A Riot of Useful Beauty

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY ELAYNE SEARS

In 1971, we moved our four children, a small
Noah’s Ark of animals and ourselves to a rundown farm on a remote
peninsula on Cape Breton Island, off the northeastern tip of Nova
Scotia. We lived there for 30 years, farming on a small scale. It
was a hard life, but rewarding — hard because Cape Breton is a
marginal environment for growing; rewarding because we learned to
surmount the difficulties of high winds, a short growing season and
heavy, infertile clay soil using simple ideas and techniques that
can be applied to any situation.

FIRST, THE DIRT

When we needed a sunny site to harvest herbs in quantity for Jo
Ann’s growing herb business, our choice was limited to flat ground
on the west side of the house. This had once been a strawberry bed
but now grew nothing but grass where calves were tethered. This
area was near a poultry house, and the unlikely juxtaposition of
these humble quarters with what became known as the “Harvest Bed”
proved to be a fruitful association. We laid out a raised bed 60
feet long by 4 feet wide using a no-dig technique that had proved
successful for growing vegetables on top of soil we found too
difficult to improve by traditional methods: We placed plastic
grain bags over the sod, then enclosed the area with spruce logs,
leaving a 6-inch outside edging of plastic, later covered with wood
shavings, to discourage weeds from creeping into the bed. We filled
the enclosure with rough compost (not completely broken down),
stomped it into place and allowed it to settle for a week or so.
Finally, we topped the entire bed with several inches of aged,
composted manure, a rich, dark friable mixture. The completed bed
was 8 to 10 inches deep.

STEP TWO: PLANTING HERBS

Because the Harvest Bed was lined with plastic, we concentrated
on growing annual herbs or shallow-rooted indispensable perennials,
like chives and lemon balm. Because of our limited space, we
enforced a strict criterion for the Harvest Bed: The plants had to
be useful for flavoring, scent, seed production or crafts. As Jo
Ann’s business expanded to include potpourri, vinegars, skin
fresheners and dried posies, the range of plants in the bed also
expanded. We planted deep-rooted lovage, an important ingredient in
dried herb mixes, just beyond the end of the bed (in unimproved
ground) by making a slit in the sod with a sharp spade, then
shoving in the root and roughly closing the slit by stamping on it.
We heavily mulched the area with a thick layer of compost from the
poultry house, then topped it with rotted sawdust, all of which
eventually broke down to become crumbly, rich soil. The lovage
thrived there, producing two heavy crops of leafy stalks a
season.

As we added more perennials, we had to adapt the plastic-lined
bed to grow plants with more demanding roots, like echinacea, rue,
‘Moonshine’ yarrow, Russian sage, lavender and the artemisias. For
these, we slashed a hole through the plastic before planting them,
so their roots would have room to spread. We grew spreading types,
like fern-leaf tansy (indispensable for rose bouquets), with garlic
chives in an old iron tub. Around the base we planted lemon-scented
costmary (a tall, rangy plant especially aggressive in rich soil),
reducing it to a mat of ground-hugging foliage by cutting it back
and harvesting the leaves several times during the growing season
for simmering potpourri, skin fresheners and assorted crafts (their
flat, perfect leaves make a delightful, aromatic bookmark).

We maintained ‘Silver King’ artemisia, which easily could
colonize the whole bed if left on its own, as a wide, distinctive
swath against the fence in the middle of the border. When it
threatened to move ahead in any direction, we ruthlessly pulled its
wandering roots.

BRINGING IN BEAUTY

As our garden expanded, we put up our first garden decoration —
a 7-foot weathered slab board fence to mark the boundary between
the poultry yard and the Harvest Bed. Although it served the
practical purpose of protecting the plants from wind, the fence
also proved an appealing rustic structure and gave us the
opportunity to grow tall plants, such as hollyhocks and sunflowers.
The notion of a strictly utilitarian planting of blocks of herbs
for harvesting faded as soon as the first hollyhocks sent up their
stalks to 13 feet, adorned all the way up with wide-open, flushed
pink, dark-eyed trumpets. By the simplest means, the Harvest Bed
had transformed a neglected area, integrating the disparate
elements of poultry house and yard into a harmonious working and
living environment.

