Our first veg patch was in the style of a traditional market garden or old-school allotment – as in, rotovated earth with crops sown in long rows. We didn’t think too much about how we wanted the veg garden to look. We were new to gardening and our neighbour had a rotovator and very firm opinions on how things should be done. We did what we were told.
The raised beds came a year or so later – and with them, a more blocky style of planting, as opposed to long rows. We ended up with eight main raised beds for annual crops (with annual crops being rotated between these beds each year), plus extra beds for permanent veg, fruit bushes, herbs, etc. But still, within each bed were neat blocks of the same crop. Beets in one bed. Leeks in another. And so on. There was plenty of space in between the rows for hoeing off weeds and everything looked very orderly. A little boring, maybe, but neat and productive.
Then I read Alys Fowler’s book The Edible Garden and decided I wanted to emulate her cottage-style planting. No defined rows of crops. Everything jumbled in amongst everything else. Salad crops growing underneath the courgette. A pocket of beets here. Some potatoes over there. Beans climbing up another plant. Squash sprawling all over the place. Flowers everywhere.
Reader, it was a chaotic mess. (Not in her garden. In her garden it was lovely. But in mine? Awful.) I suddenly understood why veg gardens have traditionally been done in neat rows. You can’t easily weed in between the rows of veg when, er, there are no rows. You can’t hoe. You have no choice but to get down on your knees and hand-weed. It’s certainly a good way of getting to know your garden. But I have a job and limited patience for weeding. Besides, I love my garden hoe.
Which is how I arrived at my own style – halfway between the rigid neatness of a market garden and the exuberance of a cottage garden.
Each bed has its defined crop, but I mingle a few other plants in here and there. In the middle of my courgette beds are tripods with nasturtiums trained upwards. (We eat nasturtiums as a salad and spinach alternative.) In the middle of the dwarf beans is a row of gladioli for cut flowers. There’s a patch of gladioli and calendula in the middle of the beet bed. On the end of the beet bed is a squash growing up the trellis archway. There’s more calendula growing underneath the blackcurrants. And there’s a drift of sunflowers and gladioli in the middle of the cabbages.
The cabbages, beets and dwarf beans are still in neat rows. I can (just about) get the hoe in between them when I need to. But I’ve added pockets of whimsy and colour.
Yes, I have to hand-weed these more whimsical pockets. Neat beds of mono-crops are certainly easier to keep on top of. But the veg garden is infinitely more beautiful to look at, and alive with insects. We’re making a better use of space. And if you were being generous, you could argue that my massive nasturtium plants and mounds of calendula are shading out the soil and, therefore, helping to keep weeds at bay.
After a lot of wandering and wrong turns, I found my gardening style. A combination of structure and looseness. Productivity and beauty. It is a little chaotic? Yes. But is it just orderly enough that I don’t lose my OCD mind? Thankfully, yes.
I’ve been gardening this way for a few years now and each year it feels more and more natural. I couldn’t imagine gardening any other way. Which probably means, someday in the future, I’ll be that neighbour hanging over the fence telling the young couple next door that they’re doing it wrong and they MUST do it my way. Something to look forward to.
I’ll leave you with some of the combinations from this year’s garden. Click to view as a slideshow.
Also, can we take a moment to marvel at the beauty – and variety – in our nasturtiums. They’re a must in any veg garden if you ask me. (There I go again, leaning over the fence and telling you what to do. You’re welcome.)