In The Garden

A COLOURFUL urban garden
A COLOURFUL urban garden

TIPS on how to transform dingy back yards and dark alleyways into green havens — plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.

Alley up!

URBAN alleyways in this country have often been seen as threatening places — dark, lined with brick walls or fences, with no colour and plenty of possibilities for crime.

Yet in certain areas green-fingered residents have made their alleyways a sight to behold, filled with plants which create a riot of colour and a heart-warming atmosphere, as far away from graffiti-land as you can get.

The RHS is now calling on communities to transform unsightly, neglected alleyways into green havens, championing the findings of a recent RHS report that shows the significant impact this sort of revival has on communities.

A survey of 231 gardening groups found neglected areas were often problematic because of crime and fear of crime. Disused alleyways were a particular concern because they’re a perfect access route for burglars.

Many councils run schemes to gate off problem alleyways and the impact this has had on crime has been significant in cities like Cardiff, Bristol and Manchester.

According to the RHS report, in one Manchester street, 50 properties backed on to a four-way passage and were prone to burglary. It was gated off and residents planted it up, turning what was once a crime-ridden grot-spot into a flourishing community haven where residents hold events and children play.

“A lot of groups that have renovated disused spaces like alleyways which have been prone to vandalism and anti-social behaviour have reported that vandals sometimes continue but this is extremely short-lived,” says Stephanie Eynon, RHS community horticulture manager.

“If they steal planters, do graffiti or whatever, they soon notice that the planters are put back and the graffiti is removed - not by the council, but by residents. These once disused areas become looked-after, used, lived-in, part of the community and vandals are put off by the fact there is a strong community presence.

“Groups report that vandals don’t return. Whether it’s through fear of being watched, the fact that there are people physically now in these areas is off-putting to them.”

The RHS It’s Your Neighbourhood campaign, part of Britain in Bloom, is offering advice on planting up neglected spaces like alleyways and also providing information on funding. There are already more than 1,000 registered IYN groups. To set up a new group or join an existing one, go to

RHS Young Designer 2011 finalists Owen Morgan and Alexandra Froggatt, who will demonstrate how to regenerate an alleyway through planting at the RHS London Plant and Design Show on February 14 and 15, offer the following tips:

A derelict alleyway can be taken on as a community project. Even on a shoestring budget, bright colours and simple raised beds can transform an area quickly. Be creative - recycled items will add an interesting dynamic to any design.

Green walling is an instant effect and can vastly increase your planting options and available area for planting in a limited space. Green wall systems lend themselves to the growing of ferns which are well suited to a damp, shaded alleyway wall. There are plenty of products on the market that utilise pockets or pouches with in-built irrigation systems.

With green wall technology the potential for vertical allotments is beginning to be realised. An alleyway could be taken on by the community and be transferred into a vertical allotment. In urban areas this would help towards the lack of available allotment space.

Take into account practical considerations. Speak to neighbours before embarking on any structural work. Take into consideration the Party Wall Act and contact a surveyor if in any doubt.

Most alleyways require some degree of access. A good design should include a clear flat access path wide enough for wheelie bins, disabled access or buggies.

Many alleyways will have a concrete-lined base and will therefore be unsuitable for conventional planting. Pots, planters and troughs are an ideal way of creating a strong design identity to the space while providing plenty of opportunity for planting.

Climbers on funky trellis will also add vertical interest. Climbing hydrangeas are self clinging and highly shade tolerant.

Use hanging planters to break up long sections of wall.

The majority of alleyways are shady so experiment with shade tolerant plants such as ferns, hakonechloa and hostas.

A few large specimens will have strong impact in a small space so add bamboo or hardy palms.

Box is shade tolerant so try adding some topiary balls or cones for year-round elegance.

Brighten up dark and dingy areas by adding bold coloured pots. White will act to lift and lighten the area. Paint the walls to make a bold statement, but make sure you have permission first.

Best of the bunch - Helleborus

Hellebores are valued for their attractive winter flowers in shades of white and pink, through to red, purple and black, each with attractive markings.

They can grow under trees, shrubs or beside walls if the ground is not too dry and look lovely interplanted with spring-flowering bulbs or hardy cyclamen, or teamed with epimediums, hardy geraniums or pulmonarias in a border. They prefer lime or chalk but are tolerant of a range of soils, although they won’t survive in waterlogged conditions, and are happy in sun or shade.

Lenten hellebores (H. orientalis) are good evergreen perennials for late winter to early spring interest, with large, cup-shaped flowers in shades of white, cream, pinkish red and deep purple.

Try the ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrids’ for their range of colour. Other hellebores worth considering include H. argutifolius, a tough plant reaching 90cm x 90cm (3ft) or more, which does best in full sun and well drained soil, producing greenish flowers from January to March.

The British native stinking hellebore (H. foetidus) has pale green flowers and thrives in moist soil and partial shade and is a cheery sight on dark days.

Good enough to eat - Make a head start with rhubarb

A rhubarb revival has taken place in the last few years, with restaurants serving up good old fashioned rhubarb crumble, maybe with a hint of ginger, and a little work now can ensure a good supply of strong, tender stalks. It’s extremely easy to grow and you can start now, planting dormant crowns in a richly manured spot with fairly heavy soil. It often does well near compost heaps, making the most of the rich run-off in the soil. If you can find a spot in full sun, even better, as the sun will encourage the stems to develop a redder hue and a sweeter flavour. It can be picked as required between April and July.

Established rhubarb crowns can be forced now for the earliest tender stems. Forcing excludes light from the growing crown, by the use of a rhubarb forcer or just an up-turned bucket. Keeping the crowns in the dark encourages the plant to send out tender young stems, which are forced upwards looking for light. Heaping compost, straw or well-rotted manure around the forcer or bucket will generate a bit more warmth and they will start producing even sooner. Pull the stems as you need them until the end of March, but then uncover the plant, allowing it to grow naturally, for the rest of the season.

Three ways to... Protect plants from the cold snap

1. Knock snow off the branches of shrubs to stop them snapping and do the same with hedging, which may buckle under the weight of snow.

2. Make sure bubble wrap or hessian is tied securely around pots containing less hardy plants and place them nearer to the house or under cover.

3. Refirm any young plants lifted by frost and pay attention to recent additions such as trees and shrubs planted in the autumn which may not yet have grown out from their rootball.

What to do this week

Pot autumn-rooted fuchsia cuttings into small, individual pots.

Continue to harvest Brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, parsnips, celeriac and winter cabbage.

Order summer-flowering bulbs, particularly if you are planning to grow any that need starting off indoors, such as tuberous begonias.

Sow quick-growing perennials such as campanulas and poppies to flower this year.

Keep off the grass in frosty weather.

Examine stored dahlia tubers for any signs of rot and remove any which are affected.

To perk up a winter display, replace badly damaged plants with pots of dwarf, early-flowering bulbs such as scillas and narcissi.

In sheltered areas, prune tender climbers and wall shrubs that are already showing signs of strong growth, to further encourage growth.

Complete winter pruning of wisteria if this wasn’t done in November.

Cut back self-clinging climbers such as ivies and Virginia creeper, to keep them within bounds.

Cut back the dead stems of ornamental grasses to ground level.

Divide overcrowded clumps of snowdrops to increase your stock, splitting them and replanting single bulbs a few centimetres apart.

Keep weeding, if weather permits, to ensure perennial weeds don’t take hold before spring.