Peter Dowdall says growing ornamental plants and edibles side-by-side is both practical and attractive.
EVERYTHING begins and ends in the soil. Most of what we eat comes from the soil and the soil is where most of us will end up in time.
Growing food is the most basic of tasks and I mean basic in the true sense of the word’s meaning.
Nowadays, food is like any consumer product and it’s all about the packaging, the shiniest label, the brightest bag and, of course, the cheapest price. It’s so effective I even find myself nearly picking up fresh herbs in the supermarket.
It’s the convenience you see.
Of course it’s not; it’s the power of the supermarket experience that turns a want into a need so effortlessly. For how much more convenient could it be than to have fresh herbs growing in a pot by your back door or even in a window box outside the kitchen window.
Herbs, fresh from the plant, and not a refrigerated truck or plastic wrapper in sight.
I started some carrot seeds outdoors about six weeks ago. Not expecting them to grow as it was still too cold, this was much more about the experience of spending time with my beautiful three-year-old daughter and showing her what seeds do, than it was about any bountiful produce that we would have.
In my own head I thought I would fake it in a few weeks and pick up some carrot plants in the garden centre and show Sophie what the seeds had turned into.
I needn’t have worried, as each day I was taken by the hand to inspect our pot of soil and lo and behold after a few weeks, and several night frosts and frozen mornings, up popped the germinating carrots much to Sophie’s delight - and she shrieked with the enthusiasm that is unique to a child of her age upon seeing first the seed leaves and later the true ferny carrot leaves.
We started these seeds in a window box and the next job now is to thin out the seedlings and plant them in a raised bed in the garden and then I will have a window box available to use for herbs. There is no end to what can be grown in one of these mini gardens.
Last year I grew three ‘cut and come again’ or perpetual lettuce plants, meaning I had a ready supply of fresh lettuce leaves throughout the season. I couldn’t tell you how often I have bought a full head of lettuce to use only half of it before it gets consigned to the compost bin a few days later as it has gone black and limp.
The huge advantage of the perpetual forms is that you can just harvest the few leaves that you want each evening and the plant stays in the window box or pot ensuring the lettuce stays as fresh as can be.
Tomatoes too can be grown in a patio pot or window box. Though for a window box or hanging basket, it would have to be a dwarf or tumbling form as the bush or cordon tomatoes will certainly get too tall.
I’m not a huge fan of Aubergine as a vegetable but I love it as a plant, the beautiful mauve flowers with pronounced veins giving way to the most dramatic looking fruits.
Many years ago, in the ‘great’ houses and gardens, whole acres could be assigned to kitchen gardens to grow fruit, veg and herbs.
Plants were also grown simply to provide cut flowers and little thought was given to the design of these beds - in most cases they were simply grown in straight lines and blocks to produce as many cut flowers from the assigned space as possible.
Times have changed, of course, and by and large gardens have become smaller. Now plants that you can use as cut flowers are used for what they bring to the garden and much thought is given to their positioning from a design perspective.
However, there is still a feeling that the edibles should be kept separate from the ornamental garden. I don’t see why, particularly as space is becoming more valuable.
As I referred to, the flower of the Aubergine is a beautiful mauve/violet and many other vegetable plants offer much to the garden in terms of blossom. French beans, runner beans, broad beans and peas all provide beautiful flowers.
Of course, the blossoms of cherry, plums, pears, apples and even peaches are a sight to behold and should certainly not be kept from the ornamental garden.
I mix my lettuce and cabbage plants with my roses and with my herbaceous and why wouldn’t I? I don’t have the luxury of being able to assign a large space to growing veg and herbs and keeping them separate from my plants grown purely for their aesthetic beauty and even if I did, I wouldn’t. It seems wrong to me somehow, having to grow either edibles or ornamentals.
The garden needs to encompass all. If you are caught for space, then certainly look at growing herbs and some of the other edible plants in patio pots. Herbs, in particular, will often do better in pots as they are by their nature free-draining and the roots will be warmed by the sun on the ceramic.
Mint is one plant that must only ever be grown in a pot as it will be a thug in the open ground. Variegated Applemint is a particularly attractive form and the chefs assure me it is among the best for flavour in the kitchen.
Mix it in among some trailing petunias and lobelia for a lovely foliage effect. Parsley too, with its furry, curled foliage, will give great texture amongst the summer flowers of patio plants.
If a three-year-old can do it with carrot seeds in a window box in February, there is nothing to stop you trying a few plants in containers this summer. And next time you see ‘fresh’ herbs wrapped in plastic in the supermarket, you can walk past them in the smug knowledge that your truly fresh herbs are currently working hard as part of your summer bedding display.
THE garden is producing much now in terms of waste.
One cut of the lawn can be enough to fill many compost bins in just one go.
However, this will not break down into compost easily or quickly.
Good compost needs to be made from a good mixture of materials. The dense heavy grass cuttings should be mixed with something more open and airy, such as chipped branches or mulch.
Kitchen waste can be used too, as raw fruit and vegetable peelings will make great homemade compost in time.
The composting process depends on agitation and the moving of the outside of the heap to the warm centre where the heat will expedite the process.
An easy way to achieve this is by using a compost tumbler, where turning it and agitating the pile couldn’t be simpler and will turn biodegradable waste into good homemade soil improver more quickly.
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