Turning a forgotten space into an outdoor delight

The chance to review one of Brundle Gardener’s products has transformed a sad spot in my garden.

Many of us have a part of the garden that is somewhat neglected. An area that you walk past, averting your eyes and muttering ‘I really must do something about that’. Usually, lack of inspiration or time means little gets done.

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‘The Courtyard’ has long been in need of a rethink

In my case, the neglected spot is what we refer to as ‘The Courtyard’. It’s actually a rather grand title for what is little more than a tucked away area outside our basement kitchen; the strange layout of the house, which is dug into a slope, means that although technically the kitchen is under the rest of the house, it is actually on ground level.

The courtyard has a high retaining wall on two sides that holds back the garden, the house forms the third boundary and on the fourth there’s a fence that separates us from our neighbours.

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The wall planters needed redoing

North-east facing, it gets a little morning sun – a very little – but it’s really a rather gloomy spot. And, with quite a lot of garden elsewhere, it’s always been low on my list of priorities.

The impetus to finally do something about it came when I was asked if I would like to review one of Brundle Gardener’s products. A suggestion was a table and chairs set, which looked perfect for this tiny space. Not only is it a half-table, ideal for putting against a wall, the table also folds down to free up space when it’s not in use.

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The table and chairs are easy to put up

Before I had even set it up, I was impressed: both the table and the two chairs were well packaged to ensure they weren’t damaged in transit.

It’s also easy to put up – no assembly and just a lift and click into place mechanism for the table flap. It has a grey, powder coated steel frame with a toughened glass top, while the folding seats have the same steel frame with a checked manmade fibre seat and back, which are water resistant. They have proved to be remarkably comfortable.

Of course, merely plonking somewhere to sit into the courtyard wasn’t going to be enough to transform it. There was definitely a need to revamp the planting as well. Not that there is much scope: the available soil amounts to little more than a narrow strip at the foot of the wall and fence and the lack of direct sunlight limits the choices.

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The euonymus needed cutting back

The first step was a good clean, using a wire brush to get rid of moss on the paving. A Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’, used to provide a screen between the courtyard and next door, had got out of hand, with some reverting to plain green. It’s been pruned hard to remove the green and reduce the overhang into the courtyard.

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The euonymus has been tidied up

The remains of a Clematis ‘Guernsey Cream’ that until this year was doing well, were removed and I’m planning to replace it in the autumn, though possibly elsewhere in the garden.

Deciding I needed some expert advice for the difficult narrow ‘borders’, I paid a visit to ShadyPlants.com in Painswick. Tony and Sylvia Marden specialise in plants for those tricky places and we spent a happy hour discussing possibilities and looking through their stock.

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The back of the Begonia evansiana leaves are beautiful

For the space against the fence, where there is marginally more soil, they recommended two evergreen ferns: Polystichum makinoi and Phyllitis scolopendrium cristatum.

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Begonia southerlandii has lovely orange flowers

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of begonias but I fell in love with the orange flowers of Begonia southerlandii and Tony suggested the white flowered Begonia evansiana ‘Snowpop’ would be a good partner. Both, he assured me, are fully hardy and well able to cope with the less than ideal conditions.

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Cardamine trifolia was suggested as ground cover

For the thin strip at the foot of the wall, they suggested Cardamine trifolia, which has what Sylvia describes as ‘clouds of white flowers’. It should spread happily to fill the space.

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New planting in the wall pots

Continuing with the begonia theme, wall planters that have in the past been used for violas, now have some cream-flowered begonias that I found at another local grower, Dundry Nurseries. I liked their long, tubular flowers and slight bronze tinge to the stems, which works well with the rusty planters and old bricks. The begonias are in plastic pots that sit inside the terracotta so that I can change the planting easily.

Finally, I shifted the old sink into a better position in the courtyard and planted it with mint while the chimney pot has been moved to another part of the garden.

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The courtyard has been transformed

I’m pleased with the transformation and the courtyard is already proving popular – especially as a cool place to escape the recent heat. I can see the table and chairs being well used.

Brundle Gardener’s table and chairs are available from garden centres and online stockists. The suggested retail price is £119.99.

Tomatoes – a growing addiction

If I could grow only one crop it would be tomatoes. Little else has the variety or sums up summer in just one mouthful.

It’s something I’ve done for years, even before I had a proper ‘kitchen garden’, cramming growbags around the tiny patio at my first house.

