6 Ways to Create an Ornamental and Productive Garden

When I started gardening I had a small patio and a keen desire follow my father’s footsteps and grow fruit and vegetables, but I also wanted flowers and colour, so I started to learn about ways to combine the two. Now, 20 years on, I’m still exploring ways to create garden spaces which encourage relaxation and an enjoyment of the beauty of nature whilst also providing a harvest for the kitchen. Over the past 6 years we’ve turned our back garden into a family space which includes a willow den and lawn with climbing frame for the kids, a flowerbed, a fruit cage and two vegetable beds. I’ve tried to maximise our space by using both horizontal and vertical structures for plants and also by combining the aesthetic and productive wherever possible.

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My first house had a patio which I covered with pots – many containing herbs and edible flowers

Three years ago we started work on the front, the aim being to create a hidden allotment – a space which would blend with the surrounding suburban front gardens and offer us a secret harvest throughout the year. As the size of modern gardens diminishes and the pressure on our outdoor spaces increases, it will become more important to combine productivity with aesthetic appeal. Here are a few of the ways we’ve been adding edibles to our outdoor spaces within an ornamental framework:

The front garden has changed from a sterile, unappealing lawn to a cheerful gravel garden filled with ornamental and edible plants

1. Eat a Hedge

Hedges are an great way to create separate areas, edge borders, establish boundaries and attract wildlife. They are also often used to add formality to a garden. With so many different functions, hedges are likely to be included in most gardens, creating an ideal opportunity to add an productive element. I have many low hedges in the garden – all evergreen and edible – and they provide a harvest throughout the year.

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My low alternative box hedge of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae)

After discussing Chilean guava as an alternative to box hedging with James Wong a few years ago, I thought I’d try it as the edging to the front garden. It has matured over the past three years and it looks like being a good harvest this autumn despite keeping the hedge at only 50cm high. It hasn’t established as well as box, partly because it is more prone to dieback in cold weather and because I haven’t been as assiduous as I should have with watering and feeding, but it isn’t going to contract box blight and its berries are not only edible – they are truly delicious. The children love snacking on them and they work really well as tiny bursts of flavour in muesli and cupcakes. Best of all, when I am weeding or pruning in the front garden, the scent of the fruit from midsummer onwards saturates the air and makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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Rosemary hedge in the front garden

I also have several rosemary and lavender hedges in the garden. I dry the lavender for scented bouquets in the house and add it to sugar for cakes and biscuits. The rosemary provides an invaluable year round harvest for adding to meat dishes, sprinkling over homemade chips and using in savoury biscuits. I’ve used the rosemary hedge in the front to trisect the garden, helping to disguise the rectangular shape. It almost disappears in summer as the flowers take over and then reappears in winter, adding definition and interest to the garden.

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Summer chaos in the front garden envelops the hedge almost entirely

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By early autumn the tripartite structure is becoming clear again

Lavender is generally used to edge the borders. There’s a hedge of dwarf lavender alongside the back flowerbed and one under the front windows. Hedges offer a wonderful opportunity to explore different varieties of lavender and we’re lucky enough to live close to Hitchin Lavender which has an extensive trial field. Summer often finds me wandering around the rows, learning about the different colours, foliage, habits and scents of this intoxicating plant. I grow ‘Twickel Purple’, ‘Dwarf Blue’, ‘Blue Ice’, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ and wish I had room for more varieties.

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Hitchin Lavender trial fields – a favourite summer haunt

Another way I’ve used hedges in the garden is to create compartments in the herb bed. When we moved to the house, the back garden had a long fence with an ugly concrete base which made the left side of the garden grey and monotonous. We planted alternating rosemary and lavender ‘hedgelets’ along the border to break up the line and create areas for different herbs – sage, mint, chives, oregano and thyme – arranged based on the increasing amount of sun as you go down the garden.

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The alternating hedges before their summer trim

If taller and less formal hedges are required, there are lots of suppliers offering native hedge plants these days, like the collection from the Wiggly Wigglers which I’ve often wished I had the space to plant. This particular collection includes ‘blackthorn (for sloe gin), crab apple (for jelly), damson (for jam and a luscious homemade alternative to Ribena), dog rose (for rosehip syrup), elderberry (for flu-preventing syrups from the berries in autumn and delicious cordial from the flowers in spring), hazel (for cob nuts), cherry plum and wild pear (for jams, liqueurs and syrups)’. (Links in the blog are not sponsored – they are simply from companies that I have used in the past and liked.)

