We spend a lot of time (and money) landscaping the garden, but when it comes to the patio, it can be a pretty bleak and utilitarian feature. Attractive furniture helps a lot to improve its appearance, but, above all, some decent containers of plants will lift it from the mundane to the stylish. Bedding plants are a quick and easy option, but if you haven’t time for a twice-yearly re-plant, shrubs and roses are just the answer. This is the month to think about revamping your sitting area to make it more enjoyable without breaking your back – or the bank.
If possible, use the house walls for climbing roses, clematis, passiflora (passion flower, wisteria) and campsis, to give a stunning backdrop for the rest of the area. This may entail having to remove some paving and any poor soil beneath it so you can provide a good growing medium – John Innes No 3 compost is ideal. Then choose some really attractive shrubs for pots; group these as you would in a Just about any conifer looks good as a container subject. If you want height, choose a single medium grower such as thuja occidentalis ’Golden Smaragd’; dwarf and slow growing ones like Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’, Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’ and Picea pungens ‘Lucky Strike’ look good planted in a group in a large trough.
Roses, surprisingly, make great patio plants, not just the so-called ‘patio varieties’, but any bush or climber, providing it is given a large enough container, is planted in a soil-based compost, and is fed and watered adequately. As they can look rather bare in winter, add some spring bulbs, such as dwarf narcissi and tulips, crocuses and shorter alliums, which will give colour on the patio till the roses take over.
Evergreen shrubs, or those that flower on bare stems, are ideal for the patio. Among the best are skimmia, ceanothus and early spring-flowering viburnums – they should also be planted in John Innes No 3; to keep the compost from drying out, top the container with pea gravel, cockle shells or ornamental stone chippings. Add architectural plants such as miniature standard trees, clipped bay and box and cordylines for maximum impact.
Many of us have soil that is too limey to grow acid-loving plants like camellias, rhododendrons, summer flowering heathers and azaleas happily. If you have a part of the patio that isn’t in burning sunshine all day long, this is the perfect spot for these ericaceous plants. Japanese maples, which normally thrive at the edge of acid woodland, will also appreciate these conditions. Use a lime-free compost, preferably Ericaceous John Innes No 3, as soil-less acid composts often break down quite quickly, requiring frequent renewing. Rather than topping these woodland containers with chippings, give a more natural feel with small pine cones. If you don’t live near a source of these where you can collect your own, some garden centres sell them in large bags, and they can also be bought on the Internet.
Take time now to look for containers that will compliment both the plants you hope to grow, and also their surroundings. It isn’t necessary to use the same style and colour of pot for every plant; in fact, a selection of shapes, sizes and colours often looks better, but if you want to grow flowering plants, make sure that the pot colour doesn’t clash with the flowers or you will spoil the effect. For instance, a bright orange pot will enhance the appearance of a yellow rose, but will completely ruin the look of a crimson one when in full bloom.
Possibly the best thing about patio planting is that nothing is permanent – when you get a little bored with one appearance, you can always add or subtract containers and move everything round to give a completely different feel.