Garden: Workshop - The ways of vines and roses

In the latest in her occasional series, Anna Pavord lends a hand to a city gardener
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE a north-west facing balcony and planted a `Brandt' grapevine in a half-barrel there, for the autumn colour. Most unexpectedly, after 18 months, this produced a crop of very small, very sweet black grapes. Last autumn and the previous year, all the leaves fell off at the yellow stage before they had time to go red. Why? Do vines in containers usually behave in this way, or am I just very unlucky?"

Well!", I thought as I read this letter. If I had a vine in a half-barrel on a north-west facing balcony, I would be grateful enough that it was growing at all, let alone worrying about the precise shade of the autumn colour. But Caroline Benwell, who gardens in a patch 35 feet square in Herne Hill, south-east London, included some photographs of her garden. And it was so rich, so overflowing with plants, so abundant and pretty that I wanted the opportunity to snoop around it. I doubted I could tell her anything she didn't already know. And so it turned out.

She had just had a small patio laid to replace the cracked concrete outside the French doors which open into the back garden. A success, I asked? Qualified, she replied. The landscapers had laid it so that water, instead of running into the drain she had carefully included in her specifications, collected in a puddle right under the table where she likes to sit in the morning. And perhaps, if she were starting all over again, she might have thought of a terrace at the far end of the garden instead, because that is where the sun lingers longest. In the summer evenings, it would be an excellent place to sit. On the other hand, if she were sitting there, she would be in full view of all the neighbours...

The desire for privacy is the driving force of most town gardeners. But, as Ms Benwell points out, if the barriers are too high, "you lose the sun along with the neighbours". Many unfortunate owners of Leyland hedges have found that a boundary can soon turn into a prison.

In this garden, the two side boundaries are made from wooden panels, now entirely propped up by the rampant growth that covers them. The back boundary is the tallest - a brick wall with a fence and two layers of trellis on top - screening the builder's yard behind. You'd never know it was there. All the boundaries are stitched through with a tapestry of climbing plants: ivy and honeysuckle underneath, clematis on top. Clematis alpina "White Moth" looked especially good wandering through the buff- pink buds of an early honeysuckle.

"You're seeing it at its best," said Ms Benwell about the honeysuckle. "Later on it gets attacked by aphids, sooty mould, mildew, until by August, all its leaves have dropped off." She sprays with Nimrod T and uses Supercarb (pbi) once a month to prop up problem clematis. Both are effective fungicides, but both need to be used as preventatives rather than cures.

"It's not easy to garden organically in a city," she says sadly. She tries, but the richer she makes her soil, the more luscious her plants, the more slugs and snails hurry in from the bleaker environs of Brockwell Park. There are so many snails, she can scarcely put a foot down on the new patio (laid with York look-alike pavers) without hearing the scrunch of shells. Then there was the lawn, a new one, laid at the same time as the patio, a circle in the centre of the garden, surrounded by flowerbeds which reach out to the three boundaries. The old lawn had been muddy; the grass was poor and thin, and the shape had been inconclusive.

The circle makes a strong centre to the layout of the garden. And it is edged with brick, which gets over a previous problem of plants spilling from the flowerbeds and killing the grass underneath. With the organic mantra "Feed the soil, not the plants," ringing in her ears, she incorporated masses of pelleted chicken manure into the ground on which the new turf was to be laid.

But the foxes who regularly pass through the garden could not understand why, if there was chicken poo, there were no chickens. They started to dig up the lawn, so Ms Benwell put buff Netlon down over the new turf to deter them. "It's probably the only underpinned lawn in London," she says. The grass has grown so well, the Netlon can scarcely be seen at all. It's a good trick. And it would be worth copying to ease pressure on a lawn that gets more heavily used than it can bear.

While the garden was being dug up for the sake of the patio and the new lawn, she decided to take the opportunity to install a fountain in the middle of the border at the back. "Very difficult to find anything suitable. Too many dolphins, twee children. That sort of thing," she explained. So she bought a shallow garden urn, about two feet across, standing on a low pedestal.

There was already a hole drilled for drainage through the bottom of the urn, but she had to install a pump and electricity to work it. She can switch the fountain on from the kitchen. The water bubbles gently out from the stones filling the urn and falls out on to more stones arranged around its foot. It is very effective. And the water can be recycled endlessly through the system.

She had to coat the urn with Bondaglass first, though, and fiddle with the way it sat on the ground. On the proud day she first switched on the fountain, she found that all the water fell out over the back edge of the urn, where she couldn't see it. So the whole thing has been gently cantilevered forward so the waterfall is in full view.

She has learned to be ruthless about her plants. Those that don't respond to treatment (she is a clinical co-ordinator in the South Thames region) are turfed out. Her roses are chosen for their vigorous constitutions as much as their appearance. So out went "Paul's Perpetual White" and in came pale pink "New Dawn". The blush-coloured floribunda "Many Happy Returns" grows in a pot, and the creamy-white shrub rose "Sally Holmes" thrives in the southwest border.

So what about the vine? Well I did go to look at it, just to show willing. The compost in the barrel had so much moisture-retaining Swelgel in it, the local sparrows could have used it as a trampoline. The vine, its growths trained in and out of the bars of the balustrade, was just breaking into growth, fresh, bright green. All in all, it seemed to be doing remarkably well for a vine with a restricted root run, deprived of sun.

I couldn't think of anything for Ms Benwell to do for it that she hadn't already thought of herself. She'll just have to learn to love yellow.