don't object to low light levels, keeping to pale, luminous flowers that will shine out in the gloom: Pulmonarias Sissinghurst White, with handsome white-spotted leaves, and lavender-flowered Blue Ensign; Dicentra spectabilis Alba, with those exquisite flowers just like heart lockets, hanging all in a row; and pale cream violas and clotted-cream primroses.
Add a blanket of shredded bark to simulate the woodland floor and your springtime glade is complete.
Urban gardeners don't take waste to the tip — they reinvent it
If you have stones, rubble or even old bricks, build them into a haphazard pile, push earth or soil-based compost into the cracks and settle small pots of ivy or ferns into these planting pockets. Keep watering while they establish and eventually you will have a cool, green Victorian fernery; do the same with pieces of wood — try and include some decent-sized logs — and, just as they do at Highgrove, call it a stumpery.
Summer clematis make smashing soup-plate flowers but spring-flowering clematis have much to offer, too. Dainty macropetala and alpina clematis suit the small garden, and the nodding flowers are so beautiful that if you don't have anything for them to climb up, it's worth pushing three canes into a pot and keeping it on the patio so you can admire the blooms at close quarters.
© Gap Photos/Richard Bloom
You can also grow them through evergreen shrubs, including box and bay, so their flowers stud the foliage. Alpine variety Frances Rivis, with large blue bellflowers and long pointy petals, is the ultimate hearbreaker that always sells out first at spring plant shows.
After a long spell in the wilderness — or back of the border — flowering shrubs are back in the spotlight. Bring in a showstopper: one for now, one for later. Wall shrub Chaenomeles superba Crimson and Gold, a compact flowering quince, has wonderful lipstick-red flowers on bare branches and even looks good slapped against a wooden fence.
Common elder won't set the border alight, but hybrid black elder, Sambucus nigra Black Lace, recently renamed S n porphyrophylla Eva, probably will: gorgeous, finely dissected leaves that are chocolate-black, and in early summer, palest-pink flat flower sprays appear, followed later by dark berries. Chopping it back to base in early spring will keep the foliage full.
© Gap Photos/Neil Holmes
Choisya ternata, aka Mexican orange blossom, is more of a trouper, but is indispensable. It has shapely, aromatic leaves all year round, as well as clusters of scented, star-shaped white flowers in late spring; you can also clip it, over time, into a pleasing rounded or squat shape. Even a balcony garden must have its quota of springtime cherry blossom. Prunus incisa Kojo-no-mai supplies it, with characterful crooked branches dusted with powder-pink flowers; in autumn the foliage turns fiery. Find it a suitably pretty pot or grow it in the border, where it will reach a couple of metres and more.
Make the most of what you already have. When container bulbs have died down — even indoor ones — plant them out, in a random fashion, to bloom the following year... what do you have to lose? Dwarf scarlet tulips, lemon daffodils and blue and pink hyacinths all look wonderful together, like an impressionist painting. Interplant them with a few primroses and cowslips and you will have a truly heavenly primavera patch next spring.