A patch of paradise, five by ten
No garden? No matter. The tiniest roof space can be a haven of colour and scent, says NIGEL COLBORN
Sunday 21 February 1999
My friend Nikos was a hopeless gardener. He cared nothing for composts or pruning, and when I once commented that Cyprus was blessed with a heritage of lovely wild flowers he was incredulous. "Such as ...?" he demanded. "Cyclamen," I ventured. "Tulips." "Don't be ridiculous," he replied, "everyone knows they come from Holland," unaware that the ravishing wild forebears of those monstrously overbred plants grow undisturbed in the rocky wastes and rough pastures of his island.
Ignorant he may have been, but as an aesthete Nikos adored his roof terrace. Three floors up - high enough to soften the noise of the streets below and to benefit from the evening breeze - it was a tonic for him, after an exhausting workday, to sit among the plants that his wife kept alive through the cruel Cyprus summers. She had created shade by growing potted jasmines - the intensely scented Jasminum polyanthum - at either end of the terrace, training their stems along an overhead frame. There was a lemon tree in a big terracotta pot and a myrtle bush, close-clipped but delightful to caress, so that the spicy aroma blended with the sharper fragrance of the jasmine. Other plants were more commonplace: a mother-in-law's tongue, a jade tree Crassula ovata. Water was short in summer so it was just as well that most of these plants were desert species.
Under British skies, simplicity still works best. Strong outline planting is crucial to give the design a backbone, and you'll need evergreens to keep things lively in winter. Most of these - box, holly, bay - will live happily in containers and can be trimmed into formal shapes. Once these living bones are in place you will need more plants to ensure a succession of floral events throughout the year. Summer is easy enough, but even on the tiniest terrace there can be something flowering, producing berries or showing handsome foliage, whatever the month, whatever the weather.
You can produce food on a roof terrace, too, and as many fresh herbs as you could possibly need. Sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and basil all love sun, and respond to constant trimming by growing hundreds of new shoots. Ken Muir offers Victorian-style strawberry planters which accommodate 32 plants and come with protective netting and a central watering system (contact Honeypot Farm, Weeley Heath, Clacton-on-Sea, Essex CO16 9BJ for a catalogue). You could try planting one with the pink-flowered strawberry "Vivarosa". Tomatoes such as "Tumbler" are perfect for a roof terrace, as are containerised carrots, cabbage, kale and lettuce. One minute these are decorative foliage plants, the next they are lunch!
Practical limitations will influence your ambitions. Weight restrictions, the possibility of water seepage and accessibility are important factors. You might find yourself having to carry potting compost up several flights of stairs - hardly an incentive to grow trees in troughs, but succulents need very little soil. If watering is difficult, go for Mediterranean plants. Lavenders, santolina, geraniums, yuccas, petunias and most silver-leaved plants are ideal.
Where flooding is likely - flat roofs are notorious for this - place containers in waterproof trays or on "feet". And in windy places, you'll need to construct - or grow - screens. The prettiest way is to set up a line of troughs each with its own trellis. Plant them with hedging, or with climbers such as clematis or honeysuckle, then sit back and enjoy. It might be a bit colder than Cyprus but wrap up and you'll never know the difference.
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All these thrive in containers. Those marked * need winter protection.
MARCH: Daphne mezereum - bright purple, fragrant flowers. Early tulips - try "Purissima".
APRIL: Camellia x williamsii "Donation" - evergreen with big pink blooms. Violas of any kind.
MAY: Spanish gorse Genista hispanica - compact with golden flowers. Perennial wallflowers.
JUNE: Potted roses: try "Flower Carpet White". Blue petunias*.
JULY: Myrtus communis, the hardiest myrtle. Geraniums* - choose scented- leaf kinds.
AUGUST: Fuchsias*. Osteospermums* in pastel shades.
SEPTEMBER: Ceanothus "Autumnal blue" - evergreen shrub, blue flowers. Nerine bowdenii - pink lily-like blooms.
OCTOBER: Solanum rantonetii* - blue flowers until the first frost. Canna indica* is lovely with this.
NOVEMBER: Erica carnea - white or pink. Korean chrysanthemums.
DECEMBER: Holly, clipped to desired size or shape. Christmas rose Helleborus niger.
JANUARY: Fragrant Sarcococca hookeriana. Snowdrops. Aconites.
FEBRUARY: Daphne laureola. Evergreen shrub for shade, richly fragrant flowers. Crocuses.
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