 

2. Look up – Walls and Fences

In a small space it is important to use the vertical as well as horizontal plane. We’ve covered the fences around the whole garden with a mixture of soft fruit and trained fruit trees to expand our growing space and hide unpleasant concrete and overlooking windows.

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The apple espaliers went in as a priority

I’ve enjoyed growing our three apple espaliers (‘Bountiful’, ‘Egremont Russet and ‘James Grieve’) as they provide such structure and style along the boundaries. We also have a pink seedless grape ‘Reliance’ trained up the end espalier wire next to a fig ‘White Marseille’. There’s a thornless blackberry ‘Apache’ trained up wires at the back of the garden with a plum ‘Opal’ and greengage ‘Cambridge Gage’ in front, helping to screen the windows of the overlooking houses. The fruit cage has two rows of summer and autumn raspberries at the back, screening next door’s shed and we’ve covered a blank section of wall at the front with a cordon apple ‘Fiesta’.

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Fruit trees have the added advantage of fabulous spring blossom

With the foliage, blossom and fruits, trained fruit trees and bushes should be grown more in our gardens. Requiring little maintenance, except at pruning and feeding times, they form the backbone of our relatively small garden and bring us much pleasure throughout the spring, summer and autumn months.

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Now the espaliers have covered the fence with foliage and are providing us with crumbles, cakes and preserves

 

Cordons, fans and espaliers are all suitable for growing against walls and fences

 

3. Build a Green Roof

In the same spirit of using vertical spaces, I’ve tried to use horizontal spaces even when they are off the ground. When I got tired of ugly bins of the driveway, I designed a binstore with a local carpenter and included a green roof to create more growing space. This is now filled with a mix of edibles and ornamentals – sedum, dianthus, thrift, sempervivums (which although not edible, have a juice with herbal properties similar to Aloe vera and are hardy into the bargain), chillies, herbs and nasturtiums.

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The green roof brimming with herbs, edible flowers and chillies

The herbs (thyme, lemon thyme, summer savoury, golden marjoram and French tarragon) are thriving, as are the succulents, thrift and dianthus. The chillies have suffered from lack of water at times, so if I plant them in the roof again I’ll need to keep more of an eye on them if we want a larger crop. I’m also intending to try alpine strawberries (Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’) in the roof next year to develop the edible theme.

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My first ever Habanero (Habanero Red) in the green roof

 

4. Spread Scented Ground Cover

Many herbs provide great ground cover, adding attractive foliage, flowers and scent to a garden, whilst also being extremely useful in the kitchen. Our front garden had a muddy path to which we’ve added paving and gravel, leaving plenty of space to plant ground cover herbs. There is a range of thymes, including creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum ) and lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus), alongside chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). They create an aromatic effect as you wander along the path (along with the oregano which has self-seeded down the side passage and releases the most lovely scent when we put the bins out). They are enjoying the location, in full sun, and have rewarded us by increasing in size, creating plenty of ground cover even when they’ve just been harvested.

We turned the weedy muddy area into a path with room for ground cover herbs

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The woolly thyme (not edible) is doing a good job colonising the water meter cover

 

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The herbs also have beautiful flowers in the summer – an extra bonus

5. Munch on Edible Flowers and Colourful Veg

Many vegetable patches are visible from the house these days rather than hidden at the bottom of a long plot, so it’s important to consider how the productive area will add to the aesthetics of the garden. Including annuals and perennials with edible flowers in the vegetable patch is an easy way to engage children with gardening and create a visually appealing, vibrant space.

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The kids love picking petals from the garden to adorn their salads

We grow calendula, borage, bergamot, marigolds, nasturtiums, viola, dianthus, primroses and lavender either in the veg beds or elsewhere in the garden. Although they don’t add a great amount of bulk to meals, they can be used to brighten up salads, cakes, biscuits and ice-cubes, adding a bit of creative fun to family meals.

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This is a summer plateful which we harvested and added to a crisp Caesar salad

Colourful vegetables are also a valuable addition to an ornamental vegetable patch as they create visual interest. From pea ‘Blauschokker’ with its delicate purple flowers and deep purple pods, rainbow chard with its thick stems shining like jewels in the sun to purple kohl rabi with UFO shaped swollen stems, there are so many interesting coloured vegetables from which to choose.

