It’s that time of year again: to swing open the back door, feel the sun against your skin… and promptly burst into tears at the sight of your garden. Monty Don’s Longmeadow this isn’t. Unloved, neglected, with a faint “communist state” air to it; if annual summer garden despair (ASGD) is upon you, you’re not alone. Luckily, there’s an enormous amount you can do quickly to transform outside space without using up your life’s savings, or precious free time, in the process. Yes, a green and fronded oasis of barbecues and drinks into the evening can be yours. And never mind that you’ve never picked up a trowel in your life.
I know this because I started in much the same way, on a rented balcony beneath the Heathrow flight path. What started as a few pots of flowers rapidly became an obsession: an escape from ludicrous work hours, continual stress and a depression I’d been wrangling with my entire adult life. Because here’s the unexpected thing about tending a garden: as well as looking lovely, as well as providing a handy place for dinner with friends on a warm evening, the act of covering yourself with compost while coaxing a misbehaving brassica from the soil makes you happy. In a world where we spend eight hours and 45 minutes a day in front of a digital screen, growing something with your own two hands and watching it slowly flourish is good for the soul. Healing, even.
So this weekend, I’m here to solve your top gardening woes, just in time for summer.
‘I have a tiny unloved patio and want to give it a makeover without breaking the bank. Help!’
Take heart. The wonderful thing about an insultingly small garden featuring nothing but an upturned chair and a Quavers packet blown in from next door is that even the tiniest change will make a disproportionately large difference. One of the quickest and most dramatic design tricks I know is to paint fences. Colour them white and light will flood into your garden bouncing off every surface. However, we live in a golden age of exterior paint colours, where major DIY retailers will mix pigments to your specification. Go bold. Perhaps Yves Klein blue on the back wall? Stick a few big potted ferns against it, and your garden will be Instagram-ready in no time.
Add a string of festoon lighting, a big colourful umbrella and a deckchair or two, and summer garden smugness will be yours.
‘I want to grow my own vegetables, but have only a titchy balcony. Is there anything I can grow?’
Lack of space be damned: thanks to the miracle of pre-grown seedlings from the “grow your own” aisle at the garden centre, there’s a market stall’s worth of fruit and veg you can start growing this very weekend.
A courgette is an excellent choice for a large, deep container, providing edible flowers as well as arming you against any future #courgettecrisis. A small yellow variety such as ‘Taxi’ is a great option. Little round ‘Atlas’ carrots are equally happy in a container, as is beetroot. Salad, such as rainbow chard and little gem lettuce, will be happy as a prancing pony in a pot (one plant per container if you’re using smallish terracotta ones). And don’t forget the railing of your balcony. Everything from trailing tomatoes to strawberries can be planted in hanging baskets or hook-over-the-edge planters, boosting your growing space to near-Countryfile levels.
‘I rent, so have to grow everything in containers. What can I plant now that will look good all summer?’
I’m a big fan of container planting. Easy to look after, instantly attractive and a cinch to move if they need more sun or protection. Different-sized planters grouped together give an instant “I know what I’m doing in the garden” look, too, which is a bonus.
In the words of my late grandma, massive great pots can be ruinously expensive, so scour junk shops and flea markets for old chimneys, milk churns, metal tubs or – my favourite – nip round the back of your local takeaway and see if they have any empty brightly coloured oil drums by the bins. Vibrantly hued and suitably distressed, these have the brilliant attribute of looking very expensive for free. Assorted terracotta pots age beautifully and look excellent wherever you put them.
But what to put in them? Start with one or two big structural plants to fill your space with colour. Hydrangea. Hosta. A perennial flowering bush such as shasta daisies. Small fruit, olive and bay trees are far less expensive than you’d think and add instant height. Then a mix of bushy herbs (a purple-leaved sage, rampant parsley or mint, say) and something suitably low-maintenance, colourful and edible, such as violas or pansies. With flowers, the more you pick, the more they grow. Deadhead regularly, and they’ll last all summer.
‘The walls and fences in my garden are ugly. What can I do to improve their appearance?’
We’ve already covered the joy of outdoor paint, but there are all sorts of other ways to spruce up your boundaries. Training climbers such as rambling rose, jasmine, honeysuckle and clematis up a dodgy wall is a classic English garden approach, but this will take a year or so really to get going. For instant results, a ladder planter propped against a wall and filled with brimming-over plant pots will provide extra growing space as well as disguising less than perfect walls and fencing. For crumbling old walls, the tiny flowers of Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) or London pride (the plant, not the beer: Latin name Saxifraga x urbium) are quick-growing, crack-colonising wonders.
And don’t forget good old moss, especially in shady corners. The best way to grow moss up a vertical surface is to blend it with yoghurt to a milkshake consistency and simply paint it where you want it to grow. I know. Magic.
So there we are: ASGD cured. Your summer garden sorted in nary more than a weekend. All that remains is to pour yourself a strong cold drink to celebrate and bask in the glow of your own cleverness. Cheers.