Swab the deck!


At the bottom of our garden, in a shady north-east facing corner, is a deck. It was built by the previous owner and cleverly incorporates an old cherry tree, which actually grows up through the middle of it. This year the tree produced lots of really tasty cherries – the lovely warm weather we had in June must have helped – and we actually we managed to pick and eat some before the blackbirds and jays got them. I do love watching them hop about with enormous cherries in their beaks.

We don’t use the deck for a seating area because it’s rather too shady. I attached a swing to an almost horizontal branch of the tree some time ago and the kids have enjoyed playing up there. I’m still working on making it more of a dedicated play space. I had an idea to turn the deck into a pirate ship. Well, give it the spirit of a pirate ship at least. I’ve reused some of the props I bought for my son’s fourth birthday party: skull and crossbones bunting and a jolly roger flag. A ship’s wheel is screwed into a tree trunk, and we’ll attach a telescope to the end of a post sunk into the border. I’m sure there are more things we could add. A rope ladder? A balance plank? What do you think?

I’m planning to spruce up the planting in the borders around the deck. The borders behind the deck are deeply shaded by the cherry and an ancient elder tree, whose roots keep the soil quite dry. These are not very friendly growing conditions, but the border in front of the deck is richer and holds moisture better. I want the planting to give the deck area a tropical feel. It would fit with our pirate theme and the kids already call it “the jungle”. This calls for plants with large, lush leaves or bold flowers. I don’t want tender plants that have to be lifted out of the ground and molly-coddled over winter (I ain’t got time for that!) Instead, I want to achieve an exotic look with hardy plants. These are some of the plants I have put in so far:

A shade-tolerant climbing hydrangea has had a few pretty flowers this summer. I planted it last year so it’s early days yet, but once it gets going it should make a great backdrop and disguise the boring brown fence.

There are lots of ferns: Japanese shield, painted, shuttlecock and others I can’t name. They obviously love the conditions here and some have got really massive this year. The shield ferns are particularly nice because the new leaves have a coppery tone, and the painted ferns look like they have been dusted with silver.

I also have a few varieties of euphorbia which are quite exotic looking: the common wood spurge and some more special varieties with coloured or variegated leaves and flowers.

Three variegated aucuba japonica have done well in the deep shade behind the deck. They are tough as old boots, and will grow pretty much anywhere. The yellow-green variegation gives a good touch of brightness in a dark spot.

The fatsia japonica has only just gone into the far corner behind the deck, and seems to be doing well. I like the huge, palmate leaves, and am hoping it will produce big white fluffy flowers later this autumn.

Two impressive acanthus mollis plants, also known as Bear’s Breeches (!?), were already in situ when we bought the house. They have truly enormous, jagged leaves, and impressive, tall flower spikes. They really do look like jungle plants. For me, acanthus define the idea of ‘architectural planting’ – their leaves were often featured as motifs at the top of Greek and Roman columns.

My mum has recommended I try some trilliums and a rheum. Trilliums are a weird looking perennial that I understand can be rather tricky to grow. Their leaves grow in sets of three (hence the name) and the flowers, which appear in spring, sit on top, so they look at bit like a tea cup and saucer. They like moist, acidic conditions. A rheum is basically a gigantic ornamental rhubarb. It will need some moisture too, to do well. I’ll have to check my soil ph before I even think about growing the trillium, and ensure that I incorporate lots of well-rotted manure when planting both of these plants. I imagine neither will be cheap to buy.

A cheap and easy way to add some tropical colour next summer would be to plant up some hanging baskets or containers with brightly flowered, trailing begonias and canna lilies.

Finally, what I’d really love is a dicksonia antarctica tree fern (although it would want a bit of molly-coddling). I might have to write to Santa about this one.

But I’m going to wait until next year before buying new plants for this area. In the meantime, I’ll be busy this autumn moving a few plants that haven’t worked where they are, and getting the borders ready for new planting in spring.



Aucuba and Fatsia