Victoria Summerley: City life

'It is possible to protect yourself against Spring Bedding Syndrome – before you overdose on pansies and primulas'
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The Independent Online

So you went to the garden centre at the weekend (snow permitting), loaded up your car with bedding plants and trailing things, and perhaps a hanging basket or two, along with a couple of pots. And then you got home and asked yourself the inevitable question: "How come I've just spent £100 on plants and my garden still looks half empty?"

If you recognise this pattern of behaviour, you are a victim of Spring Bedding Syndrome, a contagious disease that breaks out at Easter and returns with subsequent but equally virulent outbreaks around the May bank holiday and the spring half-term.

Any homeowner with so much as a square inch of outside space is vulnerable and the symptoms are always the same: seduced by all those brightly coloured blooms, you stock up on pansies, polyanthus, primulas et al, which have been cunningly arranged by the garden centre to look at their most enticing for what is one of the most profitable times of the year for the horticultural trades. And it strikes most potently not in the countryside, whose inhabitants (unless they're down-sizers or nouveau farmers recently escaped from the big smoke) stand a good chance of understanding green things. No, the epicentres are cities.

It is possible to protect yourself against Spring Bedding Syndrome – but it requires forward planning. The first thing to do is avoid going to a garden centre at all. Instead, go and look at a garden.

It doesn't have to be a huge, posh garden (though the great thing about National Trust and stately-home gardens is that they usually have rather nice tea rooms, which is a boon on a freezing spring day). If you invest in a copy of The Yellow Book, the handbook of the National Gardens Scheme, which raises money for cancer and nursing charities, you'll get a county-by-county guide to more than 3,000 gardens nationwide. It's highly likely that those in your area may be similar to your garden in size and soil type.

Flick through The Yellow Book (£7.99 from good bookshops or www.ngs.org. uk) and see if any descriptions grab your attention: how about "challenging spaces and shade constraints countered by rich and versatile planting"; or "eco-house with walled, lush front garden planted in modern-exotic style"? Or "invaluable garden to visit for planting ideas in a small space"? All of these are in London, but not one sounds like your average boring lawn with strip of moth-eaten border and tumbledown shed.

On your visit, you will need the following: one notebook, one pencil and one camera. What should you jot down and snap? Plant names, for starters. And pots or planting arrangements. Think about what makes the garden work. Look at the proportions. How big are the containers compared to the plants in them? How much lawn, or hard landscaping, is there? Can you see the walls or fences or are they covered with climbers? How much foliage can you see, compared with flowers?

It's only when you see how it's really done that you'll start to realise that, for example, the height of a pot (including the plant) placed beside a door should be at least a third of the height of the entrance if it is to have any impact. Which is why a six-inch plastic pot outside your front door will look pretty uninspiring. Especially if you have a red-brick house and you have planted up the plastic pot with a clashing magenta or salmon geranium.

The first thing most novice gardeners want to do is to fill their garden with a riotous florescence, but try to forget about flowers for five minutes. Think about foliage instead. One great tip I learned from the garden writer Noel Kingsbury was to look at a picture of my garden in black and white (a task made much easier by a digital camera). In monochrome, your eye is not distracted by colour and the structure and shapes are highlighted.

You may discover that your patch is full of plants whose leaves are all the same (small) size, in which case something architectural and evergreen such as a huge-leaved fatsia, or a strappy astelia, or even shapes, such as a couple of box balls or yew cubes, may give it the wow factor you are striving for. This might cost five times as much as a tray of pansies, but you're going to get far more value in terms of impact and it will last all year, for years to come.

Photographs are also useful if you're trying to imagine whether or not something will work. Pots and plants are too expensive to buy on an experimental basis, so print out a picture of your garden as it looks now and then you can sketch in things you think you'd like to add (a rough scribble will do, you don't have to be Albrecht Dürer) to get some idea of how the new feature might look.

I find it very difficult to work out how big something needs to be, so I scribble in my new pot or bit of trellis or whatever, and then go and measure the space where it's going to go, using the photograph as a scale guide. (Invariably, the answer is: bigger than I think.) Better still, get your partner or a friend to stand in the garden using their arm, or even a shape cut out of paper, as a guide. (NB: if it's snowing, they may complain.)

Finally, chuck out anything in your garden that's plastic or dead. There's nothing more depressing than a grimy white plastic urn filled with the slimy remains of last year's geraniums. Then, and only then, are you ready to brave the garden centre.

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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