Perking up your patio

Tulips growing in metal retro dustbins providing a burst of colour on a patio.
Tulips growing in metal retro dustbins providing a burst of colour on a patio.

If the rain ever lets up long enough for us to venture out on to our patios, we’ll need some quick fixes to brighten them up in time for the warmer, and hopefully drier, months of spring.

But, aside from jetwashing them, what should the average gardener actually be doing to these patios...?

A Generic photo of Bergenias. See PA Feature GARDENING Column. PA Photo/Generic. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Column.

A Generic photo of Bergenias. See PA Feature GARDENING Column. PA Photo/Generic. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Column.

Garden designer Diarmuid Gavin, who last year added a wraparound balcony and cast iron columns decorated with swathes of wisteria to his own patio in Co Wicklow, Ireland, has some ideas.

Bulbs planted in patio pots back in September may have rotted if they haven’t been given good drainage and were standing on pot feet, he says, but even if there’s no sign of them, all is not lost.

“Even now, if you just lift the pot to allow them to drain, the bulbs and plantings may be all right.”

In addition to the practical, Gavin, an ambassador for the Karcher watering range, has some easy patio design tips too.

A Generic Photo of bergenia. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

A Generic Photo of bergenia. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

“You can brighten up the patio with instant colour, but be innovative about what you plant and how you do it.”

He suggests going to your local restaurant or take-away to see if they have any large metal containers which once held olives or other food. Drill a few holes in the bottom, put a layer of gravel at the bottom and fill the rest with well-drained compost and either put in a selection of wonderful herbs like basil or marjoram or even some salads like Lollo Rosso or Swiss chard, or even nasturtiums and marigolds, and you will have results fast.

“Another thing I love is to get big oil drums from reclamation yards for next to nothing, clean them up and paint them in Caribbean colours. If you have a collection of them you can cut some of them down to size and they make the most fantastic containers.

“Large containers like these will take a good quantity of manure and topsoil. If they’re big enough, you can plant birch trees or clumps of bamboos to create borders and long-term planting once you`ve top-dressed and had them irrigated.

Undated Handout Photo of Monarda - Bergamot - with bright red flowers. See PA Feature GARDENING Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Column.

Undated Handout Photo of Monarda - Bergamot - with bright red flowers. See PA Feature GARDENING Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Column.

“Be innovative about your choice of container and then make sure you have a good solid medium for them to grow in.”

If you want to invest in new garden furniture there’s a wealth of choice too, adds Gavin.

“Fifteen years ago if you wanted garden furniture you got a picnic bench or a plastic chair that cost £2.99. There’s been a radical change in furniture, with durable woven plastics, colourful seating and the new thing we’re going to see are cabanas.”

If you want to hide unsightly eyesores like water butts, you can just put a big pot in front of them, he says.

Undated Handout Photo of plants growing in large metal pots providing a burst of colour on a patio designed by Garden Designer Diarmuid Gavin. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

Undated Handout Photo of plants growing in large metal pots providing a burst of colour on a patio designed by Garden Designer Diarmuid Gavin. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

“People often make the mistake of corralling eyesores behind bits of trellis or fencing. If you do that, you make the garden look smaller and draw more attention to what you’re trying to hide. Maybe have a light framework of planting such as the Russian vine (mile-a-minute plant) which, if kept under control, will be fantastic.

“If you’re trying to hide something in the shade, go for a light framework of honeysuckle, which emits a fantastic scent, or some rambling roses. Simplicity is key in this to avert the eye away from the offensive article.”

Spring planting could incorporate double daisies (Bellis perennis), Bachelor buttons (cornflower) or cheiranthus (wallflower).

“Use traditional bedding in a more radical way. And if you didn’t plant bulbs, buy some which are about to come into flower, whether dwarf daffodils, hyacinths or tulips and surround them with bedding or with ivies in pots.”

“Don’t try to be too tasteful. When I grew up in a very suburban street I grew up with blue and white and blue and white. Mass-plant different shades of blue together, while clashing colours of bedding can be incredibly exuberant.”

Permanent plantings on patios of milder gardens could include some pittosporum and hebes.

“If you’re in a sheltered courtyard garden, I love a hint of the exotic with Dicksonia antarctica,” he adds.

“If you have a border, a good one takes planning. Build up a collection of plants with structure in the back, climbing plants and something exciting like the wall shrub Fremontodendron ‘California Glory’, a Japanese maple or an interesting birch and build at the front of that with medium-sized shrubs and colour.”

Put a simple pot of herbs as your centrepiece which are tactile, or plants with aromatic leaves like a lemon-scented geranium, he advises. As you progress to summer, go for dwarf sunflowers - by then, we’ll hopefully have forgotten about the rain.

Otherwise known as elephant’s ears because of the shape of their leathery leaves, these cabbage-shaped low-growing perennials produce pink, mauve, white or red flowers, but their leaves can also change colour depending on the variety you choose.

Late winter interest can be created with B. `Sunningdale’ whose leaves have red, purple or bronze hues in the cold months. If you want a compact type, go for B.’Perfect’, or for good contrast in a shady spot, go for B.’Bressingham White’, which produces produces funnel-shaped, pure white flowers in mid to late spring that contrast with the leaves.

The flowers will brighten shady areas of the garden, especially when planted at a border’s edge. Bergenias should be grown in good-sized groups or as a carpet underplanting big shrubs.

You may see this plant in bedding areas under the name monarda, but its fragrant mint-like leaves provide an orange flavour which can be used in desserts. Buy plants in pots from a garden centre and plant them 60cm (2ft) across and they will grow around 1m (3ft) high. Once this perennial is in flower, the flowerhead can be used to decorate desserts such as trifles. Cut back the plant to soil level in autumn and it should come up again next year.