In spring the garden centres are full of the most seductive plants in bud, blossom and bloom. But the plants in most small London gardens are already fighting for space, so instead of shoehorning in yet another one, take a different tack: make some space. Cast a long, cool look over what you already have.
© Gap Photos/Suzie Gibbons/Design: Judith Strong
If a shrub is neither use nor ornament, get rid. It can always have an afterlife on the compost heap, and just think of the space you are freeing up. Cut off the lower branches of small trees and shrubs and create an under-storey for plants at ground level.
'If your patio is the size of a hankie, increase container space at a stroke with a wooden plant stand'
Who said an eleagnus or a viburnum needs to produce leaves right down to its base? Get creative with shears or loppers and turn a shapeless shrub into a broad, bare-trunked canopy that can shelter any number of spring perennials: pulmonaria, dicentra, hellebore, corydalis. Water in well, mulch thickly with bark chippings and you have a delectable mini woodland that will thrive whether we end up with a long-term drought or monsoon summer.
Even a flowering camellia might be improved by making it more of a mophead and less of a full-length flowerama. A bare-stemmed mahonia with a crown of foliage cartwheels takes on the persona of a palm tree, complete with dates when the lengthy clusters of navy-blue berries appear.
Pull off the basal, dead leaves of cordylines — a satisfying task — and you create a longer, clearer stem with a higher fountain of foliage, so smaller plants can frolic around its base. Once you realise that a plant won’t drop dead from a strategic haircut, and will probably be much improved, there will be no stopping you. Spring-flowering clematis from the macropetala and alpina group — not the larger montanas — are dainty, pretty and irresistible. They reach a manageable height of under 10ft, so they suit small gardens.
Fit one in comfortably by buying a long, U-shaped cane from the garden centre — imagine a giant bamboo hairpin — and push it into a small patch of ground, or a container: instant height to display a clematis gem such as dusky blue alpine beauty Frances Rivis. Alternatively, thread these early clematis through foliage or summer-flowering shrubs, to break up the greenery with flowers.
© Gap Photos/Dave Zubraski
If your patio is the size of a hankie, increase your container space at a stroke by investing in a wooden plant stand (diy.com) on four tiers, for under £30. Paint it aubergine or French navy and you have the perfect display case for a multitude of plants, from kitchen herbs to houseleeks.
Use more vertical space by pinning up a series of rings (spanishrings.com) on the wall into which you can drop standard-size pots; the same company supplies rings with heavyweight webbing straps that hold secure on downpipes. Just think, instead of an ugly black metal pipe you could have a cascade of ivy or, later in the year, tiers of trailing cherry tomatoes.
Limit the amount of ever-spreading plant carpets and you make room for more plant diversity. Groundcover such as Stachys lantana, cranesbill geraniums and Ajuga reptans are great in their place, but make sure they don’t wander everywhere. They are easy enough to pull out or dig up to make way for more interesting high-risers such as drought-resistant foxgloves, verbascum, Echinops and Eryngium.
Look at the lawn: could it be a bit narrower, making the borders a bit wider? Skinny, straight beds that hug a fence look mean, however well you plant them. Consider creating generous curves that give a garden more visual appeal — and give you more plant space.
At any rate, an hour spent redefining the lawn’s edges with a half-moon cutter will prevent the grass from slinking apologetically into the borders, and enable you to see the wood — and the leaves — for the trees.