Ask Alice: About black tablecloths, sundials and garden walls

Do you have an interiors dilemma? Consult our resident specialist
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The Independent Online

Q. I saw a table set with a black tablecloth on television. I thought it looked great and would love to find one. Can you help?
Serena Bremner, by e-mail.

Black is a very effective foil to bright colours and can bring out the best in a table setting. Purple and Fine Linen (, 01491 638 184) has a range of tablecloths, napkins and runners in jet black, machine washable 100% Irish linen with a hemstitched border.

A large 175cm x 350cm cloth will cost you £113 and would look fantastic in combination with its bright red runner (from £18) and napkins (£8 each). According to the principles of feng shui, black has a negative effect on the appetite, which could be either a good or a bad thing; you may get away with serving smaller portions at your next dinner party.

Q. I would like to buy a sundial for my mother's birthday. I have seen various models in garden centres and so on, but I have heard they need to be well made and properly set up to be accurate. Have you any idea of where I should start, please?
Anne Malden, Chelmsford.

A. It's true to say that sundials involve a huge amount of science in their creation. They must be set up carefully and in a precise position dictated by their latitude and some are more versatile than others, but most manufacturers will provide you with clear instructions on how to achieve this.

Spot-On Sundials (, 01372 747767) makes a lovely solid brass sundial in a contemporary design, 17cm square, for £105, including delivery (with the option of a personal engraving for an extra £55).

It has the added exciting feature of a divided gnomon which casts a line of sunlight within the band of shadow at exactly midday, a curiously delightful event. They also make larger models and can supply stone plinths for them to stand on; prices start from £90 for a small granite plinth. Alternatively, you could consider making your own sundial - will take you through the process and offer instructions. They also have a list of craftsmen that you could commission to build a sundial to your own design.

Q. We have had a new retaining wall built in the garden after some small alterations to the layout. It has been built from the same type of grey stone as the other walls adjoining it but looks very new and sterile. The older walls are darker with mossy patches. I would like to blend it in as quickly as possible. Do you have any good secrets, please?
G Norman, by e-mail.

The secret lies in helping the moss to get a foothold on the surface of the stone. This can be achieved quite simply and in a truly organic way, by means of a thin coat of porridge (cooked in a mixture of water and milk), applied with a paintbrush. If you can keep this damp, it will help further. Moss will only grow, however, if other environmental conditions such as shade and wind are right so cross your fingers and hope that Mother Nature lends a hand.

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