IN A small garden, all your ways are on show. There are often no hidden bits, particularly in a terrace garden; if not from ground level, then from upstairs, where you are definitely confronted with your lot.
This can be delightful and frustrating all at once.
It’s hard to hide the ugly bits in a small space: the lopsided shed, the old barbecue and the weed buckets. One solution is to have aesthetically pleasing barbecues and buckets, and to recycle plastic pots and old labels. Another is to distract.
Who cares if your kitchen is a bit of a mess if you create a fantastic meal? All is forgiven and forgotten as you fight over the leftovers. The garden is no different. You need to lift the eye away from the offending object; no one is drawn to a barbecue if there’s something better to look at.
The best thing to do is, come to think of this as the spires and saucers trick. Spires – tall, elegant flower spikes – lift the eye upwards, connecting the earth with the sky. If planted in pleasing clumps and loose drifts with the right rhythm, they introduce a clean line, a little clarity into the planting around them. Foxgloves (digitalis), dark pink Verbena Hastata, pale pink culver’s root (Veronicastrum Verinicum var incarnartum) white willowherb, Chamaenerion angustifolium ‘Album’ (which, be warned, self-seeds everywhere) and white wild indigo ( Baptisia lactae ) will all add elegant upright notes.
Bugbane ( Actae simplex Atropurporea Group ), with its tall, gently bending spires of white fading to dusty pink, works well in deep shade, as long as it never dries out. Broad beans, elephant garlic, Babington leeks, and brussels sprouts do a similar thing in a mixed vegetable and flower garden.
Once you have your top notes, you need to think about the rhythm section. Fill in the rest with umbels and other flat or saucer-shaped flowers such as orpine (Sedum telephium) , achilleas and perennial phlox (Phlox paniculata).
Herb fennel, either the green (Foeniculum vulgare) or bronze-leave (F. ‘Giant Bronze’) forms, is delightfully relaxed and a little dishevelled in the right way, though fennel works best towards the back of the border, because it’ll get to 2m. Or try the biennia Angelica sylvestris ‘Vicar’s Mead’ with heads of rounded umbels above dramatic dark foliage. You can allow a little self-seeding and use the rest as slightly bitter and perfumed spice.
For something delicate that likes shade, lime green perfoliate alexander (Smirnium perfoliatum) flowers in early summer before the foliage. Perennial hairy chervil (Chaerophyllum hirstum ‘Roseum’ is shamelessly pink and fluffy, evoking countryside hedgerows: growing to 75cm tall, it prefers partial shade and is over by early summer.
If you want white flowers, Baltic parsley (Cenolophium denudatum) will do a similar job in partial shade; it likes it a little damp and flowers much later and gets taller – up to 150cm tall.
Parsley, chervil, par-cel (looks like parsley, tastes like celery), caraway and sweet cicely are edible choices: eat the leaves, then leave them to flower for the bees. It’s also worth leaving a few carrots, celery and parsnips to stand over winter and flower the next spring, where they may self-sow and certainly will be much admired.