When I was a style bunny, my mantra was always to "put a pot plant in front of it", which I figured would cover up any decor disaster without costing much.
It is possible I carried it a bit too far, stashing container plants in front of anything I thought spoiled "the look", including the ugly plastic cat door. But the pot plant discouraged the cat from going outside and she perpetrated a disfigurement to the silk rug my partner of the time had lugged all the way home from Turkey in a backpack. Tee hee.
These days it's rocks. I'm not suggesting you roll boulders in front of marks on the wallpaper, but if you have a garden dilemma a rock or three may solve it.
Like other items of hard landscaping, rocks add a strong element as a contrast to the softness of plants. They provide a sense of permanence and, in addition to their aesthetic value, they have practical uses.
In garden design, as opposed to hard landscaping and construction, rocks make great edges, focal points, stepping-stones and sculptures. And when you're completely devoid of an idea or a plan they're very good at telling you exactly what should go where. Heave a rock into an empty garden bed or on to a boring stretch of lawn, and you immediately have a starting point.
The height, shape and colour of the rock will suggest other planting, types of foliage, colours and arrangements of the other elements in the garden.
Unfortunately, rocks are not always easy to come by, although in some areas you can barely get a spade in the ground for them. Our land is littered with them and we're lucky we have two kinds - craggy, misshapen volcanic models and big, rusty brown ones. I love the brown rocks but they're as heavy as lead and it takes a digger to move even a small one.
If you don't have any outside the back door, try to source them locally. Rocks that come from around your area will look more at home. But if at the landscape supply yard you meet a must-have rock that comes from the other end of the country, tell yourself it's no worse than buying Spanish boots or an Italian car. Some places just do certain things better.
Before you start gathering up rocks for your project, draw up a plan and figure out how many you need. Rocks always look bigger when seen individually than when they're positioned in your garden with their mates, so you may need more than you think. Decide where they need to go and estimate the approximate shapes and sizes you want. Don't be too precise, but bear in mind that you probably don't want to be moving them more than once.
Rocks look idiotic sitting above the ground so once you've found the spot for each one, dig a hole so you can bury it part way in the ground.
"It should look as if it's just landed there after being shot out of a volcano," our rockman says.
He digs the holes, positions the rock, turns it over (often three or four times) to decide which is its bottom and which is its face, and jiggles it a few millimetres this way and that until it looks, well, comfortable. If it's a flat rock, he mounds the soil up to its edges, and if there's a handy depression in it, he'll fill it with water. For the birds, he reckons.
Rocks, like plants, look better in odd numbers - unless, of course, you have so many of them that nobody's counting. If that's the case, what you probably have is a moonscape and not a garden, and a design re-think may be in order. Put them in groups of three or five and you'll get a more natural look. Less is, in this case, more, and a good thing too is considering how heavy they are.
When you've completed the rock placement, choose your plants and congratulate yourself that the main elements of your garden will never need to be watered, weeded or fertilised. Years of carefree enjoyment, then.