Diarmuid Gavin: Pretty plants to take the edge off hard landscaping
Hard landscaping, such as patios, terraces and pathways, is often the building block of a garden. It tames a plot and provides spaces for gathering and access, and sometimes allows difficult sites - such as a garden on a slope - to be usable. However, concrete, gravel, brick or stone can look harsh without the softening addition of plants.
There is a useful group of plants that grow quite happily when squeezed into gaps between paving stones or crevices in stone walls, and these will soften straight lines as well as bringing colour, flowers and sometimes scent. They can bring an informal charm to uninteresting patios and are a cheap way of disguising paving that needs repair. You can also lift a paving slab or piece of deck and plant up the space created. As with any planting, you need to consider the aspect: is it a shady or an open, sunny spot? In the case of pathways, how much foot traffic do you anticipate? Some plants, such as thyme, are pretty happy with being trodden on and will release their delicious scent, whereas others, such as chamomile, will only tolerate occasional footfall. Here's a selection for different situations:
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● Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) is a great little daisy. I spotted it last week on a visit to Mount Stewart gardens in Northern Ireland, where it had completely taken over the staircase at the back of the great house. The flowers are variable from white to a deep pink and will keep coming right through to October. It's very happy in a sunny, dry location, and bees and butterflies like it too.
● Thyme is my choice for my own garden, where paving slabs have been laid with gaps left of a few inches for planting in between. This robust plant will enjoy the dry, poor soil that inevitably accompanies paving works, but I did add some compost to help the plant establish itself. I was able to divide each plant into a few plantlets to squeeze them into the gap, and I will keep them watered while they settle in. The reward: cushions of pale purple flowers and a delicious scent underfoot.
● Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) will release a zesty peppermint fragrance and won't be downtrodden if you walk on it. It prefers a little moisture and is good in partial shade. It's one of the smallest mints, with dainty leaves and tiny mauve flowers in summer.
● Aubretia looks pretty tumbling from walls or sprawling across rockeries, with its vibrant blue and purple flowers. As it performs well on poor soil, this is also a good choice for gravelled areas. Cut it back after its spring flowering and you may get a second flowering in summer.
● Leptinella squalida or 'Platt's Black' looks a bit like a miniature fern, with feathery dark leaves. It's well able to creep along cracks and crevices. It's also known as 'Brass Buttons' for the little yellow flowers it produces in summer. Grow in sun or part shade.
● Soleirolia soleirolii or 'Mind-your-own-business' looks a bit like moss and enjoys similar damp and shady conditions. It can give an aged effect to paving or around ponds. It's a creeping perennial and can disappear after frost, but will resume services in spring. There's a lime-green variety, 'Aurea', which will bring some brightness to dark areas.