My obsession can be blamed on a friend who raised seedlings on the windowsills of his equally tiny terraced home and gave me some spares. I was hooked.

With more space, there’s been the chance to experiment. This year, I’ve got nine different varieties, some sent by seed companies for me to trial, others old favourites.

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‘Costoluto Fiorentino’

Top of my list is ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, an ugly brute but one of the best flavoured tomatoes I know. Don’t be put off by its looks or the seemingly cotton wool-like flesh. This tomato is oozing with flavour and makes one of the best sandwiches.

‘San Marzano’ is another regular, a plum-type that’s good for cooking, while ‘Principe Borghese’, is more rounded and great for roasting. All of these I’ve bought from Franchi seeds and, as always, they are producing robust plants.

For the first time in many years, I’m not growing my usual cherry tomato, ‘Sweet Million’. Having been sent trial tomatoes and with seed left from last year (yes, I find it does keep), even I decided there was enough for one year.

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Just some of this season’s plants

‘Heinz 1370’ from Dobies’ Rob Smith Range is one that I’m particularly interested to taste. A heritage variety, it’s the tomato that forms the basis of Heinz Tomato Sauce.

Unwins’ ‘Cherry Baby’ is another new one to me and is described as having masses of “deliciously sweet” tomatoes. Perhaps it will replace ‘Sweet Million’ on my list.

‘Montello’ from Marshalls is another with small fruit but this time they are mini plum tomatoes. So far, they’ve produced sturdy plants and I’m hoping they live up to their billing of “prolific cropping”.

‘Indigo Cherry Drops’, from Thompson & Morgan, was sent to me last year and wasn’t an immediate hit. For me, the dark purple-red skin added little and it didn’t have the sweetness I look for in a cherry tomato. But, I had some seed left and decided to give it another try before a final verdict.

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‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ is already fruiting

‘Sweet Aperitif’, also from Thompson & Morgan, is a more traditional red cherry tomato. Best grown in the greenhouse, which is where I’ve put mine, it is described as having an “outstanding sweet and balanced flavour” and should produce up to 150 fruits per plant under glass.

The firm has also sent me plug plants of ‘Red Tiger’, which have just arrived and are now safely tucked up in the greenhouse. Some will stay there while the rest, once they have settled in, will go outside.

As well as trying out different varieties of tomatoes, over the years I’ve also experimented in how to grow them.

They never go into borders as I’ve found that always seems to result in blight. It also ties up space that can be used for things that really don’t like containers.

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I use growing rings in the greenhouse

In the greenhouse, my tomatoes go into growbags. Most have plastic ‘growing rings’ that I got from the RHS Malvern show some years ago. These give a greater depth to what can be a rather shallow growing container, while the outer ring makes watering easier.

Where I haven’t got enough rings, I sink a small flowerpot into the growbag alongside the plants to make watering easier and to ensure it reaches the roots rather than spilling out over the ground.

Outside, the tomatoes are lined up along the garage wall, which faces south-west. In the past, I used growbags here but they were untidy and seemed to attract the garden’s resident slugs and snails. It also limited the number of tomatoes I could get into the space!

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Pots sunk into growbags help watering

Some years ago, I switched to pots and, for me, it works much better. They are a bit of a mix and a few are probably a bit small but the tomatoes don’t seem to mind.

Obviously, if you are growing in containers then watering and feeding regularly is essential. Mine get a daily water – unless we’ve had heavy rain – and a weekly feed.

How the crop will do depends on what sort of summer we get. Last year, there was near disaster with fruit slow to set, probably due, I was told, to a long stretch of cold nights. There was also the worst attack of blight I’ve known for years. Everything succumbed, even in the greenhouse, and, talking to other growers, I know I wasn’t alone.

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These were picked early due to blight and ripened indoors

Yet, picking the crop green and ripening them indoors salvaged most and, although it wasn’t as plentiful as usual, we were still eating home-grown tomatoes right up until Christmas.

It’s too late now to sow seeds but there are still plants available in nurseries and garden centres. If you’ve never grown tomatoes, why not give it a go? But, be warned, they can be addictive.

Win some tomato food

Tomatoes are hungry plants and need regular feeding. I’m running a competition with six prizes of a bottle of Gro-Sure tomato food, supplied by Westland Horticulture.

Easy to use, it includes potash, magnesium and seaweed and can be used for indoor and outdoor tomatoes as well as sweet peppers, courgettes and aubergines.

For more details and to enter, see my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds – click on the links at the top of this site.

This contest has now closed.