With sufficient affection and elbow grease, even a corner cursed with poor soil can become the loveliest of gardens.
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.
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.
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.
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
— Jigs Gardner
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.
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.
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