My Englishman’s garden, and mine [part 2]
At the local garden centre we were like children in a sweet shop. Finally we could select plants. It was the spring of 2015 and the hard landscaping of our garden had just been finished. There was no planting design, not even a colour scheme to influence our selection. We simply picked the plants we liked.
While my Englishman purposefully scanned the shelves for names like Helenium, Crocosmia or Geum I ambled past the displays until large leaves, like those of an Arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica,), caught my attention. My interest in gardening had been sparked by indoor plants and now I was searching for exotic looking foliage that would survive outdoors.
My Englishman’s enthusiasm for plants had its foundation in more traditional gardening: the colourful herbaceous borders created by his grandmother and mother. This early introduction had later prompted him to visit many of the famous gardens in the British Isles. As a result Latin plant names were part of his vocabulary while they sounded interesting but foreign to me.
We knew we wanted to make this garden together, so it was clear that the other person had to get a say in our individual plant choices. On this first garden centre visit, we began to develop a system which eventually became a simple rule: for every plant one of us wanted the other got to pick one too. In addition we each retained a veto right.
One group of plants didn’t need much debate: fruit and vegetables. Both of us had grown up in the countryside with large gardens full of homegrown food. My Englishman’s mother continued to kept an impressive vegetable plot where, among other produce, she grew delicious sweetcorn. My grandmother’s harvests lay in the distant past but I still missed the taste of freshly picked beans and peas.
The idea for our garden was simply to mix edibles and ornamentals. This had been inspired by a BBC programme I had watched years earlier, ‘The Edible Garden’ by Alys Fowler. I had been fascinated by the programme’s contemporary approach to the old-fashioned concept of a cottage gardening. To me the principle was so radical, yet so simple that I wondered why it wasn’t more widely applied, particularly to small gardens. My Englishman liked the idea of a mixed garden, some of it edible, some of it ornamental, and all of it attractive.
We started to plant and it was such a joy finally to get our hands into the soil. For my Englishman this was his very first plot, while for me almost 3 years had passed since I had left my previous garden. But where exactly should each plant go? What had seemed so flexible as a grand idea turned out to be a complicated puzzle of plant requirements. ‘Mixed’ was not to be confused with ‘random’ because in a lot of cases a plant’s needs dictated a particular planting position. Our two espalier pear trees, for instance, needed to be trained against a fence in a sheltered, sunny position, something only the righthand side of the raised bed could provide. Also, in such a small garden the use of space had to be economical. A horizontally extending courgette plant could therefore only be placed at the front of the raised bed where it could comfortably extend over the edge without covering precious ground. Some plants were better not planted into the beds at all. Raspberries, for example, would be difficult to control among other plants and so were kept in a pot.
However, the most important consideration was easy access to vegetables. They needed to be tended and harvested. Since this would be impractical in the middle of our 3 by 4 metre main bed, vegetables were placed more or less along the edges. Only once all of this had been decided could we fill the remaining space with ornamental plants. Here we followed a truly random principle, because for many species we had no idea how the little plants would develop.
Everything grew amazingly well in our new, compost-rich soil. We harvested pears and berries, aubergines and tomatoes, lettuces, peas, brassicas and root vegetables of all kinds along with masses of courgettes and runner beans. Most importantly, while we enjoyed these culinary delights we sat at the dining table looking out into a beautiful garden. This was what we had envisaged – with exceptions though.
We realised that not all vegetable plants were attractive. Broad beans had been a joy to eat but not always to look at. Also, some of our protective structures, particularly for soft fruit, were rather ugly.
‘Maybe we should stop growing soft fruit,’ pondered my Englishman. It took me a while to agree, too much did I enjoyed picking handfuls of delicious berries for my muesli in the morning. Was there perhaps a way to integrate the various netting into the design of the garden in a more attractive manner? Unfortunately not. In such a small garden, every protective structure would stand out like a sore thumb.
So we gave the strawberry, blueberry and raspberry plants away, stopped growing broad beans and also dispensed with brassicas and the netting they required. Instead we sowed more peas, sweetcorn and lettuces.
It worked. Our harvest wasn’t as varied anymore but now we had everything in sufficient quantities for proper meals. At the same time the view from the dining table was getting better and better. Great plant combinations emerged, like the red flowers of runner beans and crocosmia complementing each other. Helped by many more plant purchases the middle of the main bed turned into an ever changing performance of delicate flowers and dramatic leaves. We had managed to create a beautiful garden which also provided us with delicious food – and all of this in less than 18 square metres of soil.
But something spoilt the picture: bare patches. The taller and denser the perennial flowers in the middle of our main bed became, the more noticeable were patches of exposed soil at the edges. Most vegetables were annuals, many of them were harvested after a few weeks in the ground. The resulting gaps were then to be filled with new seedlings. Theoretically, at least. In practice, this proved to be quite a complex endeavour.
Ensuring a steady supply of various seedlings requires a lot of experience. I had only tried this for two years in my previous garden, for my Englishman, it was entirely new and in addition he had to cope all by himself whenever I was in Germany. We often had no plants ready, for example, the new lettuce had been sown too early and had bolted before there was space to plant it out. The little greenhouse proved to be less suitable for propagation than anticipated. It quickly became too hot and offered too little space to grow a sufficiently large selection of young plants, particularly since it was simultaneously home to tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and cucumbers. And we couldn’t move the seed trays elsewhere in the garden because there was nowhere to hide them.
My Englishman began to fill some bare patches with annual flowers. Ornamental plants had become his great passion. English and French marigolds (Calendula and Tagetes) fitted well. Then he planted a Tithonia seedling at the front of the main bed. I think it might have been me who chose the seeds the year before because of the intensely orange flowers shown on the seed packet. Unfortunately neither of us read the text on the back and so the little seedling grew very large very quickly until it obscured half the garden.
While the Tithonia-experiment had gone spectacularly wrong, it had still been educational. Every year we understood better what worked and what didn’t and our successional planting improved. However, one problem we never managed to solve completely. For aesthetic reasons we wanted to avoid bare soil. At the same time each plant had to be given enough space to expand. Today I know that we should have planted fast growing species like lettuce around slow growing species like leeks, and that very densely. But somehow, at the time I thought this was wrong, probably because I could only imaging vegetable growing like my grandmother had done it.
So unattractive bare patches remained, even if more frequently they had a small plant in their middle. While we were contemplating if we could get used to gaps in our planting, the neighbour’s cat discovered our garden. From then on, wherever our beautifully loose soil was exposed it became a cat toilet. For my Englishman this was the last straw. As much as he loved cats, this went too far. He was ready to abandon the idea of growing edibles altogether. There was an organic delivery company in the area who’s fruit and vegetables were like home grown. What if we simply ordered from them?
I wasn’t sure. It was true, our experiment had led to a rather clumsy division of space between ornamental and edible plants, not the effortless mix we had envisioned. But for me gardening had always been about food production. This was what my grandmother had done. Slowly though, I realised that growing edibles was holding us back from exploring other aspects of horticulture. Perhaps one day we would return to growing fruit and vegetables. We certainly hadn’t mastered it yet. Right now, I felt there was too much else to explore. Inspired by my Englishman, I had begun to think of a garden as an aesthetic environment. This was new and exciting.
In autumn 2018 we gave away the remaining vegetable seeds and began a new chapter in our joint gardening.
This article is the second part of the series ‘My Englishman’s garden, and mine’. Part 1 can be found here, further parts will follow.