Developing the vegetable garden has been a top priority ever since we moved here, and I have to admit the flower garden has felt like a relatively slow burn in comparison. Food obviously has to come first and I love the challenge and satisfaction of growing fruit and vegetables, but I am passionate about having a garden full of flowers, too. In Asturias, where our garden was so steep and growing areas were limited, I planted and encouraged flowers in any little space I could find in an approach that was very much the local way. Here, we have completely the opposite situation, a totally flat garden and masses of space, and as we started with what in essence was a blank canvas, the challenge has been how to make the best of it.
For a start, the last thing I wanted was anything that smacked too much of ‘formal’ flower beds or gardens. Giving nature free rein wherever possible is an important part of our approach, partly because wild flowers are so beautiful in themselves but mostly because they are so beneficial to the resident wildlife and an essential part of a healthy, balanced ecosystem. We have left large swathes of wild corridors uncut, several metres deep in places, and allowed the wildflowers to flourish; this in turn encourages biodiversity, including ~ we hope ~ plenty of pollinators and a wide variety of useful predators which will in turn help to control less-than-welcome visitors to our food crops.
In other places, we just let the wildflowers grow as they want and if they mingle with ‘official’ plants, so much the better; at the moment we have several clumps of ox-eye daisies growing with calendula, such a lovely combination and one which I smiled to see had been used in a municipal planting scheme in a local town.
Perhaps society’s obsession with ridding the environment of ‘weeds’ is finally waning? If so, that’s a wonderful thing. Time for a walk on the wild side . . .
I’ve always had a soft spot for foxgloves and can’t imagine having a garden without them. I’ve known several people who pull them out of the ground on sight, refusing to tolerate them because they are poisonous. Well, yes they are . . . but only if you eat them! (Ironically, the same people happily plant daffodils and rhododendrons in their garden . . . ) Foxgloves are obviously not a safe candidate for home herbalism but their use in mainstream medicine to treat heart conditions is well-established; they are also an excellent companion plant for apple trees and therefore a helpful addition to an orchard. For me, their bright, untamed spires represent one of the great natural beauties of the season and I love to watch the visiting bumble bees disappearing deep inside the speckled flowers. I’m happy to let them seed themselves freely around the garden ~ which they certainly do! ~ and grow where they are happiest, rather than try and create a contrived setting for them. How could I improve on this?
Without question, one of the biggest ‘wild’ stars of the spring has been this campion; it has bloomed for weeks, and I love the way its pretty pink flowers obediently track the sun during the day, then turn back to the east in the evening ready to start again the next morning. Fascinating!
Much of my flower gardening relies on self-setting and one of the benefits of having scattered several varieties of annual seed in our first summer here is that we will have them for evermore. Californian poppies, both in traditional orange and more muted pinks, are certainly at home here and we have sunny banks of them in several places; they are currently marching at speed across the gravelled areas which is just the enthusiastic laissez-faire attitude I love.
Speaking of gravelled areas, our decision earlier this year to try and turn a former car parking area at the front of the house into a gravel garden felt like a slightly risky one; it’s not something we’ve ever tried before and we had no guarantee it would work, especially as beneath the gravel there is packed hardcore and heavy clay. Let’s just say planting starts with a pickaxe! However, it’s a case of so far, so good, and the young plants that have gone in are at last starting to make an impact. Next year, it should all look much fuller and as I’ve deliberately included reliable self-setters like granny’s bonnets, lady’s mantle and verbena bonariensis to join the foxgloves and verbascum that have already arrived of their own accord, it should continue to evolve to its own rhythm in the future.
When we started mapping out a flower garden at the back of the house early last year, the biggest challenge as far as I was concerned was getting the scale right. Basically, we are creating a garden by carving up an acre of what was little more than a field with a few apple trees in it and we’re lucky to have so much space to play with. Scale, however, can be a problem: make planting areas too big and they become unmanageable, too small and they just look ridiculous. I also disliked the fact that everything seemed so open and stark, so another problem was how to create a sense of gentle enclosure, to create a space that felt more contained and intimate without feeling too constrained or shady. Lastly, I wanted everything to curve and flow in an area that encourages wandering and weaving rather than marching in straight lines. Fine. We made a start . . .
