Types of Flower Gardens
Ornamental Vegetable Gardens and Potagers
For serious crop production we need to give more emphasis to the needs of the productive plants. A great mixing of plant types is fine for non-productive areas, but vegetables in particular require the best of conditions before they grow well. Although they benefit in pest andfrom a mixing and mingling with flowers and other plants they must never be in the least crowded or they fail catastrophically. Some vegetables such as runner and will trail over other plants and produce some usable crops but their season of interest is short. Saladings can make quite attractive bedding in open spots but, unless you choose a cut-and-come-again variety such as frilly red , eating any inevitably leaves a gap.
Many forms of fruit may be grown amongst flowers but they will be unlikely to do as well as in a specially prepared and protected area. Also, hidden amongst other plants ripe crops can be hard to find, unsightly if protected from the birds, and difficult to harvest. However, mixing food crops and flowers is generally a good idea but the food crops must be given absolute priority in planning and position and flowering plants added in any niche left spare. Basically this means reworking the vegetable patch with an appealing design, adding and flowers and surrounding it with trained fruit. Trying to do it the other way round and growing our common food crops in amongst existing ornamental plants will nearly always give poor results from the established plants’ usually fatal competition.
There are alternatives; delightful gardens can be made almost entirely of ornamental edible plants, though I’ve tried most of these and find few of them very palatable. Indeed it makes more sense to go on to the next stage of small-scale farming, whereis made from plants to be fed to animals which you then eat. Of course you can forego much of the productive side almost entirely and go for a naturalistic garden that runs itself ecologically and take what you can glean.
These offer the nearest we can get to a totally natural garden, given the parameters of a modern plot. We can easily create the effect of the ‘open in the middle and shaded at the edge’ hole left by the fall of a major tree in a. This is soon colonised and can be a beautiful sunny spot until a successor fills the canopy over again. We can replicate such a glade with high fences and borders around a lawn and can play on this theme to make it beloved of all the wild creatures we wish to attract by planting predominantly and shrubs for our perimeter and then filling the border with such typical woodland companions as foxgloves. The main drawback is that a small-scale forest glade soon becomes too shady for herb or vegetable production. However, as long as the sides are not allowed to get too high, then the central sunny glade area is suitable for most vegetables. Soft fruits, in a cage, can thrive as they are the natural accompaniment of the woodland’s edge.
These are often offered as a lame excuse by those who do not realise how truly they speak as they indicate their area of gross dereliction. Giving it all back to nature does have some merit: it is remarkable how rapidly a niche is colonised and, although a junk-strewn vista of scrub, weeds andis not what most of us wish to achieve, it offers a vast number of interesting — but only if left completely undisturbed. The art becomes one of concealing all the junk where it can be of service to the various forms of wildlife, while also offering them the other things they need such as nest sites and water, and further planting up the garden to attract and hold them with food and cover. A well-planned wild garden that looks appealing and natural, and attracts wildlife, is a great achievement rarely wrought by mere neglect!
Cottage Gardens – Myth and Reality
Often proffered as the epitome of design is the ‘cottage’, frequently simplified to masses of very mixed planting with flowers predominating and allegedly also producing useful crops. Though overworked, this vision offers some escape back to a supposedly simpler time and indeed the concept has much intrinsic merit which we can learn from. However, over the years the original has become perverted and now a twee and wholly mythical cottage garden is perpetuated by grotesquely expensive and transient follies at flower shows such as Chelsea. Charming as these are, they have done much to mislead gardeners. Wonderful masses of flowers combined with luscious fruits and vegetables look terrific when staged for the cameras, but would be difficult and incredibly time-consuming to maintain. It is almost impossible in a real cottage garden to have all those flowers blooming at the same time – and, furthermore, in practice many of the plants would soon choke each other out and the birds would eat most of the produce.
Over centuries, the original cottage garden evolved from the primitive herb bed outside the rustic hut. As we now strive to understand and utilise more of the ecology involved, such utilitarian gardens as this – which arose through empirical trial and error – are enlightening. They were purely functional and developed with probably very little influence from the great gardens of the rich and powerful, whose garden styles reflected wealth and position. ‘Gardening’ historically relied on scale, order and geometry, and intrinsically depended on humans imposing our designs on nature, fighting her all the way with unlimited cheap manpower. Little consideration was ever given to working with her! With the Victorian period came a desire for re-creations of a Rustic or Gardenesque style, but these are of no value to us as they were contrived from and not wrought with nature.
So only of real interest to us now is that pragmatic and very mixed planting employed by ‘ignorant’ peasants who did what they found worked. Cottagers did not have their plants for staple food, but lived on beer, bread and roots all grown elsewhere; their gardens were forfor flavouring and medicine, with few of our modern vegetables or fruits. Now we may again be searching for a similar harmony with mixtures of plants that superficially resemble this humble ancestral cottage garden, but the compositions are necessarily much changed.
Some of the old herbs would be retained, but not the many medicinal plants, and our modern choice of vegetables, fruit and flowers is likely to vary widely from their traditional few. Thus a modern cottage garden may well be completely different from the original in content, though not in its idyllic appearance. The only drawback is that serious quantities of food production are not easily obtainable when combined with an aesthetic cottage-garden appearance, particularly because of the intense plant competition. Nonetheless, there can still be valuable contributions to the household in terms of herbs and flowers. And as long as the plants are well chosen, there is great advantage in having such a wide variety of them — it provides that diversity which makes for a stable ecology, so that pests and diseases are no longer a problem. And a cottage garden immediately around the humble abode can act as a reservoir of guardians for the vegetable and fruit beds nearby.