DURING THE past hot weeks, our garden has become a combined dining room/nightclub/disco. As there are rarely fewer than 20 people round the barbecue, our plants are beginning to suffer. Can you recommend some hardy types that will withstand the occasional drop of absinthe?
We would like to combine the scented candles with aromatic plants that smell in the evening, and also use the bamboo flares for climbers such as sweet peas. Herbs and flowers for Pimms would be useful, and we'd like to serve our own salads and roast vegetables. But we'd have to stick to things that are easy to look after and simple to grow.
Space is definitely at a premium; much of one corner is taken up by the garden shed. There is, however, a lot of unused space around the perimeter of the fence. We'd like to make the garden as colourful as possible and carry on partying until the cold forces us back inside.
THE OPTIMISTIC letter came from Tilly Ware, one of four girls, all in their early twenties, who live together in a terraced house in west London. The house belongs to her friend Hatty, who met Tilly, Lucy and Camilla at Edinburgh University, where they were all students.
French doors lead from the kitchen/dining area at the back of the house directly out into the leafy garden, which is about 22ft wide and 24ft long. The shed, originally in the back, right-hand corner, had been moved to the opposite side. That was sensible. It had been hogging the sunshine that the girls wanted.
"In the morning, it's the sunniest spot" explained Tilly. "In the aftermath of a party, it's quite nice to have somewhere to escape." There's a wooden bench in that corner now, with a metal arch propped tipsily over it. A monumentally ambitious squash, planted yards away, has climbed up the side of the arch and into the arms of the birch tree behind. Heaven only knows what the squash is feeding on. Pure alcohol, probably.
Outside the French windows, two rows of paving stones stretch the width of the garden. Beyond that is a big square of gravel that accounts for most of the rest of the space, apart from a border five-feet wide which stretches down the right-hand boundary. That, too, is sensible, as it faces south and gets the best of the sun.
The boundary on the left, a boarded fence, is smothered in summer jasmine. The border there, scarcely a foot wide, is too narrow for any planting and is overhung by the exuberant jasmine. If it was pruned severely back against the fence, the girls would gain extra room. I would set a line of big, heavy pots along that boundary and plant them with lilies. They would fill the evening air with a suitably decadent scent and provide summer colour. They are also very undemanding creatures to look after.
The jasmine continues round some of the back boundary, where it mixes with ivy. There is a usable strip of earth there, shored up with a log. It is shady, but if the ground was made up a little, borage and mint for the Pimms would be happy there. Chives would grow there too, but they would all need regular watering. Between them, the birch tree and the ivy take a lot of the moisture from the ground.
At present, herbs grow in a big oval galvanised wash tub on the paving under the kitchen window. But the mint and the chives in the tub would grow better in the open ground, which would release space for coriander, which can be sown direct into the tub next spring.
Small-leaved basil grows in a small plastic window box precariously abandoned on the paving. But there is a big kitchen window, which tilts outwards. If they could fix a strong window box underneath this window (it is about four feet wide), they would have a safer and more convenient place for their basil. Herbs are important, Tilly stressed, as they are all ambitious cooks.
Basil cannot be grown outside until May, as it is tender. If the girls can get a window box made, they could plant it this autumn with sweet smelling hyacinths for spring. In summer nasturtiums (fresh green seeds and leaves are good in salads) could hang down the front of the box.
Given the amount of room they need for their outdoor dinner and salsa parties, it is unrealistic to suggest planting up any of the area that is currently gravelled over. Gravel is a practical surface. Spilt wine soaks seamlessly away. Cigarette butts bury themselves quietly underfoot.
That leaves just two areas where growing things are likely to do well: the border on the right-hand side of the garden - at least until it runs into the overhung area of the birch and an upright cherry tree that grows very close to it, and the back wall of the house itself, which faces roughly west.
The narrow bit of wall to the left of the French doors is fully occupied with runner beans, looking rather exotic at the moment with their brilliant red flowers. But the larger stretch of wall on the other side is occupied only by a passion flower growing in a tub.
The paving stones here are laid flush with the wall, so at the moment, containers are the only option. But if one or two of the pavers were lifted, there would be space to plant climbing waxpod beans and the handsome climbing bean Robsplash, which has creamy pods, marbled and splashed in purple and pink. They might even be able to squeeze in some sweet peas.
Physalis (cape gooseberry) has been the most successful crop in the wide border this summer. It sets edible fruit, bright orange red, inside papery bracts. Tilly and Hatty peel back the bracts and dip the fruit in melted chocolate for party puddings. There was a single, handsome sweetcorn growing in a pot, but sweetcorn needs partners to set its cobs and they haven't room to plant the necessary block.
Given the extraordinary, rapacious prices that supermarkets charge for vegetables such as rocket, I would use the border for salad crops: rocket, and the leafy mix of lettuce, endive and chicory that the Italians call misticanza. Both these are cut and come again crops, and provide a long succession of leaves for salads. They would be more useful than traditional lettuce. For the best results, they should cut back the big branch of rose sticking out over the border and feed the ground with mushroom compost. Both are winter jobs.
Tilly also mentioned vegetables for roasting on the barbecue. That is more difficult. Red peppers and courgettes are the ones you need most, but peppers are difficult to grow well outside and courgettes take up a lot of room. Courgettes grow successfully in Growbags, but is there room for one on the paving where the CharBroil barbecue sits, umbilically attached to its bottle of gas? Probably not.
At party time, the garden is lit by nightlights in jars and bamboo flares (the kind with a small paraffin-filled can at the top), stuck into the ground. In these circumstances you can smell and hear more than you can see. So I'd pile on the lilies, and pray that the girls' neighbours like Ruben Gonzalez and the Buena Vista Social Club as much as they do.Reuse content