Bank Holidays provide the perfect opportunity for pottering in the garden. And with a little planning and cunning planting, you can create a garden that looks bigger/wider/longer than it actually is.
This feature, from this year’s diary, gives you clever hints on how to make the most of your plot.
Seeing is believing but can you believe what you see? Whatever the size or shape of your garden, make the most of it by cultivating a few illusions along with your herbaceous borders; and on a practical level, a few other little tricks can help, too.
The eye can be fooled more easily than you may think. If your precious plot falls a tad short of your dreams by being too small, too narrow or just too dull, wising up to a trick or two may make all the difference.
How you treat open spaces is one crucial aspect of making the garden appear other than it actually is. A circular lawn, for example, is a good ruse to make a small garden appear to be bigger than its square footage. Two overlapping circles are even better, the bigger one nearer the house to lengthen the garden and vice versa to shorten it.
If you can lead the eye up the garden path, in more ways than one, that will help your false perspective plan, too. A straight path that tapers slightly as it progresses away from the house elongates the garden, while a zigzag widens it. Snake a track around your patch, and use paving slabs at jaunty angles as stepping stones, to make the whole garden seem bigger.
Another optical trick is to divide the garden, even a small one, so you can’t see it all at once. Extend the flowerbed into the lawn or have a short row of pots with flowers and shrubs to do the job. Bamboos and ornamental grasses make interesting screens, as do trellises and archways covered in roses or clematis, or jasmine or honeysuckle, or runner beans. If space is not an issue, you could have a designated kitchen garden, play area, rock garden – whatever your special interest may be.
The rule of thumb is that pale colours appear to be farther away than bright ones, so if bigger is the aim, have vibrantly coloured plants near the house and paler, subtler ones farther away. A back fence stained pale grey or green sends it away, and to enhance the effect, you could position a delicate focal point in front of it, such as a planter or a small garden table and two chairs.
It’s better to avoid having tall or spreading trees or shrubs at the end of the garden because a heavily shaded area there will foreshorten the perspective.
• For a quick and easy way to keep your flowerbeds going through the season, sink plastic flowerpots in the earth and drop in your plants still in their garden-centre pots. You can change them as you wish.
• Vegetable cooking water is full of nutrients and, once cooled, your plants will love it.
• A couple of times a month, distribute used tea or coffee grounds around acid-loving plants, such as azaleas and camellias, to keep the pH of the soil acidic.
• Epsom salts are a gardener’s friend because of their high magnesium and sulphate content. For tomatoes and peppers, pop a tablespoon in with the soil when planting, then sprinkle around the growing plants. For containers, add a couple of tablespoons to the watering can once or twice a month.
• Use gravel as mulch around drought-tolerant plants, which need good drainage e.g. sedums and other succulents, and alpines.
• Plant thyme between stepping stones or in cracked crazy paving for a beautiful aroma when trodden on. If you prefer your paved areas to be plant-free underfoot, use mortar in the cracks rather than sand, which encourages seeds to germinate.
Pale colours appear to be farther away than bright ones
• To ensure watering continues even when you’re elsewhere, on holiday for instance, make a lot of holes in plastic water bottles, bury them next to the plants in question (top above ground) and fill with water. The water will seep out as the soil dries, and it will reach deep roots rather than surface weeds.
• Install a water butt if you can, and don’t forget to use it – plants much prefer rainwater to the treated variety from a tap.
• Use a permanent marker pen to write plant names on an upturned flowerpot or a stone rather than on a lolly-stick marker because that either goes missing or looks tatty in no time.
• Never lose the run of your garden twine – keep it in an upturned flowerpot with the end poking out of the drainage hole in the bottom.
• Keep a small bed of nettles to encourage ladybirds, which eat aphids. Should any aphids escape to colonize your roses or runner beans, zap them with a solution of washing-up liquid.
• Scrunch up eggshells before composting or they will survive to adorn your flowerbeds.
• Don’t forget to turn the compost to allow air to circulate – ideally once a month – and to keep it moist in dry weather. If the compost is smelly and slimy, add more woody material, cardboard or straw. If it’s dry and doesn’t seem to be rotting, add more greenery, such as grass clippings, or try a commercial activator. If the compost bin turns into a breeding ground for flies, too much moisture and not enough air are likely to be to blame. Add more woody material and turn, and remember to put garden waste on top of kitchen waste to counteract the problem.
For some people, weeding is therapeutic and satisfying; for others, it’s not so appealing, in which case, consider ground-cover plants. Mats of foliage and flowers spreading around trees and shrubs save hours of weeding not to mention backache. Ground-cover geraniums and roses, Vinca minor, Alchemilla mollis and Bergenia purpurascens are all attractive options.
Mulch is an effective weed suppressant because light cannot penetrate through it, so stopping the seeds from germinating. Clear weeds first, then spread the mulch over the whole bed and top up each spring. Organic mulches, such as compost, bark and leafmould, are also soil improvers since they gradually rot down. They should be laid to a depth of 10cm (4in); others, such as gravel, stone chippings or pebbles, to a depth of 2.5-5cm (1-2in).
Alternatively, if you just want to kill the blighters but commercial chemicals are off the agenda, pour boiling water on them and excavate with a sharp knife or trowel – or buy an organic weedkiller, although these may not kill the roots. Be careful to avoid plants you don’t want to affect.