CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia, Canada—When we moved to the farm in mid-April twenty-nine years ago, we plowed a strip of land and planted it in vegetables the way we had always done: long rows of onions, carrots, beets, peas, squash, corn, potatoes, everything we’d need to sustain us for an entire year. Growing our own food was and still is a serious business.
Back then, I had my own little piece of ground picked out for an ornamental circular island bed around an old apple tree near the house. There I grew Old World cottage garden flowers, the type that survive harsh weather without giving up: old-fashioned columbine, sweet rocket, elecampane, musk mallow, veronica, and Jacob’s-ladder. Because some of the plants, such as the chives, were obviously meant for use as food, medicine, or crafts, this first embellishment of the landscape became known, ironically, as “the herb garden.”
The point was, we thought of our plantings as entirely separate, the one for use, the other for delight. It was not until many years later, with the addition of a variety of plantings that wove around the house, summer poultry pen, smokehouse, garden shed, compost heap, and repair shop, that we realized we were creating something different: an integrated landscape in which each element contributed to the harmonious development of our everyday outdoor living space, where use and beauty mingled so closely that there was no point in separating them in the mind or on the ground.
As the children grew up and left the farm, the vegetable garden shrank to a shadow of its original size, to 1,000 square feet from 14,000. Then we built a series of long, log-enclosed raised beds, a fence to protect the plants from wind, and an annex of ninety-six tire beds. As it changed, this garden became more interesting in its varied form and the beauty of individual vegetables, now planted in solid blocks, more apparent. I began to experiment with growing herbs in the tires (they draw heat and deter weeds). Jigs allowed his passion for poppies to leave them where they self-seeded among the string beans. A wide-spreading, hardy rose that I like for its beauty and large hips, ‘Frau Dagmar Hartopp’, was accommodated near the fence by the tomato patch. And at the end of the growing season, huge-headed Russian sunflowers towered above all.
This new integrated landscape extends on either side of the vegetable garden and has, on one side, an arbor entrance that supports a climbing rose and a hopvine. The entrance, wide enough for a team of horses to pass through, leads to the long rhubarb bed. On the other side, a steep slope, formerly an unsightly waste area, is now planted with ground covers and wildflowers. Where once rank growth cast a shadow on the tire-grown cukes and zucchini, now thymes, dainty eyebright, frosted lamiums, starry blue creeping veronica, and bronze, burgundy, and green ajugas spread luxuriantly down the bank with wild daisies, California poppies, and black-eyed Susans.
The landscape evolved gradually, without a blueprint. When, more than fifteen years ago, we moved the old coal shed out to the vegetable garden to serve as a garden shed, the patch of rich ground left behind near the house suggested spring bulbs for early color. My young daughter and I planted fifty cottage tulips, and those, believe it or not, are still with me except for a few that I dug out to make room for more flowers (when they sprouted on the compost heap, Jigs shamed me into replanting some of them). I grew perennials here, irrespective of whether they were called herbs or flowers—whatever would grow in the heavy soil. After many years of trial and error, it all seems inevitable in hindsight—peonies, daylilies, feverfew, phlox, globe thistle, and garlic chives thrive within an azure hedge of lungwort that draws the season’s first hummingbirds. They come, too, for the clove currant bush at the back of the bed, its branches bent with small narrow golden trumpets that breathe their spicy aroma across our path from house to barn.
Along the paths we walk this spring and into the summer and fall, we will see many useful plants and others with no greater purpose than to please the eye. But as we are now aware, it is the whole landscape of varied, intertwined plantings flowing one from the other that gives us the most pleasure, that contributes in a special way to our daily life on this remote farm.