In and Out in the garden world

Apparently, this year, herbs are in fashion. And vegetables are out. If you want your garden to be Where It’s At, according to this year’s Chelsea Flower Show entrants.

I can see why veggies are not for the undedicated gardener, in the long-term. A few years ago, a decorative parterre was all the rage. And you were advised to put veggies in the flowerbeds. You saw photos in the glossies of cabbages among the roses and carrots in the petunias. And, if the right vegetables are chosen, this can work if they are the cut-and-come-again type, like courgettes and beans. But take a lettuce or a cauliflower out and you are left with a big gap in your border.

My mother tried dotting asparagus around, because she had nowhere for a dedicated bed. But she forgot (because you couldn’t see them) where they were, until the spears had grown too big to cut anyway. The ferny leaves looked pretty, which was the eventual intention; but in the end asparagus beetles found them. I remove these annoying, but not unattractive beetles every day and kill them, because their repellently sluggy little offspring eat the leaves and the stalks die off. I don’t usually kill anything as my garden is full of hedgehogs, frogs, ladybirds and birds and they deal with most bugs, but they don’t like the flavour of gooseberry sawfly or asparagus beetle.

Oh no, I’ve digressed. Sorry. I’ve been given a bar of fabulous-looking chocolate (‘extra fine dark chocolate with a fruity touch of lemon and spices) and I am using all my willpower not to eat it yet, and none is left to force me to keep to the point.

So. Gaps in the flowerbeds. So you have to have a little bed or a series of pots of half-grown lettuces etc. to fill in the spaces when you want to eat anything. I sometimes do it the other way round, however, and plant a few flowers in the kitchen garden: there’s the companion planting theory, that some plants grow well together, there’s the hope that strong-smelling plants like marigolds keep away aphids and scented flowers particularly attract bees and pollinating insects. And they are pretty which is enough justification for anyone.

But horticultural fashionistas will soon find that a herb garden is not that easy an option either. It is not hard to grow herbs for use in the kitchen. But you can’t set out an elaborate bed, with each type in its own little section, and expect them all to stay there. A few, like rosemary and sage, grow large, whether as a bush or a clump. Some, like French tarragon (never bother to grow the Russian sort) hardly grow at all. And mint, given half a chance, will send out its underground runners and take over the garden, never mind the bed. Then there are the annuals. Herbs such as basil are tender and need to be started off indoors. But the annuals (basil, chervil, coriander etc) run quickly to seed, so you have to keep sowing more for succession.

It’s a great pleasure to use herbs you have grown and have nipped out to pick as you need them, and they are easy to grow. But if, as they will at Chelsea, you try making a feature of a whole range of them, it will not be as trouble-free as it looks. You could, of course, simply put a variety of different thymes in the driest and stoniest part of the garden where nothing else will grow. They will look and smell lovely and be no effort at all.

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