Spicing up Your Patio Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Spicing up Your Patio

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A cowboy on his patio

According to Kipling, 'England is a garden' - that may have been true in that great poet's time, but one look outside any window reveals an ever increasing sprawl of metropolitan madness. You may wonder what has been sacrificed for man's need of space, and the answer is painfully simple and sad - the garden. Yes, as our cities get busier, our gardens get smaller and now many of us are confronted with that bastion of the suburban middle classes - the patio.

What many see as a drab slab of concrete is, to others, a blank canvas upon which you can let your creative juices flow. Here are some great tips, taken from the h2g2 Community, that should help spice up your patio.

Question and Answer Session with Wise Gardener

Is there anything that will grow in a large-ish container with virtually no direct sunlight, and that requires almost no maintenance? So far the only things that have survived are sage (looks a bit ropey though), thyme (likewise) and mint. The mint doesn't count though, seeing as the challenge there is to stop it growing!
I would also like a big plant in a pot in my shared yard to brighten up an otherwise gloomy corner.
Oh Wise Gardener:
If you don't mind some work to start with you can put Ivy in a pot, put some wire in, in a hoop, an obelisk, or even a spiral, and the ivy will grow up it. It might need a bit of training, but it's not difficult. Ivy loves to cling! (it might need trimming though, when it outgrows your wire.) Ferns are shade lovers as well.
Fatsia Japonica is a large hardy evergreen shrub that should look good in a pot. Some of the older roses can be grown in the shade, but I'm not sure if they like pots or not.
Try some hostas - they look dead classy, and putting them in pots can save them from the slugs. They'll grow in the deepest shade, and there's lots of nice varieties, with leaves from gold to blue, all splotched and striped, and tall spires of white or lilac flowers in late summer.
Both sound lovely, do they have to be brought indoors? I have a tiny, tiny flat with no handy over-wintering spots for plants.
How big do they get? And do the hostas need very frequent watering? I am not very good at that. It is survival of the fittest for my house plants - those that like being flooded about once a month last longest, I've had a yukka for about six years now that seems to love this treatment.
Oh Wise Gardener:
Hostas will be happy outside all the year round. They will die back in the winter and come back all fresh and lovely in the spring. If they are outside, I would only consider watering them in extremely dry spells. Once I had marigolds in a container, they did quite well, too. They were under the apple tree so not much sunlight there, too.

Small Box on the Kitchen Window

It's humble. It's unbelievably humble. It's a small box on the kitchen window, for goodness sake. But it works...

A small box on the kitchen window was all I had a few years ago. I tried to grow 'kitchen plants' in it - cress, marjoram, chives and some other herbs. They were nice to look at and easy to harvest.
I have some parsley but I don't manage to use it all so it goes all brown and yucky. How about some small bulbs in a pot planted a week or so apart so you've got a succession - crocuses or the really tiny daffs? The others might be OK in the cupboard under the sink while growing.

Eat your Patio

Do you know that a lot of vegetables will grow perfectly in tubs pots and baskets? They look just fine, and the satisfaction in growing even a bit of your own food is just great! Here's a few ideas:

  • Potatoes - These are perhaps the easiest. You need the biggest, tallest tub you can find. Plastic barrels are good. Smaller containers will do, but you will get a proportionately smaller crop. Fill the container about half full and plant the seed potatoes about 4-6 inches down (seed potatoes are dead cheap. Garden centres sell them in huge bags, but if you only want one or two, try a farm shop, or bum some off a neighbour). As the plants grow, pile more soil on top till only the shoots show. This encourages the plants to make more potatoes. Now all you have to do is throw the odd bucket of water over them. The plants will eventually produce dinky yellow flowers, and once these have died back you can start digging down for potatoes. Discard any that have been too near the surface and gone green, and if you only need a few at a time, don't pull up the plant - just root down till you find a few tubers and pull them off - that way the plant may continue to produce, and the rest of the crop will stay fresh! You can expect to get around 25 potatoes from each seed potato.

