Gardening: Something to hide

Oil tanks and dustbin areas are a particular eyesore in the summer, when so much time is spent outdoors. But it is easy to build your own screens, says Sarah Raven. Here, she shows you how, and suggests some exotic and rampant climbers to complete the camouflage
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The Independent Culture
THE DUSTBIN area outside your house is a particular eyesore at this time of year, when you spend a lot of time in the garden. Oil tanks can look dreadful, too. The classic answer is lap-larch fencing panels, or the usual brown-stained trellis erected as a screen. These can look dull and ugly, though, even with a coat of paint. I prefer sturdy chestnut and hazel or willow hurdles, but these can look quaint in a town.

I have just created a cheaper and less rustic fence around my dustbins and oil tank. I made the uprights from metal scaffold poles, which have a modern feel, but you could use wooden posts. Excavate a trench around the concrete base for the bins, or tank. If you are digging into soil, sink them to a depth of about 18in. You can put them into concrete, too, but you will need to dig holes with a pickaxe to a depth of 8 to 10in to set them firm. Use the quick-set concrete available at DIY shops. Leave 3ft gaps between the uprights.

Weave treated softwood roofing battens, 2in deep and a half inch thick, in and out between the posts. The screen should be as solid as a basket, so use a stick to bash the battens down into place. You can get these from any builder's centre, and they all deliver. I have just bought a couple of bundles of 20 8ft lengths at pounds 10 a bundle. So, allowing pounds 20 or so for the uprights, housing your bins should cost under pounds 50. You can then place a rampant climber to clad the whole thing with a curtain of flowers and leaves. If you want to create a canopy, attach some lengths of wire across the top between the uprights to train the plants across.

Now to the plants. These places are often in dingy spots, without much light. There is one luscious ivy, Hedera colchica `Dentata', which thrives in dry, dark soil and would clad a dustbin box in a couple of years. It has huge dark, glossy leaves and, since it's an evergreen, your bins won't suddenly reappear in the autumn. I don't like many ivies, but this one has a tropical, jungly feel and always looks good.

More glamorous than this is the chocolate vine, Akebia quinata, which also thrives in a cool, shady place. This is one of my favourite climbers. It looks elegant and rather delicate in the spring with its bright green, five-lobed leaves and scented wine-red flowers, but is anything but. It's a hundred times nicer than the mile-a-minute Russian vine, but will ramp away up an oak tree or cover a five-storey building if you want it to. It needs a rich, moist soil to do its best, so dig it a huge hole and pour in a whole bag of manure or mushroom compost. Mix this in with the soil in the base of the planting pit, so as not to scorch the roots, and add some to the pile of soil you have dug out, too. Akebia will grow to about 8ft in two or three years. It will eventually reach 40ft, but it is easy to prune and keep under control. In towns and mild areas, akebia is evergreen, but it isn't hardy below -10C (14F) and will shed its leaves if you live in a colder place.

If your bins are in a brighter spot, I would think of planting a hop, Humulus lupulus, as well. Hops and akebia make a brilliant mix. If you go for the golden hop, H.l. `Aurea', you don't get the lovely pagoda-shaped fruits that you get with the ordinary green variety, but the acid-green leaves stand out wonderfully against the akebia. Plant the akebia on the shady side and the hop with its root in the sun. The hop alone is not as good: it is herbaceous and dies right down in the autumn and is late to emerge in the spring.

Most clematis take two or three years to really get going, but this is not the case with C. montana, another rampant, vigorous plant. This clematis grows so quickly and to such a height, that you should avoid planting it around the bins unless it has a wall or fence to cover as well. You will have to keep pruning it savagely and if left unpruned it will end up looking a mess, reaching 10ft in two to three years and over 25ft in 10. So, if space is short, you're better off with one of the other plants. The large-flowered C.m.f. grandiflora is the best, with its pure white, four-petalled flowers and primrose-yellow centres. It flowers for about a month in late spring, and has an exotic, sweet scent in the evening. It will grow anywhere, but it does best with its top basking in full sun. Dig in lots of organic material before you plant it to help the soil retain moisture.

The clematis will give you clouds of flowers in spring, but for a real summer splash, I would also sow some nasturtiums on the sunny side of your box. The leaves and crimson-washed stems and tendrils of the clematis provide a lovely backing to vermilion, orange or tangerine. Choose a climbing nasturtium, rather than the prostrate, creeping kind. And choose just one colour so it looks like one rampant plant. Once you have sown nasturtiums, they will scatter seed and reappear every year. They are easy to grow, and thrive in poor, scraggy soil, but will do best if you poke the seed direct into the ground. They are also strong growers and won't be outdone by the perennial climbers that are competing for food and water. Ipomoea, sweet peas and other annual climbers will find the competition hard and won't do well without lots of feeding, but nasturtiums flower twice as much if they are dry and starving.

There are some other brilliant annual climbers for instant effect. Cobaea scandens is one of the most rampant, growing to 15ft in six months from sowing. It has huge greeny-white to purple flowers, shaped like teacups, that hang below a saucer of bracts around the flower. It's an exotic-looking Mexican plant that will cover your dustbin screen in a season. Raise them as half-hardy annuals, sowing the seeds on their side after soaking them overnight in slightly tepid water to encourage rapid germination. Plant them out when the risk of frost is over.

For a really baking, sunny corner, go for turquoise, purple or red ipomoea to add some zap to the cobaea. Raise them from seed and harden them off in the same way as the cobaea, but use peat pots. Ipomoeas hate root disturbance. Peat pots are more expensive than plastic, but with these you don't have to upset their roots at all. Just bury them in the ground, pot and all. The pots dissolve in a week in damp soil.