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Fabulous rainbow chard with vibrant stems

 

6. Pot it up

If you don’t have a fruit and vegetable patch, but want to grow ornamental crops, containers could be the answer. Several years ago I bought a great book called ‘Crop in Pots’ by  Bob Purnell. I loved the illustrations which pay as much attention to creating attractive displays as they do to providing food for the table.

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The redcurrants and dianthus work so well together here

I’ve tried several of the combinations over the years and made up some of my own, like the fruit salad hanging baskets for the school fete with alpine strawberries (we used Fragraria vesca ‘Baron Solemacher’) and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate Mint’) with its deep brown stems and bronze flush to the leaves.

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This lovely combination is right up my street as a I love growing chillies and herbs for curries

Even with a small patio, windowbox or windowsill, it’s possible to grow beautiful plants which taste good too. My chilli collection includes some really ornamental plants like ‘Numex Twilight’ and ‘Purple Gusto’. I also love edible houseplants like Vanilla Grass (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and Kaffir Lime (Citrus hystrix) which can bring a little productive beauty into any house, whether or not it has a garden.

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My chilli ‘Numex Twilight’ looks great surrounded by mint and lemon verbena

Growing edibles is in the garden is great fun and connects us with the origins of our food, reminding us of the fundamental yet often overlooked role plants play in our busy, modern lives. Best of all, in an ornamental edible garden, a feast for the eyes can be transformed into a feast for the table and that’s a truly beautiful thing.

What are your favourite ornamental and edible combinations? Do leave me a comment and let me know what you are growing and how it’s going. What would you advise me to try next in the colourful veggie patch and what new varieties are on your wish list?

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

 

 

 

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation(Part 1)

Potager gardens, walled gardens and old-fashioned cottage gardens – all styles I love for their eclectic mix of vegetables, fruit and flowers. They can be seen as nostalgic, whimsical, outmoded; gardens which exist in an historical context, from time to time tempting modern gardeners into grand estates or rural open garden shows, but without contemporary relevance. Their visual, almost casual beauty belies the amount of hard graft behind such dual purpose gardens, which needed to create an aesthetic impact whilst also fulfilling a practical role for the household – whether that be a cottage with two occupants or a grand estate of many hundreds.

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My veggie bed with a mix of edible flowers, flowers for cutting and vegetables (plus Billy the Scarecrow!)

Modern gardens don’t have to provide us with medicinal herbs which are unavailable elsewhere, they rarely need to feed large estates, or provide food for families who have no access to other sources of nourishment. But they do have to work as hard as in the past, especially modern small gardens which are required to fulfil a number of purposes. Many have an assortment of children’s toys sprawled untidily across the centre (ours often does), they are required to provide aesthetic appeal with flower borders, containers and other key features. They are intended to attract wildlife, to create space for entertaining, cooking and relaxing,  and some even have to provide fruit and vegetables for the table. As our requirements for our gardens increase and their size diminishes, the pressure on outdoor spaces to cater for many purposes grows. In this way we could be seen as returning to these older styles of gardening where the garden has to work hard to earn its keep. In spaces too small to allow different areas for each function, the potager style works well as each part of the garden can be used in multifunctional ways.

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Our much-loved, but enormous slide and swings

We moved into our current house six years ago and have just finished the major changes on the garden (although I know it will always be changing and evolving and that’s the fun bit). Now there’s no major designing and restructuring to do, I thought it might be good to look back over the past six years at what we’ve achieved and where I hope it might go next.

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Original tidy but rather dull border

Six years ago our back garden was uninspiring, with established shrub borders, a small rotting shed, a lovely little greenhouse and a fair-sized lawn. The garden is about 9m by 13m and is north-east facing, without much shading tree cover and fenced all round. I guess many people would have viewed the garden as low-maintenance, finished and tidy, but I saw it as an opportunity to create a garden which packs as much in as possible without seeming too busy or chaotic.

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This side had an empty gravel border which emphasised the concrete fence base and an overgrown Ceanothus

My first aim was to replicate the semi-wildness of my childhood garden for my kids. I grew up in a 1/3 acre garden in Cheshire with several mature trees, a vegetable and fruit garden and a wild patch at the bottom. The wild patch existed quite happily without having an impact on the rest of the garden as it was unviewed fron the house and therefore an ideal place for secret club meetings, wildlife watching and endless hours of tree climbing with an apple and a book. We have no trees big enough to climb in our current garden, nor much likelihood of growing any, so I decided to create a willow den in the flower border to give the kids an area where they could exist unobserved.

