When the garden's all to pot: Anna Pavord opens her Workshop, a series on reader problems, with advice on how to cheer up a courtyard

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The Independent Online
We start with a difficulty raised by Ann Currie of Wells:

We have been trying to grow flowers which will produce a scent that will really hit us as we emerge from our door. Among our problems is the fact that our garden has to grow entirely in containers, as we have just a small courtyard surrounded on every side by high walls, although in the summer it does receive a good deal of sunshine for most of the day. One would imagine that a small walled courtyard would be sheltered, but there is usually a breeze from one quarter or another. We also live beside a busy road, so there are exhaust fumes to contend with.

We do grow sweet peas, but they seem to lose perfume as the season progresses. We have a rose, 'Compassion', which we understand is strongly scented, and jasmine which almost flowered last winter before dying back nearly to nothing. And we have the pink 'Doris' and some of her relations. We have grown wallflowers and stocks and nicotiana, but they did not seem enthusiastic about the conditions. I would like to plant a honeysuckle in a container, but few nurserymen seem to know or care whether their wares smell nice or not.

THE COURTYARD in question is about 22ft long and 10ft wide with dark asphalt spread wall to wall. The back of the house closes off most of one short end, with a narrow and very windy passage leading up the side to the road at the front. The bottom of the yard is shut in by a garage with an up-and-over door. The two long side walls, about 9ft high, are well built of stone.

The most sheltered spot for planting is against the house wall, which faces south. This is also the only place where there is any earth, a small semicircle scooped out of the asphalt. The way from the house into the yard is through a door at right angles to this south- facing wall. The corner where the two walls meet is just the right place for a large pot with something sweet-smelling in it to hit you as you come out from the house.

The lion's share of the planting space lies down the long wall on the left as you look at the yard from the house. This faces west, and the Curries have fixed two wooden frames, covered in plastic netting, to the wall. This is where they grow sweet peas, sown in two long, brown plastic containers, the sort of thing you might buy to use as window boxes.

The east-facing wall opposite receives the full force of the wind that hurtles down the passage at the side of the house. Better, probably, to leave it alone, though I would try out two bottom-heavy pyramid bays in pots, just to green up the view. In winter, you might have to shift the bays to the other side of the yard where they would not be so battered.

My instinct with the west-facing wall would be to give myself some proper planting space at its foot by hacking away the smothering asphalt until I had a bed about 3ft wide. Then I could cover a good deal of the wall with a luxuriant evergreen clematis, such as C. armandii, which produces clusters of heavily almond-scented flowers in April.

The leaves of this species are the best a clematis can produce - glossy, deeply fingered and luxuriant. It seemed to me that the Curries' yard, bare after the brief season of summer annuals, could do with a touch of luxuriance, as well as scent. They could train a grey- leaved pineapple broom there, too, to give scent in May and June. It also is evergreen, or ever-grey, with fine, silky hairs on its leaves that make touching it like stroking the coat of a fieldmouse. Its flowers come in stubby, bright yellow heads, and smell strongly of pineapple. If they also planted summer-flowering white jasmine on the wall, the three climbers on their own would provide scent for six months of the year.

I became enthusiastic about this idea, but the Curries did not. They wanted to leave the asphalt in place and stick to planting in pots. Unfortunately, none of the pots was big enough to sustain large, permanent climbers. Some really big pots, I ventured? But that was no good either. Mrs Currie has a bad back.

Once the permanent climbers were established, they would be much less trouble to look after than plants in pots, I argued - but to no avail. It looked as though it was going to be sweet peas again on the west wall, for there is a limited number of scented plants that can be persuaded to grow in the Curries' shallow plastic boxes.

You could add other more bulky plants in pots grouped around these containers, to give the planting a more permanent air. The sweetly scented wild azalea, Rhododendron luteum, would be a candidate if it were used towards the bottom of the yard, where the shade would fall on it sooner.

Rhododendrons, which have compact rootballs, grow quite well in pots, provided they are never allowed to dry out. They should be planted in lime-free compost, and watered regularly with Sequestrene or Miracid, which unlocks the trace elements they need for good health.

This particular azalea has rich yellow flowers, and the leathery leaves turn warm shades of red and bronze in autumn. It is not evergreen, so the yard would still look bare in winter, but the Curries did not seem to mind that.

If you had somewhere to shelter it in winter, you could grow a datura in a pot here, too, to add bulk to the sweet peas. The angel trumpet flowers have a scent powerful enough to make you dizzy. If the yard were mine, I would enlarge the tiny scoop of earth by the south-facing house wall to give myself room to put in masses of low-growing, clove-scented pinks, mixed with creeping thyme. This is where the Curries had their 'Compassion' rose. Had, not have. 'Someone,' said Mrs Currie, not looking at her husband, 'sprayed it with weedkiller instead of insecticide.'

I offered my condolences, heartfelt sympathy, etc, but she brushed the words aside. 'It wasn't happy,' she said. 'Didn't flower very well.' Would she like another rose there, I wondered. No, she thought she would not. That was probably just as well - to be sure of success with another rose in the same spot, the Curries would have had to replace some of the old soil in the bed with fresh earth.

I would plant a vine there for its lavish leafiness, and use it as a host for a climbing honeysuckle, which would give the necessary scent. The best for smell, I think, are the old- fashioned early Dutch 'Belgica' and late Dutch 'Serotina'; the one blooms in May and June, the other from July to October.

Round the foot of the vine and honeysuckle, I would mass-plant sweet williams, setting them close together so they held each other up. You would need to compensate by feeding them regularly with a liquid fertiliser.

That left the big pot in the corner. It needed something bulky and preferably evergreen since, without the clematis and its companions, there would be nothing else evergreen in the yard. Osmanthus would be my first choice. It grows surprisingly well in a pot and can be trimmed it to keep it a close, rounded shape. I would try to grow it on a leg, so there was room under it for planting annuals and bulbs. These would add colour and scent when the osmanthus's own sweet- smelling flowers were finished.

The final suggestion may not find favour with Mr Currie: a week of austerity suppers in order to save money for 20 lily bulbs. They could go in pots down the west-facing wall, which still worries me.

Man cannot live by sweet peas alone. J Walkers Bulbs is offering its Fragrant Collection of lilies for pounds 23.50, five each of apricot 'African Queen', 'Perfection', rose red 'Speciosum Rubrum' and the showy 'Stargazer'. J Walkers Bulbs is at Washway House Farm, Holbeach, Spalding, Lincolnshire PE12 7PP (0406 426216).

Does your garden present an interesting challenge? Write to Anna Pavord about it at: Weekend, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

If your letter is chosen, she will be happy to give you expert advice and feature your garden in the Workshop series. She regrets, however, that she will not otherwise be able to enter into individual correspondence.

(Photograph omitted)