  • Peas and beans - These are also dead easy. If you pick a variety with nice flowers they can also look really decorative. Grow them in a wide pot up a wigwam of canes - they can add some nice height behind other, decorative pots. They're a great crop for just reaching out and eating as you sit in the sun!

  • Peppers (chillies or capsicum) - These are a tender crop - you may have to start them off on a sunny windowsill, but they'll be happy outside once the weather is warmer. The shiny fruits look just wonderful amidst the dark glossy foliage.

  • Tomatoes - There is a variety of cherry tomato called 'Tumbler' which has been bred to grow in a hanging basket. It will keep fruiting for a long time, and the contrast of yellow flowers and red and green tomatoes all hanging down is lovely.

  • Citrus fruits - Citrus fruits like lemons have to come inside for the winter, but they look dead classy on a patio May-October. The dark shiny leaves give a Mediterranean feel, and yes, they do fruit! You can even get a range of peach trees now in pots. Also, strawberries actually grow better in tubs; they're up off the ground so they don't rot, and it's harder for the slugs and birds to get them.

Growing your own produce is not that hard - the plants will often put up with less love and attention than flowers - you get an extra return on the investment of your time, and can enjoy the food win the knowledge that you know exactly what's gone into it. Eat your patio!

Hanging Baskets

Hanging baskets are a very good way of decorating a patio.

I plant tumbling cherry tomatoes in mine along with the flowers, they look really interesting. If you plant them in the type of hanging baskets that have water reservoirs in the base, they get just the right amount of water, and they're up high away from slugs and snails, and they get lots of sun, so they do really well.
You can get water crystals for hanging baskets that save a lot of watering. My advice? Get organic ones!


Permanent Seating

Plastic and canvas chairs are all very well. They are cheap and easy to keep clean. But... one of the best ways to get the most out of your patio, yard, garden, whatever is to have a permanent seat. You'll find you are much more likely to just wander out and sit down, at times when you couldn't be bothered to drag the other chairs out of the shed. Very quickly, you'll find yourself eating breakfast out there, or having a quiet sit down when you come home from work. A permanent seat may be more of an investment, but it really does pay off.

I'm not too keen on plastic chairs, although if you don't have a lot of time for the garden they can be useful. They don't rust or rot, leave them upside down on the patio and the seats stay dry. I prefer wooden furniture for outside, but they need treating and looking after. Plastic tables are not very sturdy, or steady. Or is that just the cheap ones?


Second best depends on how much work you want to do. Containers can be great fun, but they are extremely hard work to make look good. They can be planted up to create year round colour and interest, but they need to be looked after, fed, watered and protected from frost. Herbs in containers are probably the most useful, just outside the back door for instant access, and they can be brought into the kitchen when it gets too cold.

Having honeysuckle or another scented plant growing around the patio can make it very pleasant to sit out on a sunny day or mild evening, especially if you've managed to fit a bench or chairs there too.

Water Features

Water features are possible, wall fountains can be mounted on a trellis on the wall and take up hardly any space at all, or you can have a container pond.

If you've got kids, don't put anything expensive, valuable or delicate behind the 'goal', or in the way of tricycles or bikes. Or skipping ropes. Try to keep one end fairly clear for the kids to play, and make sure that you keep the plants that are poisonous well away!

Putting on a Show

Flowers are a great way to draw attention - the attention of passersby, bees and other insects, and birds and all sorts of wildlife. Pay attention to where you plant things (or put plant pots) - if you surround a dining area with flora, you're likely to be bothered by bees while you try to eat.

If you like to put on a good show without putting out a lot of effort, annuals are a good way to go. Buy them in the spring, plant them after the last frost, and they will flower all summer long with no maintenance whatsoever. All you have to do is water them, and Mother Nature takes care of that from time to time. Then in the autumn the first frost will likely kill them; you simply cut them down and dispose of them.

