The Winter solstice has been and gone and Christmas and New Year have once again faded into the background. I feel a little sad as another decade comes to an end. I could spend a lot of time lamenting on the state of the planet and the scary path that our world seems to be set on but instead I'm going to look forward to the year ahead. A year filled with opportunity for me (and all of us) to spread happiness throughout our social circles and communities and to effect positive change wherever we can (no matter how small those little changes may seem).
I feel hopeful as the darkest winter days come to an end and we enter a new phase in the earth's rotation, where the sun lingers in the sky a little longer each day. The worst of winter is possibly still to come (although worst is not the right word, not when I'm trying to spread positivity and happiness – perhaps I should say that the most cold, the most frosty, the most snow filled days are still to come?). Despite this we can still turn our thoughts towards Spring and the gardening year ahead and look at the small changes we can make in our life that will all contribute towards positive change.
I have plans for my own garden and plans to do whatever I can to help other people make their gardens amazing (that is, after all, what my job as a garden designer is all about). Since the arrival of our new garden room from Future Rooms (some extra office space as both myself and my husband work from home) I have created a brand new L-shaped border running along a section of fence and the side of the office. This section now needs planting up.
I have two hazel (Corylus avellana) whips which will be planted along the fence, but I need to plan the rest of the space. It isn't a huge area, approximately five metres square, but enough for me to add some colour and interest. The hazel will need to be underplanted. It is a damp, shaded section of fence, lying along the south east boundary of our garden (saying 'south east boundary' makes it sound like our garden is MASSIVE! It isn't at all. It's big for an urban garden in Cheltenham but by no means massive). In the winter, this section of garden has little or no sun and so anything that goes underneath the hazel will need to be very tolerant of low light levels and damp soils.
There are numerous options for planting here. The first thing which springs to mind is Spring bulbs. Perhaps some gorgeous wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), dainty, nodding snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) or the lesser known, watercolour blue Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). This would add some early season colour along with early forage for bees and other insects after which they would fade, leaving space for a ground cover plant with a later season of interest. Other options for this space could be one of several varieties of epimedium (perhaps Epimedium x rubrum or Epimedium grandiflorum), lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) or a shade loving Geranium such as Geranium x johnsonii 'Johnson's Blue.
I have very specific requirements for the section of planting to the side of the outdoor office. My husband recently attended a herbal medicine course with the medical herbalist Anne McIntyre – learning about the many medicinal uses of some of our native woodland and common garden plants. Trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants in our gardens often have a number of uses in addition to the better known culinary uses. For example, a simple tea made from brewing sage leaves in hot water can help to soothe sore throats, a tea with nettles is high in antioxidants and helps alleviate some of the symptoms of hay fever and the sap from aloe vera soothes sunburn.
With this in mind I want to create a backyard first aid kit. I already grow a lot of common herbs for cooking (rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), mint (Mentha spicata), sage (Salvia officinalis), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and oregano (Origanum vulgare) to name just a few) but I want to add as much as a I can to this useful plant collection. As well as having health and culinary uses, I want the plants that I choose to be good for garden wildlife and contribute either as a source of habitat or forage or to have some benefit for some of the millions of organisms that live in our soils. And finally, it must look amazing. I want a colourful display of naturalistic planting. Something that really stands out against the gorgeous cedar façade of the new outdoor office.
Am I asking too much? Not at all. The plan is to have the plants in by the end of February. I've listed below some possible options for this area of planting, I now need to study the space and whittle down what will work and how best to design the planting to create a functional space that blends in with the rest of the garden while also creating interest and flow. The end planting will contain a small handful of those plants listed below (I don't want the borders to look too busy).
Watch this space for updates!
Plants to grow in a herbalist's garden (as well as all of our more common herbs listed above):
Alchemilla mollis (lady's mantle);
Pulsatilla vulgaris (pasqueflower);
Angelica archangelica (angelica);
Actaea racemosa (cohosh bugbane);
Echinacea purpurea (coneflower) – this one may not survive the slugs;
Eschscholzia Californica (Californian poppy);
Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet);
Hyssopus officinalis (hyssop);
Stachys officinalis (betony);
Verbascum Thapsus (mullein);
Verbena officinalis (vervain);