Garden Styles

I’ve been thinking a lot about garden styles recently. A few months ago, during his first visit to our house in years, my uncle called our garden a ‘wildlife garden’. I remember at the time holding back from correcting him, because I wasn’t confident what label would be better.

Before we bought the house, when the garden was only a doodle on paper, the words I would have chosen were ‘forest garden’. The very first plans I drew up had fairly dense tree cover all the way to the house. The canopy was a mix of traditional fruit trees and more unconventional trees like Siberian Pea trees, Cornelian Cherry, and Devon Sorb Apples. The first gardening book to inspire me was Martin Crawford’s magnum opus, and it showed.

Then came the compromises. The first was to eliminate many of the more adventurous trees in the plan on favour of proven productive species, given our limited space.

I also made an allowance for more open space and grass close to the house, for barbeques and social use of the garden. The whole place was still a mess back then, with young trees and lots and lots of woven plastic sheeting to clear the grass and the weeds. My wife becoming pregnant right after we moved in gave impetus to this, and I moved a raised bed to expand the lawn that I was in the process of removing elsewhere.

The next compromise to that vision came with an expansion of traditional vegetable gardening. In early years I planted tomatoes and cucumbers through holes in the mypex, expecting that eventually those spaces would be shaded. But the truth is a garden that just produces dessert fruit and leafy perennials isn’t very nutritionally balanced. I’d always left open the possibility of a greenhouse, but a couple of years ago we built one with a lot of help from the family. I added another raised bed, and when one of the plum trees died at the start of this year I earmarked some of the space as a permanent home for more vegetables.

I’ve also gradually broadened how I choose what to grow. In the early days almost everything was chosen to be directly edible or fertility enhancing. Many of these were attractive, such as violets or mallows, but to earn their place they also had to be useful.

I guess the expansions so far have been:

  1. Plants with other historical uses such as soap (e.g. Soapwort) or medicine (e.g. St John’s Wort). Some of these I might not be sure about using and are there as much for interest as anything else.
  2. Plants to attract or help wildlife (e.g. Buddleja)
  3. Ornamentals

The last category is mostly filled with low-growing ornamentals useful for ground-cover / weed supression, with roses, and with very early (spring bulbs) or late (Hellebores) flowers. In the late spring and summer I don’t need more flowers. Winter is a depressing time, and a deciduous / herbaceous garden looks mostly brown otherwise. My taste in flowers still veers to the unenhanced, even now – I’m not a huge fan of artificially huge or fluffy pom-pom flowers.

So where does this leave me? The third of the garden close to the house is lawn. Probably an additional 10% – 20% is devoted to the greenhouse and my annual veg beds. The rest is covered by deep beds separated by curving pebble-lined paths and arches, and dotted with stepping stones. The placement of herbaceous plants is a bit haphazard and has been driven a lot by a combination of ‘where is there a gap?’ and a general preference for plants to be in order of ascending height except where trees or shrubs get in the way. There are 9 fruit trees and a lot of fruiting shrubs, most of them underplanted.

The best label for a garden of deep beds where the functional and ornamental are mixed together is a cottage garden, and I guess that’s what our garden is even though it’s in the centre of a large town. Perhaps there’s also a bit of wildlife garden in there, but to me wildlife gardening has to be integrated. I don’t set aside a corner and let it go back to nature.

If it is a cottage garden, then it’s a cottage garden in the old sense of the word, where much of the planting is for at least theoretical utility, not a modern cottage garden where the ornamental side has overwhelmed the functional. I actually don’t like lot of cottage garden staples like foxgloves and delphiniums since they are too garish for my taste, which is the main reason why I’m still not sure that the label is right.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

The earliest cottage gardens were more practical than today’s, with emphasis on vegetables and herbs, fruit trees, perhaps a beehive, and even livestock. Flowers, used to fill spaces, gradually became more dominant. The traditional cottage garden was usually enclosed, perhaps with a rose-bowered gateway. Flowers common to early cottage gardens included traditional florists’ flowers such as primroses and violets, along with flowers with household use such as calendula and various herbs. Others were the richly scented old-fashioned roses that bloomed once a year, and simple flowers like daisies. In time, cottage-garden sections were added to some large estate gardens as well.

Now if only I could get the wife onboard with the idea of bee-keeping…

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