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Behind the shrubs, the border was empty and unused

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The garden had a good-sized lawn

We kept the lawn (although we extended the border area) and the greenhouse, which had been one of the things which had initially attracted me to the garden. I replaced the shed with a larger potting shed, in which I’ve spent many productive, happy hours in the past five years, creating a small plant empire and generally pottering, in teeming storms, muggy afternoons and evenings so dark I’ve needed a headtorch.

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Love my potting shed…

Initially we removed the large Thuja which were blocking light from the garden and then cleared out the back border, giving many of the plants away to local people though Freecycle. My main aim was to get the fruit trees and bushes established first as these would take the longest to become productive. Now, five years on from planting, the plum, apples, greengage, cherry (in a pot) and pear (in a pot) are really getting into their stride and we’ve been harvesting superb crops from the raspberries, currants, blueberries (in pots) and rhubarb for several years. We chose espalier apple trees along the side fence (‘James Grieve’, ‘Egremont Russet’ and ‘Bountiful’), two dessert apples and one cooker/dessert. ‘Bountiful’ went in the shadiest spot near the house, as cookers can tolerate more shade, and we planted short hedges of lavender and rosemary to create areas for herbs between the trees. We now have three modestly productive espaliers, now with four tiers, and a thriving herb border with sage, chives, garlic chives, assorted mints (sunk in pots), thyme (which has been fabulous for the past five years, but didn’t like the wet winter so now needs replacing), majoram, chamomile, lavender and rosemary.

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After planting the espaliers

I’ve also added bulbs with varying levels of success. The snowdrops along the side of the lawn are thriving and the white hyacinths which I planted around the base of each apple tree have increased threefold and look and smell stunning in the spring. Tulips were less successful as the area is mulched with bark and slugs (the latter not intentionally) so I gave up the tulip struggle in this border as they emerged eaten and misshapen year after year. Alliums are more successful and the Allium sphaerocephalon increase each year. This year, however, the stock of larger allium like Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium christophii looks diminished and I wonder if the wet winter is again to blame (we do have quite heavy soil here, but I usually use grit under bulbs when planting which seems to help with longevity.)

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Espaliers, herbs and Lonicera ‘Hall’s Prolific’ on the house wall beginning to get established

 

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The alliums at their best in the herb/espalier border

Winter clematis (‘Freckles’ and ‘Jingle Bells’) thrive up one of the espalier poles and Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Artic Queen’ up another. The final post supports Vitis vinifera ‘Reliance’, which last year gave us our first harvest of sweet, seedless pink grapes.

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Clematis ‘Freckles’ flowers non-stop throughout the winter

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Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Arctic Queen’ twine together up the post

At the back of the garden around the fruit trees I’ve planted several varieties of Narcissus which look and smell lovely in the spring, along with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Primula vulgaris, Fritillarea meleagris and two Cotoneaster horizontalis which were found in the garden as seedlings and have been trained up the shed wall as coverage for insects and berries for the birds.

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Fruit trees becoming established

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Daffodils at their best this year

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Early dwarf daffodils emerging – the logs are sections from the tree in the front which we removed as it was too large, too close to the house

 

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Plum heaven…

On the back fence, between the dogwoods and primroses we have a blackberry ‘Apache’ which gives us lovely blossom followed by huge, sweet fruit which form the basis of sorbets, stewed apple and blackberry and fruit leathers in late summer. It fits in perfectly with the potager style – combining beauty and utility, covering a boundary with foliage, flowers and fruit.

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This bench catches the afternoon and evening sun – perfect for a late cuppa and a book

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Other pop-up structures the garden has to contend with…

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Our DIY tent

So much for the herb/espalier border and the fruit tree area which I, rather grandly, call the spring garden in reference to the blooming of the daffodils, primroses and fruit blossom from March to May. In the next post I’ll take a look back at the development of the fruit cage, vegetable beds, willow den and flower border. All testament to the fact that you can include much of what you want in a garden, if you are prepared to think a bit outside the box (willow den in a flowerbed), embrace the potager style and let your imagination run wild…

Read about the transformation in the rest of the garden in next week’s blog post…