Once we had acknowledged the force of beauty in the soaring
hollyhocks and determined that the Harvest Bed existed for more
than production, it became an important aesthetic component of our
lives — during the day and at twilight on the way to shut in the
poultry. If it could be managed, why not make this garden beautiful
as well as practical? We remained true to our original aim of
growing herbs for harvest, even though we now planted most of these
as grouped accents, rather than in blocks. (Chives are just as easy
to harvest when grown in groups of three repeated along the border,
and this way, when they are cut back, other plants fill the spot,
so there is a continuous flow of flowers and foliage).

The general design of the garden followed the classic border
style, with plants of descending height from back to front,
although we did not slavishly follow this plan. Since we decided to
regard the Harvest Bed as an ornamental garden of useful plants, we
grouped them for best effect in terms of forms, textures and
colors. The Harvest Bed offered the chance to explore the more
exuberant colors of many annuals, among them ‘Touch of Red’
calendula, rich pink and purple painted sage (Salvia viridis, also
called annual clary), red and green amaranthus, tangerine and
yellow marigolds (we’re especially fond of the citrus-scented
signet types, Tagetes tenuifolia).

“The first thing I require in flowers is
color.”

— Jigs Gardner

A GARDEN THAT WORKS

Maintenance included a thick topdressing of composted barn
manure in late fall to maintain soil level. In fall, we cut back
old stalks (since most of the plants were harvested in some way
during the summer, this was minimal), pulled up spent annuals,
cleaned up debris to prevent insect and disease infestations and
cleared out weeds (there were few since the planting was so
crowded).

This garden provided something to gather all season, beginning
in April as soon as the snow melted when we cut young shoots —
eaten like scallions — from the base of Egyptian onions (Allium
¥proliferum). By May, we picked young sorrel leaves, as well as the
reddish tips of emerging lovage and thick, young chive spears, all
of which we added to spring dandelion salads. As the summer
advanced, we trimmed plants for foliage (costmary, thyme, parsley,
sage), for dried flowers and petals (‘Moonshine’ yarrow, chamomile,
painted sage, calendulas, double feverfew, lavender), for pods
(poppies, nigella), seeds (coriander and many others), wreaths and
household uses (artemisias). Plus, we had fresh flower bouquets all
summer. It was a joy to lead guests down the garden path, to stop
with them to sniff, to touch the plants, to pick aromatic sprigs
and to observe the activities of bees and butterflies, intent on
gathering nectar among the flowers.

NATURAL DESIGN TEACHES JOY

The effect of this garden in full bloom, with bright yellows,
oranges, pinks, reds, blues and purples among green and gray
foliage, was far greater than one would think. After all, these are
common plants for the most part, arranged in a straightforward way,
as in any traditional border. But the border was jammed with
plants.

By late summer, a low hedge of short ‘Fiesta’ calendulas at the
front of the bed — primrose yellow and orange — led to a low corner
accent of spreading compact oregano, followed by upright mounds of
citrus-scented tangerine marigolds (T. tenuifolia ‘Little Giant’).
Repeated splashes of pink and purple painted sage grew adjacent to
groups of glowing, deep orange ‘Touch of Red’ calendulas,
interspersed with sky-blue ‘Miss Jekyll’ nigellas. Borage carried
blue to the back of the bed, where the silvery white sprays of
‘Silver King’ invested all the surrounding colors with a deeper
intensity.

Against the fence, our favorite garden sunflower, ‘Autumn
Beauty’, lifted its multi-colored heads to the sun, but the
dark-eyed pink hollyhocks rose above all.

The cramming of plants within a narrow and well-defined
framework and the rustic fence had a lot to do with the garden’s
visual impact, as did the pastoral setting and the bones of the
surrounding trees and shrubbery. What made the garden work, what
made this scene seem so right, was that it naturally flowed from
the life of the farm. We created it to fill a need, not to put our
stamp artificially upon the ground. We did not set out to landscape
the area in the professional way. Rather, our needs, our resources
and the growing conditions dictated (and limited) our choices. The
use of rough and ready building materials (logs and fence)
complemented the existing poultry house and the general homey,
unpretentious farm setting. This garden was a great teacher,
showing us a way to make the most of what we had, suggesting new
and satisfying ways to express our developing aesthetic vision.

Adapted from Gardens of Use & Delight: Uniting the Practical
and Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape (Fulcrum Publishing, 2002)
by Jigs and Jo Ann Gardner. The authors now farm and gardeen in the
Adirondacks. Contact them at www.HerbCompan
ion.com/contributors.