This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
There are tree-lined avenues, walled enclosures and vines aplenty. There’s a pergola, two pavilions and no less than four ponds filled with waterfowl. All feature in the earliest surviving garden plan (detail, right), which dates from c1400 BC and conjures up a soothing retreat for an Egyptian high court official at Thebes.
Much as garden plans reflect fleeting fads and fancies — symmetry was all the rage back in ancient Egypt — they also embody the timeless triumph of horticultural hope over experience.
Much as garden plans reflect fleeting fads and fancies they also embody the timeless triumph of horticultural hope over experience
Whether you’re eying a neglected veg patch or something altogether statelier, there’s plenty that simply cannot be planned for in any given growing season, starting with the weather. Even so, as celandines brighten the hedgerows and buds fatten, we fall over and over again for the capricious, indulgent, downright hubristic promise of the garden plan.
Right on cue, here come the seed catalogues to flesh out our sap-addled speculation, their lushly illustrated pages painting a rainbow of potential. Social media is glutted with inspo (the garden is the new living room, apparently) and if you happen to have spent deepest, darkest winter bingeing on the likes of Bridgerton, you may well find yourself with a yen for topiary.
Flights of fancy aside, there are practical benefits to these hypothetical gardens, especially if you’re growing vegetables. They help you make the most of your space, and they enable you to plot your companion planting (and its reverse). In fact, go about it the right way, remembering to consider crucial details such as where the light and shade falls, and what began as a diverting art project becomes more akin to the seating plan for a second-time-around marriage.
There are apps to help with it all, but the tactile nature of gardening seems to beg for nothing more complicated than a sheet of paper and a nice HB pencil.
First, you need to make a rough sketch of your plot’s outline. Next, pace out any essential measurements and re-sketch it to scale. Mark out your beds, paths and any grass, and don’t forget somewhere to sit.
The tactile nature of gardening seems to beg for nothing more complicated than a sheet of paper and a nice HB pencil
Overlay the lot with a sheet of tracing paper and you’re ready to superimpose as many different iterations of your garden as your imagination can sustain.
If you’re planning a more substantial overhaul and need some-thing that’s more of a garden design than a planting plan, then my favourite tip comes from the late landscape artist and plantswoman Susan Jellicoe. “Finally, turn the completed plan upside down and look at it as a piece of abstract design,” she counsels.
Abstract design: that’s not bad advice whatever level of planning you’re engaged in. At best, garden plans are mere starting points. Intuition and accident both have a place, and there will always be plants that magically appear. As the growing season gathers pace, I can be ruthless with self-seeded nasturtiums, even though I admire their tangerine tangle, but the bees’ favourite, borage, makes such a reluctant transplant that I tend to let it be — at least until it grows so enormous it’s guzzling all the goodness meant to for that spot’s intended tenants.
Ideas come as you work, too. When it looked as though an army of slugs was going to decimate my squash plot last year, I plugged the gaps with some leftover red orach seeds.
As the squash rallied and the Atriplex hortensis shot up, their combined palette made for a dramatic mix. (The squash, incidentally, did something really weird and certainly not planned: along with pattypan and uchiki kuri, I had courgettes — yellow and striped, both conventionally-shaped according to the seed packets. Except that they all grew round as globes.)
There’s definitely a degree to which personality shapes the gardening experience. Much as I long to be the kind of writer who can map out an entire book using index cards, I simply am not, and the same seems to go for green-fingered aides.
There’s definitely a degree to which personality shapes the gardening experience
Meanwhile, my allotment neighbours include a pair of graphic designers whose serried rows of manicured produce will, come summer, look exactly like a plan — one of those exquisite watercoloured visions.
For now, standing there surveying it all on a grey day, it’s as if the colours and scents, the textures and shapes of last summer could only ever have been a mirage. The broad beans that I sowed before the first frosts huddle together, and raggedy rainbow chard sways wanly in a chilly breeze. Elsewhere, grass has blurred the outlines of beds and a few last wisps of stalk corkscrew round bare bamboo canes.
On the one hand, it’s not much to show for last year’s efforts; on the other, it’s certainly a blank canvas. Time to let green-fingered licence run riot, I think. Would a pergola be too much?
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