I want flowers, fruit - and romance

"We have just moved into our first `owned' home. What sold us the house was its long (85ft) garden, which is bereft of plants except grass. The problem is: we're utterly daunted..."
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The Independent Online
"...the front garden is likewise green but plain. Now I love gardening, plants and flowers. My day at the Chelsea Flower Show recently was one of the happiest in my life. But having always rented in the past, I am a container/seasonal colour gardener. I love reading about long-term planning, but now we are faced with a blank slate.

The garden is south-facing and has a useful patio area near the house with room for the proposed (dreamed of) potting shed - a home in winter for my many geraniums. There are other factors to take into account. We have two young children. I am determined to have a vegetable plot with soft fruits. I have a long list (mental) of plants I have always wanted to grow and desperately need help on what to put where. I long for old roses, white wistaria and apple trees. But where do I start?''

By the time I caught up with Lucy Williams and her husband Adrian Galvin in their Norwich home, they had already tackled the tiny front garden. A decorative chimney-pot planted with red double daisies stood in the middle of the square, surrounded by a generous circle of round pebbles. They had planted low-growing saxifrages and more daisies in the ground round the pebbles with a sturdy little crab-apple, Malus sargentii, in one corner. It looked good.

The back, as Ms Williams had hinted, was a more daunting prospect. The garden is very thin (18ft) for its length and the levels are slightly awkward. The concrete patio drops by way of a cracked, uneven concrete slope to an old brick path which leads down one side of the garden until it peters out in long grass. The boundaries are defined by woven wood panels.

New dreams had been added to the wish-list. Ms Williams wanted their garden to look flowery and romantic. She had visions of a meadow area waving with cow parsley, wild flowers and naturalised bulbs. She had set her heart on making proper compost and a formal herb garden as well as the vegetable plot. They had already built a little square trellis arbour, but she did not know which climbers to put on it.

Planning the different areas was complicated by the fact that the previous owners had cut down two huge trees, but had not dug out the roots. You could see why. Mr Galvin had set up the children's swing over one of the submerged stumps near the bottom left-hand side of the garden. The other crouched immovably close to the patio.

The position of the swing left an awkward lost space behind it and the far boundary of the garden, which suggested it would be the best place for the compost bins. Ms Williams had been thinking seriously about compost. Some friends of hers had a wormery, "but when they go away, somebody has to feed the worms and I could do without a load of worms depending on me as well as everything else". So worms were out, though she thought they might have been interesting for Abigail, three, and Francis, who is nearly one.

Two square wooden boxes that they could build up as the level of compost rose would be the simplest solution here, I felt. They would be cheaper and less obtrusive than a tumbler bin on a stand, which is what Ms Williams and her husband had been thinking of. They had started to clear a vegetable patch on the right-hand side of the bottom of the garden, though ideally you would have switched the positions of the swing and the vegetable patch. There is a large sycamore in the neighbouring garden on the right-hand side which will drain much of the goodness out of the soil. The compost will be in great demand.

The trickiest thing to resolve was the drop in level between the flat terrace at the back of the house and the rest of the garden. I suggested a wide, shallow series of brick steps. Mr Galvin, who is a reporter with the Eastern Daily Press, has just finished a course on garden bricklaying, but is suffering from what his wife calls "bricklayer's block".

I think if I were them, the steps are the one thing in the garden that I would contract out to hired labour. A builder could complete in two days a job which may take them months to tackle. There is no knowing how long the bricklayer's block might last and there is, after all, a lot of sport to be watched on television this summer. But not until the steps are in will the rest of the garden fall into place.

Although the old brick path below is only 3ft wide, I felt the steps should be much wider, taking up the whole of the available space at the edge of the terrace. In a garden as narrow as this, you want to emphasise width, and broad, shallow steps will give out all the right signals. They will also be comfortable to use.

But there were still herbs, fruit, romance and a meadow to fit into this garden. Where? Establishing a wild-flower meadow is actually not something I would recommend in a small garden. Most garden soil is far too rich for wild flowers, and though the first season may seem promising, the flowers gradually get driven out by coarse grasses, docks and nettles. A meadow area looks good in late May and early June, then the long grass quickly gets beaten down by summer rain. But it would be worth having some long grass so the children could wriggle through it on their stomachs. That is what long grass is really for.

If they planted two apple trees, one slightly to the right in the ground adjoining the vegetable patch, one slightly to the left and closer to the house, they could let the lawn, close-mown near the terrace, develop into long, uncut grass towards the end of the garden under the apple trees, with a path mown through it to get to the vegetable area, the swing and the compost.

I would plant half-standard apples, with a clear stem of at least 4ft, which will develop into handsome trees and give the eye a chance to move from one side of the garden to the other, rather than straight down the middle. I would also seek out varieties that are local to East Anglia. It is scarcely worth trying to grow Cox apples. They need endless spraying if they are to produce a crop.

Norfolk Royal is vigorous, prolific and disease-free, introduced by Wright's Nurseries in North Walsham in 1928. The fruit is bright crimson and, picked in early September, is ready to eat from late September through to early December. You can use it as a cooker as well as an eater.

Norfolk Beauty is a cooking apple, raised at Gunton Park in Norwich at the turn of the century. The fruit is large and pale yellow and keeps until Christmas. Ms Williams is a keen cook and wants a cooking apple.

At present, her herbs are planted at the top of a narrow border that runs down the right-hand side of the garden. This is a good place for them, close to the kitchen door. Mr Galvin remade the edge of the border, using rope-edge tiles from Sainsbury's Homebase.

I liked the herbs as they were and the very narrow border leaves little room for fancy designs, but if Ms Williams wanted to make the herb garden seem more formal, she could use more rope-edge tiles to mark off separate compartments for the herbs down the border. There would be room for two herbs in each compartment, rosemary underplanted with low-growing thyme, mint surrounded by chives.

Finally, there was the "long list" of plants that Ms Williams wanted to grow. There would not be room for many of them in the narrow right- hand border. I suggested she made a big bed adjoining her little arbour, with the lawn meeting it in a smooth curve, leaving her with a roughly triangular shape in which to plant.

They could most easily work out the curve by laying a hosepipe along the ground to get the right angle, then cutting along it with a spade to make the edge between grass and border. The bed would be looked at from three sides and the Euphorbia wulfenii that Ms Williams had just acquired would make exactly the right centrepiece.

Norfolk Royal and Norfolk Beauty apple trees are available from: Scotts Nurseries, Merriott, Somerset TA16 5PL (01460 72306), catalogue pounds 1.50; or Keepers Nursery, 446 Wateringbury Road, East Malling, Kent ME19 6JJ (01622 813008), send sae for catalogue. Both do mail-order. Trees are best planted after leaf fall in November.