Winter's well and truly here, and you're not alone when it comes to despairing over that nasty cold, damp, dank, slippery spot outside the house where the sun just never, ever shines. It's the sort of place where moss thrives and no amount of water blasting will ever quite get rid of the algae. If you have the misfortune to have this horrid spot occupy a rather public place (the main entrance to the house in my case) you'll be doubly despairing. No amount of sweeping up fire wood debris, swishing off mud, straightening gumboots, or ousting the chooks on a rainy day is ever going to improve the look of the place.
For years I kidded myself that pretty polyanthus would survive in that permafrost region of the back door, but even those hardy little souls eventually turned up their toes. I raised early daffodils in pots in the glasshouse and, as soon as they were in bloom, lugged them out to sit on the slimy green steps. Inevitably, a few hours later, I'd find their pretty orange and yellow petals bespattered with mud where someone had sloshed past on a bicycle.
It's astonishing just how long one persists with what is obviously a lost cause, and it was several years (and a trip to the UK) before I gave up on introducing floral colour spots to my sunless, winter steps, and decided to go green. If ever you find yourself bemoaning New Zealand's winter climate, spend some of Europe's colder months in England or Scotland. Instead of drab mud and mildew, and half hearted attempts to get something to flower, garden paths and entrance ways there are festooned with dainty buxus topiaries, sculptured bays in pots, cascading ferns, and dinky little ivies growing up slim poles to colonise wire mesh spheres. Colour comes in the form of vibrant glazed pots – I couldn't wait to get home to try it all out!
Of course, unless you're loaded, or an ancient aunt has given you a garden centre voucher for your birthday, this prettiness isn't likely to happen overnight but, as with most things, there are short cuts. Lonicera nitida (box honey suckle) is a wonderful stand-in for the more hoity toity buxus, and grows a million times faster, so it's perfect for almost-instant topiary. What's even better is that it's a breeze to grow from cuttings – so find someone who has some. Any old bay leaf suckers like billy-o so it's no great effort to pot up a piece large enough to make an immediate statement. Ferns, too, transplant well, and New Zealand is full of them (though it's quite illegal, of course, to remove them from protected areas). That just leaves the ivy, a fast grower at the best of times, so pot up some already-rooted pieces right away, before you forget. If you can't run to colourful, new ceramic garden pots, hunt out some caterer's sized cans from the dump shop, and get painting with two or three of those little test pots, or with a mixture of any bright colours you find in the back of the garage. Gosh, just thinking about it is a pick-me-up.
For a finishing touch, why not buy a few metres of that inexpensive artificial grass next time you're in town, and tack it onto your steps or lay it as a mat on the concrete. Winter hasn't won yet, not by a long shot!