by Liz Potter |

A dead-end side passage can be brought to life with a diagonal design and clever planting, says Dawn Isaac

The Victorian age gave us many garden innovations, from domestic greenhouses to lawnmowers. However their horticultural gifts weren't always so helpful. By creating street after street of terraced housing their legacy would challenge generations of urban gardeners: the pesky side return.

With buildings looming on three sides, these narrow spaces are inevitably gloomy and homeowners are often tempted to swallow up the return as part of an extension, use it for outdoor storage or simply view it as little more than a pathway to somewhere better.

Fortunately, there is another way! With clever planting and imaginative landscaping, a dark strip of land can become an attractive view from multiple windows as well as a useful addition of outdoor living space. After all, if the Victorians taught us anything it was to be inventive.


  1. Views from house lacks interest
  1. Tired paving and plain fences
  1. No planting to soften areas
  1. Shady space in day and dark at night


This bleak side passage now makes a more attractive outdoor dining space. Lights festooned above the dining area create a party mood, while planting helps to soften the house walls and fences. New paving laid on the diagonal gives the impression of extra width.

Design on the diagonal

To avoid a 'corridor' feel, the design is set at an angle which helps divide the space in a more interesting way.

Lay interesting paving

Self-binding gravel forms a non-slip and light-reflective patio area while the red brick sections and edging visually tie the garden back to the house.

Boost light levels

Permanent festoon lighting has been added above the area to make it the perfect space for entertaining in the evening.

Use plants for scent

By placing scented plants by the back door and along the return you will inevitably brush pass them releasing fragrance into the air – see our suggestions overleaf.

Choose shade-tolerant planting

The height of the adjacent buildings blocks the sun for much of the day so this area is planted with shade-tolerant species that can cope with low light levels.

Add colour

Shade planting tends to involve a lot of white and green, so here we’ve added our own splashes with exterior cushions and terracotta pots painted in a matching masonry tone.

Upgrade the gate

The gate has been replaced with a curved trellis-topped version, stained in a pale shade making it an attractive feature that detracts from the view of houses beyond.

Make room for extra guests

A gate-leg table can be folded down when not in use, giving more useable space and better access to the garden beyond.

Consider the views

Planted beds have been positioned opposite the house windows to ensure each enjoys an attractive view of the garden.

Disguise the drains

Downpipes and drains can be hidden behind planting or pots. Paint the pipes dark grey or black to make them less obvious.

Dawn’s top 10 fragrant plants for a shady passage

1. Sarcoccoa confusa - Small, glossy lance-shaped leaves and vanilla-scented white flowers from December to March followed by blue-black berries. H and S1m (3ft 3in)

2. Convallaria majalis rosea - A rarer pink form of lily of the valley, it still has the same delicate fragrance and pretty nodding heads. Useful for the edges of paths. H20cm (8in) S25cm (10in)

3. Begonia ‘Pink Giant’ - A tender summer bedding plant that will take part shade and has large, scented pink flowers from July onwards. Ideal for pots or hanging baskets. H20cm (8in) S40cm (16in)

4. Phlox paniculata ‘Discovery’ - A perennial with beautifully scented pale pink flowers from July to October. Needs support adding before flowers appear. H75cm (29in) S50cm (20in)

5. Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Carnegie’ - Great in pots as a scented centerpiece for an outdoor table. Fragrant and beautiful too. H and S25cm (10in)

6. Lilium longiflorum ‘White Heaven’ - Tall and elegant lily with strongly scented summer blooms. Makes an impressive cut flower and works well in deep pots as well as border. H1.2m (4ft) S45cm (18in)

7. Lonicera purpusii 'Winter Beauty' - White tubular flowers give incredible winter scent but the rest of the year this shrub holds little interest so consider planting a late clematis nearby to scramble through its branches. H2m (6ft) S2.5m (8ft)

8. Daphne tangutica - Compact evergreen shrub with scented purple-flushed white flowers from May to June. These are followed by rounded red fruits. H and S1m (3ft 3in)

9. Clematis montana rubens 'Freda' - A less vigorous variety of C. montana, this deciduous climber has cherry-pink, sweetly scented flowers from May to June. H6m (19ft) S3m (10ft)

10. Philadelphus 'Belle Etoile' - A compact form which produces large orange-scented cup shaped white flowers from June to July. H1.2m (4ft) S2.5m (8ft)

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