Rescuing a travesty

Workshop: Anna Pavord has ideas for a difficult plot
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We have recently moved into a Victorian terraced house in Battersea. The garden (max 45ft x 25ft) faces north-west, has what seems like builder's waste for soil, and is on two levels - with a small patio area leading from the house to steps up to the "lawn". This is surrounded by shallow flower beds which grow ivy in profusion and some leggy roses, but not a lot else. Slugs and snails - either home-grown or escapees from our neighbour's dandelion plot, or the cemetery we back on to - have destroyed almost everything that hasn't already been strangled by ivy. The main feature is a laburnum tree in the north-west corner, which grows next to the children's Wendy house, built by a previous owner.

I would love to create a herbaceous border to crowd out the weeds. Once made, I hope it could largely look after itself. But as a novice gardener with two young children to look after, I'm daunted by the prospect of what will grow where, getting the scale right in a small area and finding plants which can cope without constant watering in the summer.

Christina Harley's problem seemed to be finding the right plants for the right places in her garden. Unfortunately it wasn't that simple. The real difficulties were more daunting. Plants can often provide quick-fix solutions, a magic wand of colour and texture to soften, clothe and disguise problem areas, ugly paving or unwanted views. Not here.

This was a garden where nearly everything needed fixing, not just the plants. Some cowboy landscaper had "done" the place for the previous owner and it was difficult to believe that anyone had parted with good money for such a travesty.

You step out into the garden from a lean-to conservatory built over the narrow passage that runs up one side of the house. The patio Ms Harley mentioned was an area of cracked concrete, laid so that the rainwater collected in a pool by the door instead of running into the drain. A bit of a wall had been thrown up to separate this level from the next. The landscaper had used breezeblocks on end, cracked bits of concrete paving and the odd brick, but had left out the mortar. The wall bulged malevolently, oozing soil on to the area below.

I'm not going to go on with this catalogue. It makes me too angry. I'm sad, too, for the Harleys who are anxious to create an oasis of delight for their two young chidren, but have little time or money to spend on their garden. What can be done about it?

Well, there is a good, sturdy brick wall at the back of the garden, topped by a square-sectioned trellis. The Wendy house and the laburnum are in the left-hand corner. Putting those two things next door to each other was a master stroke by the diabolical landscaper. Fortunately the Harley children, James and Anna, looked far too sensible to poison themselves on laburnum seeds.

Cats come through the trellis, said Ms Harley, but they can be disuaded by a strip of chicken wire fixed along the back. There's a Clematis montana planted against the wall, yet most of its growth is tangled high up in the branches of the laburnum, and the wall itself is rather bare. A good new shoot had sprung from the base of the plant. That ought to be tied in horizontally against the wall, so that it, too, does not disappear into the stratosphere. After the clematis has flowered, the Harleys need to take a deep breath and cut it down to within a few feet of the ground (leaving the new shoot). This will force the plant to provide more new shoots from the base. Then these can be tied in individually to the wall and the trellis, so that the whole of the back boundary will eventually be covered in the clematis's leaves and flowers.

C. montana is not the best choice for a small garden, as it is so rampant, but properly managed it can provide a good backdrop for other plants. When it is trained and tied in on the back boundary, its flowering will provide a wonderful smack-in-the-eye effect.

The Harleys need to hang on to that vision. From here on, it is bad news all the way. The brick wall making the right-hand boundary of the garden was thrown up very quickly, only one brick thick. Already it is slumping drunkenly into the neighbour's space. In the not very long term it must be replaced.

In the short term, the Harleys can give themselves more privacy by repairing the sagging trellis along the top. Its posts need to be replaced with proper supports at least 3in x 3in, properly set in the soil. Decent contractors use augers to bore holes which disturb the surrounding ground remarkably little. The supports must be absolutely rigid.

Ivy covers large sections both of this thin brick boundary wall and the wood panel fence on the left. Like the wall, the fence needs work. The panels themselves are sound, but the supports have not been put in deep enough, and the whole structure wobbles worse than Peter Snow's swingometer.

The ivy is certainly rampant, but given the nature of the supports I'd be cautious of trying to tear it down. It would probably bring fence and wall with it. The greyish leaved ivy on the brick wall was actually doing a good job near the house where the wall meets the conservatory, for there was no planting space in the concrete patio and, spreading from its original position in the earth of the border above, it softened a difficult area.

It certainly needs to be stopped from spreading any further along the boundary. Ms Harley could try clipping the ivy close to the wall. It looks bare when you first do it, but sprouts fresh leaves to give a neat effect rather like a hedge. The same thing could be done with the golden ivy on the board fence. Ivies are not good on these kinds of fences. The tendrils get between the boards and force them apart.

Because the tiny strips of earth round the edge of the lawn left no room for proper planting, I suggested the Harleys widen the back border against the one good wall and, for the moment, concentrate their planting there, enriching the soil as much as they can. This season they could use annuals: helichrysum, tobacco plants for scent, lobelia. Losing some of the lawn would be no hardship. It is in very poor condition. It could be returfed, but it would be a waste of money to do that without loosening and enriching the ground underneath. It gives every impression of being compacted and starved. While the children are small and need crawling and kicking space, I think I'd live with the present lawn, tired though it is.

Now comes the critical bit: the patio and the so-called retaining wall. Three strangely shaped steps lead up from the tiny lower level to the upper level and the lawn which is vaguely rounded in shape. My instinct would be to alter the relative size of the two areas, to make the pinched patio area big enough at least to take a couple of chairs. That would mean pushing back the retaining wall and disposing of the spoil. All rubbish has to be carted out through the house, so this is not a suggestion that's lightly made. But the patio and the retaining wall have to be rebuilt anyway, even if the patio stays the present size. I suggested doing everything, including the steps, in London stock brick which would match the house. Expensive. But until the existing muddle is resolved, no amount of planting can retrieve the situation.