Sorting out some boundaries was the first job and here we plumped for an eclectic mix: a curved hedge of rugosa roses, a rustic support covered in clematis and climbing roses (this year I’ve planted a row of sunflowers behind it), another curve of cardoons and an area planted with a range of shrubs which will eventually fill the space. Along the front of the area, Roger built a low drystone wall ~ now home to a very healthy lizard population ~ and beyond that we have put up posts and wire to support a grapevine and thornless blackberry to create a living, edible screen. As the ‘hedges’ fill out and gain in height, the sense of an enclosed space is slowly developing; our plan is to put two small wooden arches covered in climbers to mark the entrances to the area and then all we need is to add a seat to sit and enjoy it.
Probably my biggest indulgence in planning this garden area was the inclusion of a mandala bed and I know I’ve written copiously about it before but please indulge me again because I’m just a tiny bit chuffed with how it’s turning out! This, I must admit, was another gamble and one where I could quite easily have fallen flat on my face, as I really had no idea what I was doing. That said, I’d still rather engage a sense of adventure and curiosity (however foolish) in the garden than simply trot out the same old predictable stuff all the time; if nothing else, it’s a great exercise for my grey matter and a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills and embrace different ideas. So, it all began last summer with a rock and a huge pile of cardboard . . .
The circle has an area of roughly 28m2 although obviously the planting area is less than that when the paths and rock space are taken into account. It’s more or less orientated to the compass points which gives me a handy way of labelling each of the eight sections. This is how they are currently planted:
- North: climbing borlotti beans, strawberries, calendula, basil, dyer’s chamomile, red sorrel (self-set).
- North-east: cucumbers, aubergines, chillies, sweet peppers, nasturtium.
- East: annual flower seeds, strawberries.
- South-east: courgettes.
- South: lettuce, rainbow chard, strawberries, dyer’s chamomile.
- South-west: summer cabbage, purple French beans, flat-leaved parsley, calendula, lemon bergamot.
- West: annual flower seeds, strawberries, dyer’s chamomile.
- North-west: melons, heartsease.
In all, there are 131 plants (excluding several phacelia and buckwheat volunteers and any other annual flowers that ~ hopefully! ~ will appear fairly soon), most of which are edible; the dyer’s chamomile is an exception, but it’s a useful plant, and the phacelia and buckwheat will become green manure. These are my thoughts on Project Mandala Bed so far:
- It’s growing. A bit of a daft one to start with, perhaps, but quite significant all the same. Having spent the greatest part of my gardening life planting conventionally into carefully-prepared soil, I was highly sceptical that anything would grow ~ yet alone flourish ~ planted into what amounts to several layers of pretty rough organic material. No matter how many videos I watched of the wonderful Morag Gamble throwing coffee grounds around her no-dig garden in bare feet, I half expected everything to fail but didn’t want to write it off until I’d tried. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m astounded . . . and converted!
- It’s easy to look after. I don’t like the concept of a ‘low-maintenance’ garden, because I believe passionately that, like raising a family or cooking a beautiful meal, a garden should require a bit of effort and a lot of love. However, that shouldn’t mean it’s all work and no play! There is no point in creating a garden that is one unbroken list of tedious chores: time to relax and enjoy it, to calm the mind or awaken the senses, are just as important. Also, I know I’m very lucky in that I can spend all my time gardening if I so wish but in my previous life spent raising a family, studying and working, a productive garden such as this that is a pleasure to be in but requires minimal attention would certainly have been a blessing. One of the things I love the best is that it’s so easy to check on everything: simply stand by the rock and turn round!
