Leaping the Fence

It hasn’t just been about food growing for me for some time now. I used to use the excuse of only growing what I could eat so that I could get out of doing all of the rest of the garden as well. But it didn’t mean I wasn’t keen on flowers. For instance, I quickly embraced companion planting and saw that the flowers added beauty and variety, as well as encouraging a natural balance between pests and predators.

Sometimes my vegetable beds look more like municipal plantings, although I draw the line at bedding out fibrous begonias or dayglow dahlias. I like the combinations and despair at fellow growers who still plant vegetables in rows without a pot marigold in sight. I can recall a description of companion planting given during a guided walk around the walled market garden of some titled prune in the south (already then an establishment figure in organic farming). The garden covers two football pitches in area, but there were barely four companion plants in each “half”. Clearly these were aristocratic and noble companions and much more functional than my commoners. One more wedge driven between me and the thoughtless world of O!

Geoff Hamilton had it right. He also favoured natural balance, but was puzzled by the naturalists who assured him that he would only attract insects if he planted native species. The evidence of his own eyes in his various ornamental gardens proved this to be false as they were alive and buzzing with predators. Good enough reason for his love of cottage gardens, the uniquely original formula for combining vegetables with herbs, dye plants and strewers, and the forerunner in influence on his development and promotion of the ornamental kitchen garden. And that is where I went next, as readers with long memories will know.

Teaching food growing each year gets to be a grind, even when you liven it up with a bit of colour, and move it away from unwanted doctrinal expectation (its still-an’-all just a potato when all is said and done!). I groaned as my thirteenth class started last January – I had hoped it would fail to run. I want to teach about flowers nowadays, but it is those classes that don’t get enough to run. I run them anyway, taking a bath on the fee, but enjoying the intimacy of the smaller groups and the generosity of the ad hoc hosts as we meet in a small office or a living room.

The key to this other course is to get the participants to make an imaginative leap over the garden fence and challenge their idea of a garden and its relationship to the natural world (think about the aptness of this metaphor). I show a slide of a blue-flowered columbine (aquilegia) growing in its natural habitat – in this case the limestone pasture above Parceval Hall in the Dales. Other slides would be of lady’s mantle (alchemilla) and water avens (geum) also growing in the Dales, or golden rod (solidago) growing in Ireland, or closer to home the dock pudding (persicaria bistorta) growing with wettish feet in Hardcastle Crags. Excitedly, I have a new find for when (if) the course runs this year – some hellebore (helleborus) growing in woodland in Surrey.

Why do I show these slides? Because if you look around as you walk in the wilds, you will find that plants that are grown in many gardens can also be found growing just over the garden fence in the wild. Is that so strange? Over centuries, plant lovers and hunters have selected the best of the wildflowers and brought them in to grow in their own gardens. Thus calling garden plants exotic is somewhat misleading as the best gardens have plants selected from the very same habitat that the garden can provide. It may not always be the same continent!

This is also key to the course. We examine, habitat by habitat, the characteristic plants and discover the adaptations that have allowed them to thrive in those conditions. Glaucous colouring or fleshy leaves in dry sunny spots; aerenchyma cells that allow air to flow down to roots sitting in water; bulbs allowing early flowering in woodlands before the leaves shade out below. And then we look at the garden plants that also suit those habitats and we see where we can mix the native and the exotic to build the most colourful and enduring of natural gardens.

This is the thrill for me. To wander in nature’s most characteristic settings and to make some part of my garden home to it. The building of a wet-shade garden last year opened me up to a new world of plants and, with luck more than judgment, I saw many of those same plants shortly afterwards in their natural woodland setting. This just happened to be in the Great Smoky Mountains, a delightful national park straddling the American states of North Carolina and Tennessee. Thus there is never a place in the world where there aren’t plants to see, and if I can’t provide the habitat in my own garden to grow them, then a return journey is never a hardship to reprise.

Mark Fisher, 2 May 2002

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk