Gasping under the privet

Paving slabs and garbage bedevil this small London front garden. Anna Pavord, in her Workshop series, advises
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The Independent Online
"I wonder if you could come up with some solutions for my small front garden. This is a largely paved area in front of the West Villa (a pseudo-Gothic almshouse in north London). It is south-facing, divided from the road by a thick privet hedge - on the other side is a bus stop, so the garden is also a repository for a lot of garbage.

Where paving stones have been lifted, I tried to make a mixed flower and herb bed, planting anything and everything to fill it, but it is all a bit random. Other parts of the front garden include a tiny bed tucked into the corner next to the ground-floor flat's bay window, where I have put a clematis 'Ville de Lyon' and a pineapple broom.

By the downpipe, there is a hacked japonica and a few bulbs. At the entrance to the garden is a splendid, but over-dominating hydrangea. I should eventually like to replace it with smaller evergreen shrubs and clematis.

Finally, what can I do with the dusty no man's land and rubbish dump underneath the privet hedge? Can I try my other two passions, hostas and ferns, or will they just look sad?"

The Metropolitan Benefit Societies' Almshouses where Stephen Toms lives make three sides of a square facing on to the Balls Pond Road, north London.

The arms of the almshouses that reach towards the road finish with a flourish in East Villa and West Villa, where Mr Toms has a flat. The privet hedge he mentioned is doing a good job screening the little front garden, which is railed off from the road and the communal garden with sturdy old black railings. If he could get some chicken wire along the front of the railings it would cut down on the amount of litter that gets poked through from the bus stop. Painted black, it would be almost invisible.

On the inside, the hedge needs trimming back quite severely, for it is encroaching on the garden space. May is the perfect time for a first cut and Mr Toms will probably need to have another go in September. Keeping that one roadside boundary smoothly barbered will immediately enhance the setting of the little front patch.

What about the idea of planting ferns and hostas along the bottom of the hedge? The vision is cool and refreshing, but I cannot see it coming off. Privet is hungry and thirsty. The small strip of earth in which it grows is paved on the garden side and pressed in on by acres of tarmac and concrete on the road side. There is little opportunity for rain to soak into the ground. The ferns and hostas would be left gasping while the privet lapped up all available supplies.

But when the hedge is cut back, there will be more light at the base, and when the litter is cleared away there will be small unobstructed bays of earth between the privet trunks. This is where I would experiment with autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium, planting growing plants rather than dry corms. You would first need to loosen up the earth as much as you could and work in as much bonemeal as possible.

The corner between bay window and brick boundary wall, where Mr Toms has planted his pineapple broom, is working well. The broom is full of silky leaf and when it flowers the (pineappley) smell will drift in through the open window.

This broom is a winner in youth but, like many fast-growing shrubs and trees, does not grow old well. Mine, planted nine years ago, has zoomed undaunted above its wall and is now about 12ft high. Occasionally I remove an entire branch, but am still left with a great network of bare trunk and stem, the flowers and foliage fluttering only at the extremities of the bush. If Mr Toms can bear to cut back each stem by a third after flowering, he will slow down this inevitable process.

'Ville de Lyon', the clematis planted with the broom, has two crops of deep carmine flowers. The first, in May, will coincide with the broom's yellow flowers, which will be an eye opener. The second crop will be set off more discreetly against the broom's elegant foliage.

The japonica on the south wall between the two bay windows is not such a success, for at some stage it has been slashed to the ground and has reacted by throwing out a thicket of short horizontal shoots. When it has finished flowering, I suggested that Mr Toms should cut back the forward- facing stems at the base and tie in some of the stems at the back against the wall, where they can be trained upwards in the space between the windows.

Boundary to boundary, the frontage is about 40ft, with 10ft of potential space between bow window and privet hedge, but what with the hedge and the luxuriant hydrangea (I would not get rid of it if it were mine), the useable space is far less.

Most of the ground is covered with 2ft x 4ft paving slabs and the bed that Mr Toms mentioned is made in the space left by lifting four of the concrete slabs at one end of the garden. This gives the impression that the bed is cowering there because it is frightened to come out.

Mr Toms wanted to keep enough paving to sit out on, so the planting area could not be too ambitious. There were two options: to enlarge the existing bed, or to give it a twin at the other side of the garden. I would do the latter.

There was a young tree, about 5ft high, in the centre of the existing bed. It was growing on two trunks. One of them needed to go. I suggested that Mr Toms should get rid of the branches on the bottom half of the better trunk and shape up the tree as a small mophead.

The plants around it would benefit from this treatment, too. The four plants of lemon balm, all growing rather close together on one side of the bed, could be distributed round the four quarters of the rectangle. Then the central tree and the four balanced balms could act as anchors for more random planting around them: violas, woodruff, dwarf bulbs, small- leaved hostas, astrantia, variegated ginger mint, with space for annuals (one kind each season) to give the border a different colour wash each year. Columbia Road flower market is only a bus ride away.