grow it cook it preserve it eat it wendy pillar blog gardener grow your own in dorset

Edimentals (Edibles & Ornamentals) - August 2015

I'm not really a gardener and I'm definitely not a horticulturalist. I'm a greedy person who loves to eat, and who's never really comfortable indoors, so I spend a lot of time in the garden and grow a lot of food. It's no work of horticultural excellence, but we sure do eat well! My veggie garden is my favourite place, and it's in pretty good shape. The ornamental garden that surrounds the house is another matter though. In an ideal world I'd look out of the window onto a beautiful vista with an array of flowers year round, but in an ideal world I wouldn't have to have a full-time job and have to prioritize my time and head space. Once I start prioritizing, ornamentals come way down the list. That's why I actually look out on waist-high grass, bindweed and nettles!

When we moved in, the garden was just rough, neglected field that had never been gardened. It was all tough grass, nettles and hogweed. I dug beds around the edges of the ornamental garden, planted shrubs and trees, and started mowing the grass (well, actually my husband does that bit!). However, my assumption of acid soil, based on the fact that there are rhododendrons growing in gardens just a hundred yards away, turned out to be wrong, and many of the acid-loving plants that I planted, that I was familiar with from my old garden, just sulked or keeled over and died. As it turns out, my soil rather reflects the hill in the other direction, which is white with chalk.

Then there was The Flood. The weather system of Christmas Eve 2013 that inundated Somerset also caused a flash flood of my garden, and a lot of damage. So basically, after I had spent the spring restoring the veggie garden and builders had spent the summer tramping through the flower beds, the ornamental garden had thoroughly gone to hell by the end of 2014. Weeds had invaded from the hedges and the soil was baked rock hard. It was time to start all over again, but this time to do it properly.

This year I have gradually reclaimed most of the beds, weeding and thickly mulching with bark. There is only 20 metres or so of weed-infested bed left to clear. It's almost back to a (nearly) blank canvas. The question is, what to do with it? The logical thing to do is to fill it with perennial plants and shrubs that will look pretty for much of the year, but that just doesn't inspire me at all. Only things that go on my plate really rouse my interest.

I was very inspired by a visit to Martin Crawford's forest garden this summer, and also by Stephen Barstow's book Around the World in 80 Plants. I love the idea of an 'edimental' garden, and that's what I am creating. I'm not going to rip out existing plants. Hell, if something thrives in my impoverished, alkaline, rock-filled soil, it can stay! Plus the bees adore the self-sown foxgloves, the echinops and the early-flowering hellebores. They love the Verbena bonariensis too, which has self-seeded itself into the veggie garden too, providing continuity. But the criteria for anything new are strictly: (1) that it is edible; (2) that it is good for pollinators; (3) that it is perennial and low-maintenance; and (4) that it is pretty. A black elder and Oregon grape were the first to go in. They were followed by some Welsh onions, a day lily and some common herbs, like sage, marjoram and rosemary. The hostas, sedum and aquilegias turned out to be edible anyway, and I am moving my collection of globe artichokes to this area to make a repeated, silver-spiky theme, as well as the skirrett and possibly the Jerusalem artichokes from my existing perennial raised bed. There are two crab apples framing the steps down to the sunken garden (currently sown with wildflowers), and I am counting the two roses as edible, since I make rose-petal jam and rosehip syrup. I took a chance in the spring and chopped the lavender down to the ground, and most of it is growing back beautifully. There is also lovage, 8 feet tall, and self-sown fennel all over the place. The framework, then, is coming together nicely.

Next comes the fun part - planning what to plant, followed by plant shopping and setting out the new plants. On the shopping list so far are Babbington's leeks, serpent garlic, lemon balm, bergamot, hyssop and other herbs. Visits to Pennard Plants, the Agroforestry Research Trust nursery and Edulis are on the cards. After reading Paul Stamets, some garden giant mushrooms and other edible fungi grown among the woodchips are also on the agenda. I've failed so far in my efforts to introduce them, but I'm pretty sure it's feasible.

I'm thinking, too, that if I am planning to eat from this garden, that I need proper, permanent, blackbird-resistant labels. Nether Wallop Trading do some beautiful oak ones, which are also going on the shopping list. There's just one remaining problem with my edible garden - I may have to only harvest crops from above the height of a labrador's back leg!

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