Made in the shade

Gardening workshop: an ugly shed, little sun ... what can be done? Anna Pavord advises
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The Independent Online
We have just moved to a typical Edwardian terraced house in Southfields, south-west London. It has a north-facing garden with an ugly shed and one border with four very small living plants - a rose, lavender, thyme and something with variegated leaves. We do not seem to get much sun in the garden.

My aims are to grow herbs for cooking; to grow apple and pear trees; to hide or cover the ugly shed, possibly with a vine; to get privacy from neighbours on three sides; to have somewhere to sit with a drink at the end of the day; to cover up a double manhole cover on the terrace; to change the paving to something more in keeping with the house; to reduce the amount of grass.

I do not like bright colours and would like the garden to be predominantly white or pale colours. I am keen to have more lavender. I would be grateful for ideas on what likes the shade, and what will grow fairly quickly.

Tina and Mark Podmore, who are both in their mid-thirties, lived for 10 years in a Fulham flat before acquiring their first house. They were, said Tina, "desperate for a garden". Although her letter concentrated on the problems, the garden is not the nightmare scenario I had expected. The boundary fences are upright. The levels have not been messed up. The proportions are good, 20ft by 35ft, and the wish list that Tina made was realistic. There was even sun pouring into the garden from the west.

The shed, 9ft by 6ft, is ugly, but not dilapidated. It looked as though it could stand being moved. At the moment it is set against the back boundary. You look, over too short a space, straight into its long side and plain, blank window. If the shed were swung round the other way, so that its long side lay along the right-hand boundary, it would not look so dominant. And it would then present an uncluttered, clear face which Mark Podmore could cover with a vine. He's a wine agent and is dead set on the idea of a Chateau Southfield vintage. `Triomphe d'Alsace' might be the vine to use.

It would be prudent to treat the wooden fence with a preservative before the shed is put in its new position. The shed itself could do with some treatment, too. At the moment it is just brown. But there's no reason why it shouldn't be jazzed up, customised. Cuprinol has a range of coloured wood stains that would be ideal. There's a good holly green and some excellent smudgy sage colours. In addition, half a day's worth of a decent carpenter can transform a bog-standard shed into something with the charm of a miniature Edwardian cricket pavilion, in keeping with the style of the house.

Another wooden fence, sturdy and well made, about 5ft high, makes the left-hand boundary of the garden, with a border running in front of it, the whole length of the garden. It is much too narrow, with room for only a single line of plants.

The fence has nothing growing on it, so I suggested it should be used for the fruit trees. If parallel wires are strung along against the supports, about 1ft apart, the Podmores could grow espalier, fan or cordon apples and pears. Both fruit grow in their neighbours' gardens, so pollination should not be a problem.

Mark Podmore likes espaliers best. They should start with well-grown trees with two parallel sets of branches already trained out, ready to tie to their wires. Since there isn't much space to store fruit, instant eaters may be best. `George Cave' is a delicious, crisp early apple, ready from the beginning of August. `Ellison's Orange', ripening in September, is one of my favourite apples, strongly scented and wonderfully juicy. As for pears, `Beth' can be picked in September or October and after storing for only one or two weeks it is ready to eat. Three trees will easily fill the space; they can be planted in November or December this year.

I went into the usual spiel about first enriching the soil, breaking up the clay subsoil, etc etc. At this point, people's eyes usually glaze over; Mark Podmore's eyes positively lit up at the thought of hard physical labour. They'd been given seven sacks of Moo-Poo as a house-warming present and he had been looking forward to putting it to the test.

When the backdrop of trees is in place, tied to the supports along the fence, the Podmores will be able to think about the border. It could be at least 6ft wide. Tina Podmore had already started at the end nearest the house, with lavender, blue violas, catmint, variegated iris, variegated euonymus. Those are the colours to build on: grey, blue, mauve, purple, white. I would add splashes of lemon yellow to stop the border looking too sleepy.

Some of the herbs in the wish list could be planted among the flowers in the border: variegated sage, rosemary, the dark purple basil `Ruffles', bright curled parsley mixed with lobelia in the foreground. The sage and rosemary, being evergreen, would give winter structure, and the border could be finished off along the front with a low-growing lavender, such as `Munstead'. A double row of bricks laid on edge between border and lawn will give the lavenders flopping space and make it easier to keep a neat edge.

