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Inner-city oasis.

Byline: By Hannah Stephenson

Television gardening expert Matt James knows a thing or two about gardening on a budget, transforming dull, inner-city gardens into outdoor wallet-pleasing havens of calm, colour and co-ordination.

The third series of The City Gardener begins on March 10 and Matt explains that anyone starting out does not need to spend a fortune on transforming a small plot.

Ask yourself carefully whether you really need a lawn in a small space, he advises. It may not be necessary and smaller lawns are notoriously difficult to maintain. It would also mean you having to invest in a lawnmower and the associated problems of storing it.

'Many people think they need to have a lawn because they don't know how else to fill the space,' he says. 'But gardens can look great without them.'

When planning your urban oasis, the most important consideration is where you are going to sit, he says. This may be where you have to spend the most money.

'You need to invest in hard standing or paving. Natural stone is a good option, but you can also go for pre-cast concrete imitations, which will be half the price and are widely available from garden centres and builders' merchants.

'If you are going for imitation, go for a darker colour. Some of the lighter ones trying to imitate York stone, for instance, look terribly fake. Dark grey goes with almost anything and doesn't stand out like a sore thumb.'

Gravel and bark are cheap options and easy to install as you just need to level the ground, place a membrane over it to stop the weeds coming up and putting a thick layer of gravel on top.

The disadvantage is that any tables and chairs put on it will sink to a degree and you may end up wobbling in your seat. Also, if your seating area is near to your patio doors and you are in and out a lot, you'll end up dragging gravel into the house on your shoes.

You can achieve a happy medium, he says.

'Instead of paving a whole courtyard you could pave an area outside your back door and enough for a table and chairs and then have five or six paving slabs leading through a swathe of gravel, combining cheap and expensive.'

He also says if you shop around you can buy plants much more cheaply than they are at some garden centres and DIY outlets.

'Always go to a specialist nursery,' he advises. 'Plants are sometimes half the price and they have a far wider range than any garden centre. The people who serve you have much more passion as they have raised the plants themselves and will be able to give you much more information and advice than other outlets.'

Make sure you know what plants will be suitable for both your soil type and situation. Consider the aspect of your garden, whether you live in a wind tunnel or frost pocket and make a checklist of characteristics before buying your plants.

Matt adds: 'You can't afford to impulse buy. This often ends up a complete waste of money as you end up with a hotchpotch of mismatched plants with no obvious place to put them.'

You can pick up sale plants from garden centres which may be past their best this season but will spring back to life next year, or at car boot sales. But always check the roots, removing the plant from its pot. If they are winding round and round the base, they are obviously pot-bound which may hinder growth later on.

If you want a focal point of a shrub or tree, only buy one and then you can balance the garden with cheaper perennials which bear more flowers and give you a quicker return on your money.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 6, 2005
Next Article:High times!

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