- It’s very clean. There are hardly any weeds and the few that appear are easily lifted. The worst area is around the herb hedge but trimming the grass now and again and keeping the plants heavily mulched helps to solve that problem. The size of the sections means I can reach all parts from the paths so it’s very simple to plant, water and check individual plants without treading on the planting areas. This is pretty important in a lasagne bed because I don’t want to cause any sort of compaction to the developing soil. The grass-mulched planting areas and wood-chip paths mean there is no mud which makes it a pleasure to work in; not that I mind getting my hands dirty, in fact I love the tactile experiences that come with gardening, including burying my hands in the earth, and rarely wear gloves for that reason. This patch is so clean, however, I could easily work in a ballgown if I felt the need. That’s if if I had such a thing, of course. 🤣
- It’s full of life. When I open up planting pockets through the layers, they are teeming with earthworms which is good news since they are doing all the hard work of transforming the organic materials into nutrient-rich soil. The herbs that are currently flowering, namely sage, thyme and Welsh onions, are attracting a wide range of insects which then (theoretically) will be encouraged to visit the food crop flowers, too. As there is absolutely no need for digging, hoeing or raking, all the ‘work’ I do is at ground level which means I have the perfect opportunity to observe these essential visitors as they go about their business. I also like to watch from the balcony just before bed as that is when the birds take over. A robin dominates the rock, a redstart sits on the cucumber supports and a spotted flycatcher on the beanpoles, all staking claim to their personal territory and using them as a vantage point for spotting the next snack. Blackbirds rummage through the mulch, scattering it all over the paths (bless them), and a huge song thrush bounces through on kangaroo legs. A pair of pied wagtails runs about picking tiny insects from the surfaces and there are often goldfinches in the mix, too . . . which may well explain where some of my annual flower seeds have gone. I’m not grumbling; last year, this was a patch of sterile grass growing in compacted earth and now it bustles with a diversity of living things. I love that.
- It’s evolving. When I set out on this great experiment, I had no planting plan in mind whatsoever and knew from the start that I didn’t want to become too precious about it. Geometric shapes don’t have to automatically mean formality. The herbs around the edge were planted totally randomly ~ they had to be, since I needed thirty two plants from five different varieties which didn’t lend itself to any precise maths or patterns. Of those plants, only one (a hyssop) failed to make it through winter, so I’ve replaced it with a spare sage plant and no-one will ever guess. The plants go into the ground as and when they are ready; I’ve grown nothing specially for the bed, everything has simply been leftovers from the main vegetable garden ‘nursery’. I refused to lose the Battle of the Lettuce, especially as I had hundreds of plants, and eventually the wireworm decided to give up but where I’ve lost a few other bits and pieces, I’ve simply popped something else in. A tiny basil crumpled, so I replaced it with lemon bergamot, and a cabbage that withered and died is now flat-leaved parsley. When we harvest the plants ~ and we will be doing that, this is not a purely ornamental activity ~ there will be other stars waiting in the wings for their turn; for instance, when those lettuce and cabbages are finished, they will be making way for tomatoes. I love the fact that phacelia, buckwheat and red sorrel have moved in of their own accord and self-setting is something I shall be encouraging.
- It’s a place of peace. When I first started out on this adventure, I was toying with the idea of putting some sort of simple bench seat in the middle, but when Roger found that beautiful quartz rock there was no argument as to what should be the central feature. The lack of seat doesn’t matter, because I have discovered that the wood-chip paths stay warm and dry and there is enough room for me to sit in comfort on the ground with my back against the rock and enjoy the space; what’s more, there’s no excuse for being bored, as I have a choice of eight outlooks. At that level, I can either observe the fascinating minutiae of life going on around me ~ the honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, miner bees, solitary wasps, hoverflies, butterflies, beetles, spiders, ants and a whole host of other creatures busy within the circle ~ or I can close my eyes, listen to the chatter of the swallows overhead and the gentle purring of turtle doves in the trees around me, breathing in the scent of the aromatic plants being stirred by their insect visitors. I find myself drawn there more and more. It’s simply beautiful. I really can’t ask for more than that, can I?