There would be room for Regale lilies, the pretty little delphinium `Blue Butterfly', agapanthus, some clumps of spotty-leaved pulmonaria, peonies, scillas, `White Triumphator' tulips, `Thalia' narcissus, mats of dark- leaved ajuga for winter colour, biennial evening primrose, snowdrops, the stinking hellebore for its wonderful, dark, winter leaves, more violas such as creamy `Moonshine', blue `Alata', and `Ardross Gem'. Then perhaps they could add aquilegias of blue, pink and purple, white tobacco flowers for their summer scent and double-flowered Geranium pratense.

From inside the kitchen, the Podmores will be able to look directly down the length of the border. It needs something at the end to complete the vista. Being south-facing, the end of the garden gets evening sun. It seems the right place for a seat for the "drink at the end of the day". With the shed swung round, there will be plenty of space to fit one in.

Agriframes make a simple arbour 5ft wide which might fit the bill. Tina Podmore, who works for a PR company, fancied something less utilitarian. Mark had seen arbours at the National Trust's garden at Castle Drogo in Devon, covered in something he liked but didn't know the name of. It's Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), an unusual choice, but with lovely bark and autumn colour. They could add clematis for summer colour.

The terrace is serviceable, but covered in concrete slabs, 18in square, which the Podmores don't like. But the proportion of terrace to the rest of the garden feels exactly right and the levels seem sensible, so all they have to do is replace the paving. Since the back of the house is built of buff-yellow London stock brick, I would choose the same brick for the terrace. They should look for new manhole covers, the kind you can infill with bricks to match the surround.

I've already received an invitation to go back and see the garden next year. I'm looking forward to it.

Cuprinol Garden Shades water-resistant wood stain, in 10 colours, costs pounds 7.99 a litre (01373 465151 for stockists).


The last of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden's series of summer garden tours take place this week. On Tuesday, the theme is "The gardener's palette", on how to use colour. On Thursday there is a more general tour of the garden, explaining the work that goes on there. The tours start at 7pm, and cost pounds 5 each. Meet underneath the Danby Arch. For tickets, call Louise Allen on 01865 276920.

English Heritage has arranged two tours tomorrow at Audley End, the great Robert Adam house which it owns in Essex. In 1763, the owner, Sir John Griffin, commissioned "Capability" Brown to lay out the landscape round the house. "Brown and the development of the 18th-century garden" is the subject of the tours, which start at 11.30am and 2.30pm. For more details, call 01799 522399.

N Ahmad writes from Reading with a query about lavatera `Barnsley', which he bought in April this year. "It has grown more than 3ft but hasn't produced any flower yet. The same variety in my neighbour's garden is in full bloom. What is wrong with my plant?" Mr Ahmad doesn't say whether his neighbour's plant was put in at the same time as his, or whether it is older. It may simply be that his own plant hasn't got into its stride yet, having been planted only a few months ago. Or it may be growing in a less good situation. Mallows of all kinds like full sun best. They are not generally fussy about soils, but ground that is too rich promotes leaf growth at the expense of flowers. Perhaps Mr Ahmad has been too kind to his `Barnsley'. Starvation rations from now on.

Weekend work

Tomatoes in containers and growing bags need a regular fortnightly dose of feed rich in potassium which encourages fruit to form successfully. The bush variety `Tumbler' (Suttons pounds 1.70) does well in grow-bags and pots. If you can set out plants at the beginning of May, you will have fruit by the middle of July.

`Super Marmande' (Marshalls 77p) sown on 18 March has started to set fruit. These are large, meaty tomatoes, strangely-shaped, but superbly- flavoured. Nip out the tops of staked types such as this now. This will encourage the fruit that have already set to swell and ripen.

Over the next month, take cuttings of tender fuchsias and geraniums. Choose strong, healthy shoots for geraniums and crop off the top four inches. Trim the cutting at a point immediately below a leaf joint, remove all mature leaves and any flower buds and pot the cuttings up in a sandy mixture of compost. Do not cover themStem cuttings can be taken of hibiscus, hydrangea, kolkwitzia and perovskia or Russian sage (a tall, shrubby catmint which flowers between August and September).

Glyphosate can control fast-growing weeds, but use total weedkillers such as this on the calmest of days when there is no danger of the spray drifting. As an extra precaution, I use an old tin tray as a shield.

Where bindweed is growing amongst other plants, you can untwine it and bundle it into a stiff plastic sack, then spray it inside the sack. The more leaf area Glyphosate covers, the better it works, so, paradoxically, you need to let bindweed grow before you tackle it.

Trample horsetail lightly underfoot before spraying. This bruising is said to increase the rate at which the plant absorbs the herbicide.