Express and Star – A Swift Improvement

Having a place to park a car by your home is important, there’s no arguing that. But is it more important than having an open green space to welcome you, visitors and nature to your front door?

As traffic increases and time-hungry householders opt to pave or concrete their driveway to avoid garden maintenance, there’s little doubt the state of our front gardens is spiralling downwards.

Yet, points out horticulturist Joe Swift, the front garden should be the first point of a welcoming haven.

Swift, one of many gardening experts appearing in Great British Garden Revival, a new 10-part BBC2 series starting on December 9, visited one such haven in award-winning Rockcliffe Avenue, Whitley Bay, north Tyneside, where residents have transformed their paved street with colourful plants and containers overflowing with flowers.

The result isn’t just aesthetic, residents have also reported a much greater sense of community, with kids no longer ‘causing havoc’ in the street and people no longer dropping litter because the beautiful gardens have given them a sense of pride.

“A lot of people just concrete or pave their gardens over and just forget about the plants, but research shows how important plants are in reducing pollution, for wellbeing and house prices,” says Swift.

Creating a planting buffer between your home and traffic is also like putting a filter paper between you and the pollution, explains Rob MacKenzie, professor of atmospheric science at Birmingham University.

“If you put plants very close to the traffic then they have a greater chance of soaking up the pollution and making a significant reduction, perhaps as much as 10 or 20%,” he explains.

Some three-quarters of households in Britain have cars Р40% of those have two cars Рand the increased use of concrete or paving to accommodate them has led to huge drainage problems in some areas.

Swift says there are products out there which can accommodate both plants and vehicles. In the BBC programme, he looks at reinforced hexagonal plastic mesh which goes into the ground, and you can park your car on it when it has been filled with either gravel or plants. You lay it by firstly putting landscaping fabric over the soil to allow water to drain through and suppress weeds. Then place a layer of sand on to the fabric and embed your mesh into it. Then you fill your hexagonal slots with loamy topsoil and sand, which is perfect for sowing grass seed. Sow the seed in late summer, early autumn or spring. Before long, the grass will be growing above the mesh, but you can drive a car over it. Alternatively, use gravel or use a combination of gravel and grass seed or other low-growing plant, like thyme or camomile.

“It’s a way of softening the ground but still making it durable and tough enough to drive a car on. There are several products out there and you can get them online.”

Herbaceous ground cover like hardy geraniums and alchemilla mollis are pretty tough and can easily be incorporated into many front gardens, he notes.

“If your front garden is in a shady area you could go for plants like hostas and ferns, anything that can take a bit of a battering and which you can get into the ground.”

He also recommends planting strongly scented plants in your front garden such as Christmas box, a really tough evergreen which you will notice as you enter or leave your front garden every day.

“Wintersweet is another good scented plant, as are a lot of winter flowering viburnums which can fill the whole street with an incredible fragrance.”

Eyesores such as drainpipes can easily be covered with climbing plants, which can be trained using a semi-circular trellis specifically designed to frame the drainpipe.

“People are very cautious about planting climbers up their houses but as long as the pointing is sound before you start, plants like ivy and climbing hydrangea which self-cling to the wall can actually protect the wall and insulate the house.”

If you don’t have soil you can always plant climbers such as Clematis armandii in pots and, provided you keep them well-watered and shade their roots by topping the pot of compost with decorative stones or gravel, they should soon start climbing up the trellis.

If you have a number of dustbins and recycling boxes, think about creating a trellis framework which you can tuck them behind and then grow plants up it to screen the bins.

Those who live in urban areas may be more limited as to what they can grow because some plants don’t thrive in highly polluted areas, Swift explains.

“It depends how far back you are and if you have a physical barrier like a wall or a hedge between the garden and the road. Vegetables and herbs might not do so well in an extremely polluted area.

“But according to research from Birmingham University, plants with small hairy leaves, like lavender and Convolvulus cneorum will create a barrier as pollutants stick to them but will not kill them.”

If you are having your driveway gravelled, break it up by cutting the membrane under the gravel and planting some tough plants in there like grasses, asters, cosmos, rudbeckias or even a small tree.

“Pots are also a fantastic way of adding seasonal interest and getting more plants in where you have paved areas but you will have to water them. And don’t scrimp on the size of the pot. Two or three really big ones is a better option than five or six small ones.”

Swift concludes: “Do you have a car or a front garden? There’s definitely a solution – there’s always a way of getting both in.”

Joe Swift appears in the first episode of Great British Garden Revival, starting on BBC2 on December 9 at 7pm.

Best of the bunch – Skimmia

These tough but colourful evergreen shrubs provide winter interest both in beds and borders and in winter pots, thanks to their pretty buds, flowers and berries. With some types you will need to grow a male plant with a female one to produce berries, while others are hermaphrodite, including S. reevesiana and ‘Veitchii’. Skimmia japonica is compact and ideal for containers, producing dense clusters of scented white or pink-tinted spring flowers opening from red buds and, on female plants, red fruits which last all winter, but you will need to plant male and female together to enjoy fruit. Try planting S. japonica ‘Foremanii’ (female) with ‘Rubella’ (male), which has a lovely floral fragrance. Skimmias thrive in acid soil so if you are planting them in a pot, use ericaceous compost. They succeed best in partial shade.

Good enough to eat – Garlic

It’s almost as much of a staple as onions in this country and can be added to a myriad dishes, whether chopped up in stir-fries, butters and casseroles, or put whole into the oven and roasted to produce that deliciously sweet flavour. Garlic is also extremely easy to grow. You should now be able to buy the type for planting from garden centres.

Prepare the ground as you would for vegetable seed then push each individual clove in with the tip exposed above the ground. Plant the cloves in straight rows 10-15cm (4-6in) apart, leaving enough room to run a hoe through later between rows.

Soon, the grassy green shoots will appear, which will get the plants off to a good start in spring and you should be lifting the bulbs by the end of July.

Top buy – Gold Leaf Soft Touch Gardening Gloves

Endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society, these fantastic gloves not only look stylish, but fit so well that you can feel exactly what you are doing. A robust but comfortable glove, great for any gardening task. Made from soft, supple, high quality, deerskin leather. Close fitting with flexible back offering enhanced dexterity. (£20.99, www.rhs.org.uk/shopping)

What to do this week

Continue winter pruning of standard apple and pear trees.

Move deciduous shrubs or trees if the soil is workable.

Harvest Brussels sprouts, Christmas broccoli, parsnips and leeks.

Buy Christmas pot plants from garden centres and nurseries.

Sow exhibition onions in the greenhouse.

Continue to fork over vacant ground to reduce soil pests, if the soil is soft enough.

Place netting over the tops of pots to keep squirrels from digging up bulbs.

Continue gathering leaves to make leafmould, which you can use as a mulch next year.

Check under containers, planks or any other nook or cranny for groups of slugs which congregate in hiding places over the winter, and dispose of them.

Make sure outdoor taps are well lagged with bubble wrap or insulated tap-cosies.

Take hardwood cuttings of roses and easy shrubs.