Occasionally people challenge me to put a name to an obscure tree (strike rate, about two out of five – but there are some really obscure trees in the world). For the most part, though, the kind of horticultural questions preoccupying the nation are the same old perennial thorny dilemmas of gardening: what is wrong with my tomatoes? How do I get rid of slugs? And, certainly in the top five: what can I do with that horrible dark bit of my garden where it's always shady?
Almost inevitably, the horrible dark bit is down the side of the house, or right up against your neighbour's extension. And, in some cases I've looked at, the honest and best answer is artificial grass. Particularly if the people who really want to use the horrible dark bit are small boys lacking a football pitch. For the sake of your children's future footballing careers, resign yourself now, give up on the idea of real grass (which will always look scabby in deep shade) and Google EverLawn.
On the other hand, if dark and shady is all you have, there are devious things you can do to make the whole space more palatable. For a start, paint anything you have permission for in white. By "white", I mean brilliant white, not cream. This is not a time to listen to the subtle taupe lovers of this world; off-whites just look dirty and old in deep shade, and the requirement is for as much brightness as possible. For wooden fences, sheds and bike stores, go for Ronseal "White Ash", a clean white with a smart touch of blue-grey. This has great coverage and 2.5 litres should cover four fence panels or a whole shed. (Some money goes to the Woodland Trust, too, when you buy it.) Brick and rendered walls can also be painted, with a coat of stabiliser and then masonry paint. Keep it white, though.
You could even paint the patio. Think about how much lighter the house seems when snow is coating the ground, reflecting light upwards. Why not have the ground white all year long? Small concreted areas down the side of the house are particularly suitable for this sort of treatment, which requires a good clean and scrub, more stabilising solution, and again, an appropriate paint. If you're not expecting a procession of small children, masonry paint will do. If there's going to be heavy traffic, consider using a white line paint similar to those used in car parks. Some of these will go straight on to bare concrete, definitely saving time.
Now you just have to think about which plants to grow. At the risk of sounding boring, I think the answer here is white, too. Go for dark, shiny-leaved camellias (which will give big white flowers in early spring), gorgeous white mop-headed hydrangeas and smart white geraniums. And if you are feeling energetic, paint the pots white, too.
Then we just have to tackle the question of how to get rid of all the slugs: scrolled wirework wall planter, 60cm high, to fit two pots – £19.99 from thegarden factory.co.uk. I'm a sucker for anything that looks as though it's been pinched from an old French lady's balcony (see box), and this fits the bill admirably.
More booty from the notional Côte d'Azur garden burglary...
1. Stand and deliver
A white slatted wooden plant stand is £24.95 from acaciahome.co.uk
2. Dusky fragrance
Fill the stand with pots of white nicotiana (right) and water well for amazing night-time scents – a packet of seed to sow now is £1.95 from sarahraven.com
3. Box clever
For smart, minimal white window boxes, check out linkabord.co.uk for double-skinned boxes made from recycled uPVC. One for a metre-long windowsill is £25.