Making the most of an existing garden needn't cost the earth. A few changes to paths and patios can make all the difference, says Kim Wilde.
Do you have a patio that looks drab and needs bringing back to life? Or an old concrete slab path that's cracked and an invitation for someone to trip? Whatever the state of your outdoor area, you can make cosmetic changes that will make your plants stand out.
Bring life to your patio
Many patio areas turn into parking lots for old toys and pots of plants, killed by frost. I'm of course describing my patio, prior to the spring clear-up. When planning spring-cleaning, don't forget the outside. Your garden needs you.
I love alpine gardens in old sinks. Raise troughs and sinks up to a height of 45cm so the plants can be viewed while you're relaxing on your patio. Deep flat-bottomed sinks can be made to look like stone by coating with hypertula. Make up your own hypertula using one part cement, one part coarse sand and one to two parts peat substitute, mixed with water. When the hypertufa is dry, usually after several days, scrub the surface with a wire brush and liquid manure to encourage the growth of algae for an authentic stone effect. Choose an open, sunny position on your patio. There's a wide range of plants suitable, just be careful not to overplant as they will soon swamp each other.
Pots of style
A more conventional, and speedy, way to cheer up your patio is to plant up lots of containers. Empty existing pots and fill with fresh compost. Discard cracked containers as they'll dry out quicker. Dark containers will absorb more heat and will dry out quicker than light-coloured ones. Keep planting simple for the maximum effect, using one type of plant per pot. Use evergreen plants, such as phormiums, hakonechloa, Buxus sempervirens or Fatsia japonica 'Variegata', planted individually to give support to the more flamboyant summer bedding plants, such as petunias, pelargoniums or verbena.
Use slow-release fertilisers, such as Osmocote plant food tablets (around 2,95 from garden centres), and water-retaining granules to encourage more flowers and prevent containers from drying out. Clear your patio of weeds and clutter - you'll be amazed at how much bigger it will look. Use a cleaning product for patios, available from garden centres. Alternatively, I'm told that the water from boiled potatoes acts as an organic weed killer. Use a topping of bark chippings, pebbles or glass beads for an attractive mulch in containers, to help keep the soil moist and plants fresh.
Get the perfect path
Don't be tempted to scrimp on the quality or construction of a path, as it needs to be safe and durable. Informal paths - or paths that are used infrequently - can be made without much trouble. If you use materials creatively, a path can be attractive, even when the planting is past its peak, but limit the materials to three or four. A path from the garden gate to the front door should take the shortest route, so that people don't take a shortcut through the garden.
For stepping stones, cut out patches of turf about a stride's length apart and deep enough for the stones to sit just below the level of the lawn, so your mower can glide over them. Make sure you have a firm, level base first - use sand for stability.
Wood chippings make lovely soft paths and suit children's play areas. Lay chippings on compacted soil between lines of old logs or wooden edging - old railway sleepers are versatile. Marshalls has a product called Woodstone, made in reconstructed stone, that looks like wooden sleepers and timber decking flags, and doesn't become slippery in wet weather. Bedded in gravel, sleepers make an unusual informal path, especially if plants are encouraged to grow, softening the edges.
Go for gravel
Gravel comes in contrasting colours and sizes. It can be laid on compacted soil, but it's better to lay mulch matting first, to stop weeds taking over. Gravel needs an edging - perhaps of bricks or treated wood - to stop it spilling into the borders or lawn. It's a good choice for paths in a raised vegetable garden.
Smarten your paving path by adding a narrow gravel strip between joints to space out the slabs. Thi is ideal if you need to curve your path. Gaps between paving slabs can be broken up by pebbles, pressed into mortar. Tap them in with a rubber mallet and a plank of wood so they're flush with each other and the paving. Lift random paving on a wider path and plant with herbs. Use chipped bark to fill between randomly placed paving slabs for a natural effect.
Going potty in the garden
You don't need to have a vast garden to enjoy plant containers. Here's my top of the pots...
- Terracotta: Rhododendrons, such as 'Vuyk's Scarlet', look sensational in terracotta pots. They're porous, so let roots breathe, and they're inexpensive to buy, too.
- Metal: These containers have a modern feel. Hyacinths look great displayed individually in them, or try elegant 'Balalaika' tulips. Herbs also look wondderful. Metal gets hot quickly, however, so place them in a shady area.
- Wood: Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku' and daffodils look fantastic in a half barrel. Lilies really stand out in a square wooden pot. This type of container can last for years.
- Wire hanging baskets: These can be hung anywhere. For a unique twist, try Tumbling Tom Yellow Hanging Basket Tomato from Suttons Seeds (01803 696363).
- Plastic reproduction terracotta: These are inexpensive, great for balconies, as they're light, and retain moisture well. Trailers, such as ivy, will draw attention from the pot if you're anti-plastic.
What's in bloom
- Clematis montana f. grandiflora has pretty white petals and grows quickly.
- Aquilegia McKana Hybrids produces pendant flowers in one-colour, or two-tone in red and yellow.
- Tulips 'Bird of Paradise' is a red variety with a scarlet feathered inside, tinged yellow. Perfect for cutting.
Euphorbia myrsinites produces a spiral of grey-green leaves and puts on a spring display of yellow umbels.
The greatest gardening show
This year sees one of the world's biggest horticultural events, the Floriade 2002, from 6 April to 20 October. Held every ten years and taking ten years to create, Floriade is just outside Amsterdam and will feature exhibitors from all over the world. It will show off over one million new bulbs and 60,000 perennial plants. For more information, tickets and packages to Floriade, call the ticket hotline on 0870 7202002, or visit www.floriade.com.
Q: I've tried to grow parsley from seed several times, but have found it really hard to produce healthy seedlings. Have you got any ideas on where I'm going wrong or advice on how to remedy it?
A: I've heard that if you pour boiling water along the drill holes in the soil before planting, then sow the parsley seeds immediately, the shoots come through a treat every time. Water them well regularly, and you'll soon have a flourishing crop that's ready to eat straight from the pot.
Things to do in May
- Weed regularly;
- Sow sweetcorn and runner bean seeds into the ground;
- Tuck a straw mulch under strawberries to protect fruit;
- Keep fruit plants well watered;
- Plant climbers;
- Put a fine mesh around carrot crops to protect from carrot fly;
- Plant coriander and parsley seeds in moist, shaded soil;
- Mulch rhododendrons with lime-free organic matter.