Perrenials are a little more work; you have to care for them year-round as they come back year after year. You can change the look of annuals by simply planting different varieties in different locations every spring, but perrenials will come back the same every year if you take care of them. How much care varies depending on what kind of plants you have.

Towering trees and or bushes is another way to go. trees will normally bloom in the spring, then after losing their blooms provide shade for the rest of the summer.

If the patio is very shaded by walls or fences, there are lots of plants that like shade, although I've noticed that they seem to grow very slowly. If it gets no shade at all, there are lots more plants that will love it, sheltered and sunny, you could grow a lot of exotic plants, although you'll need room for them indoors somewhere in the cold weather.
I used to keep a bird feeder on a shepherd's hook in my yard, but stopped that when I was continually cleaning up bird poo off my patio furniture. Plastic patio furniture is popular for the simple fact that it is affordable and care free. It also all looks the same and comes in only two colours. My patio furniture is aluminium. The table has a glass top and the chairs have woven seats and backs on painted aluminium frames. They stack for easy storage, and I have a big patio umbrella that can shade the entire set.
We also have a grill, so we have several outdoor cookouts every year. We've got some nice refillable patio torches that will burn citronella oil to keep mosquitos away in the evenings as well. Then we put up seasonal decorations around everything else as the holidays come and go. As a matter of fact, we just dug out the haunted house sign yesterday to put up next week some time (for Halloween).

Keep the Area Flexible

My advice, for what it's worth, is to keep the area flexible. A patio is an outside room to all intents and purposes, and you wouldn't want to make a room in your house unusable by erecting immovable concrete monstrosities in it, would you? Use it as a dynamic, re-usable canvas to experiment with different placings of plants and other features.
To this end, make good use of containers, as previously suggested. They can be moved around to fit in with your current living arrangements. Get some self-watering ones if you can't be bothered or on hand to water them daily. I don't have a patio now but I have done in the past, and what I found to be really effective was to plant some night-scented plants in containers. Night-scented stock (Matthiola bicornis) and tobacco plants (Nicotiana affinis: the original species only, not coloured hybrids!) are ideal for this. Then you can open the patio doors on a warm evening and let the glorious scent drift into the house.
If you like scent during the day, try using the natural warmth of the patio to grow plants that would otherwise be too tender for our winters. The myrtle (Myrtus communis) has an incredible fragrance from both its leaves and flowers on a hot day. Then, in winter, you can move the plant indoors.

A Conversation between Three Mad Gardeners

We'll finish this collaborative entry in the same way we started it - by dropping in a very funny (if slightly barking) 'discussion' on the various merits of doing up your patio garden.

Mad Gardener Number One:
First start with plants. Be unique and try some unusual types, like the carnivorous ones that will eat your neighbour's dog when he comes over to use your property as his latrine. Decorate your patio in an interesting manner. I took an art class where we made plaster casts of our faces and used them to make clay masks. We all had to make one for the teacher, who fired them, took them home and arrayed them about her front porch and garden. She said the hundreds of eerily lifelike stone faces were an excellent deterrent to door-to-door solicitors and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Mad Gardener Number Two:
I think garden design should concentrate not on the plants but on the objects in the garden, such as gnomes, Greek-styled statues, rocks and preposterous fountains! And you know I'm right.
Mad Gardener Number Three:
Aaaaaargh! That's not a garden - it's a monument to tatt. When I go round the local garden centres I wonder how they can stock all the statues and so on that they do. Most gardens are too small to have much in the way of statuary in them though a small creature in a shrubbery does add something. A bigger statue needs space around it as a letter needs 'white space' around the text to make it easier to read.
I'm all for adding a small water feature, though, with allowance for safety if kids are present and the knowledge that elderly chaps may feel the presence of their prostate problems if there are too many 'tinkling' sounds.
Mad Gardener Number Two:
How about one of those old Stalinist statues from the USSR and her satellite states in Eastern Europe? You could trail ivy up it and birds could nest in the head or flat cap at the top of the statue.

Good grief.

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