This is a guest post by Nic Wilson – a garden designer, community garden volunteer and enthusiastic grower of unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs. She blogs at dogwooddays and is on Twitter at @nicmama.
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When we moved into our house six years ago the front garden revolved around a dominating 20 year old whitebeam, with a patchy lawn and straggly Artemisia hedge. It took a while to get around to tackling it (my priorities were the fruit trees, bushes and raised vegetable beds in the back garden), but three years ago it was time for the front to earn its keep –which for us means embracing a multi-functional role. Once I’d removed the whitebeam that had been planted too close to the house, I toyed with the idea of creating a mini-allotment as at this point we didn’t have an allotment of our own. I decided that it wouldn’t fit in with the open, small gardens in our close, some of which are, alas, paved over, but many have small flower borders with a couple of lovely gardens with shrubs and annuals creating colour throughout the year.
So I decided to create a hidden allotment: a garden in which to grow productive plants which I couldn’t fit in the back garden but within an ornamental framework. To the casual observer I hoped the garden would blend with its neighbours, but to us it would offer edible crops. I spent a while looking at the neighbouring gardens, thinking about how we could use similar plants with edible features. I considered the edible potential of Mahonia and Berberis (both planted in neighbouring gardens), but decided that I wanted to be able to access all parts of the small garden easily so avoided any prickly plants. There are also quite a few low evergreen hedges around, and I’d just been to a talk by James Wong in which he suggested Ugni molinae as a box alternative. He said he hadn’t tried keeping it as a low hedge and didn’t know whether it still gave a good crop at that height, so I thought I’d try it and see. Three years later, the low hedge has been relatively successful. It is starting to mesh together and although not a particularly fast grower (it tends to have a bit of dieback due to cold weather in the winter which I prune out) it has a good crop of flowers this year, low down. And it’s worth it for the amazing taste of the berries in the autumn – I caught most of our neighbours as we were out picking with the kids last year and encouraged them to give it a try. Most were surprised at how aromatic and sweet they were.
I quite liked the idea of a formal layout with frothy planting, but using a symmetrical design would have made the garden look even smaller than it is (approximately 4m x 6m), so I thought I’d try an asymetrical rosemary hedge which trisects the space. I think it has worked rather well and serves to separate the three planting areas whilst also tying the garden together. It is echoed in a lavender hedge by under the window and lavender and rosemary in the side garden (a narrow strip) which we’ve just planted up between ours and our neighbour.
The theme of herbs continues in the gravel path which runs between the front garden and the driveway. I’ve planted a range of thymes, including woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), creeping white thyme (Thymus serpyllum var. albus) and creeping lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Aurea’), alongside pennyroyal mint (Mentha pulegium) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’). With the hedges and ground cover herbs, the garden offers plenty to harvest for the kitchen, whilst also using them for structure and to add an aromatic edge as you wander through the garden.
Our apple tree (‘Fiesta’) provides fruit in a small corner by the house and is surrounded by alpine strawberries (Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’). They produce a prolific crop of tiny white jewels which the kids love picking, are pretty much ignored by the birds (but not always the slugs) and which taste great on cereals or in cupcakes. The black elderflower near the centre of the garden has been disappointing, however. It has sulked for the past couple of years, so our stock of flowers for pink elderflower cordial has been minimal. I think I might dig it up in the autumn and take a closer look, possibly replacing with another to see if we have any more success.
By the front windows we have a lovely rose (Rosa ‘Jacqueline du Pre’) which provides petals for crystallising, to add to honey or for use in creams. We also have a number of fuchsia throughout the garden as my husband (not generally a hands-on gardener) is rather fond of them. We don’t use these fuchsia berries in the kitchen as although all fuchsia berries are theoretically edible, many don’t taste very nice and some I’ve tried have a rather astringent after taste. However, I may replace some of them with the new fuchsia I’m trying this year (Fuchsia ‘Fuchsiaberry’) which has been specifically bred for its edible berries. Mine are currently producing flowers in our allotment, so hopefully I’ll be able to try the fruits later in the summer and judge whether or not they merit a place in the garden.
I have also included plants in the front garden which have no edible components, so this isn’t a purist planting scheme. As I only have space for one small flower border in the back garden, I’ve been unable to resist trying out some planting combinations in the front. So at the moment the garden is a meadow of stunning pink Lychnis coronaria, with Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’ and Achillea ‘Terracotta’ set to take over as the Lychnis sets seed and is then removed. We have several Carex testacea to add to the winter structure and to help blend in with nearby gardens where it thrives. There is also Geranium ‘Anne Thompson’ which I love and had nowhere else to plant and white Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Joubert’) which looks stunning in the autumn. The lavender hedge also has a range of alliums and iris which punctuate it in the spring.
If I had another go at a front garden with an ornamental and productive theme which was a little larger I would definitely make changes. I’d try and include more edible plants like flowering quince to add seasonal interest (I decided reluctantly that our current garden is too small for Chaenomeles – but did manage to fit a quince tree – Cyanus ‘Meeches Prolific’ in the side garden.) But overall I’m pleased with the experiment, as the side garden, front garden, gravel and stone path all tie in with the ethos of the rest of my relatively small garden which is to maximise productivity whilst also creating an attractive, relaxing space to enjoy. Now, in July, looking across the pink meadow from the window seat or searching with the kids for tiny strawberries or herbs to rub and sniff, I think back to the drab lawn and huge tree which used to make up the front garden and wonder why more gardens aren’t planted with flowers and edible crops for people and wildlife to enjoy.