As the editor of Gardens Illustrated, Lucy Bellamy is no stranger to providing gardeners with aspirational planting advice. But as someone with a small garden behind a terraced house in a Lincolnshire town, she is all too aware of the limits of a more humble plot. Her book, Brilliant and Wild: A Garden From Scratch in a Year, offers urban gardeners that elusive thing: year-round interest and colour with no watering, feeding or deadheading.
It sounded almost too good to be true. Having read the book, though, I realised the potential it had to transform the average urban garden into a far more freeform oasis – and make gardeners of even the most recalcitrant growers. We had a chat about perennials, small spaces and, of course, how balcony custodians could get in on the action:
What I was taken aback by with Brilliant and Wild was how it could really change the way we think of urban gardens. Was that your intention?
I’m really interested in the New Perennial movement – especially the work of Piet Oudolf – and I love seeing those plantings but traditionally we see them in really huge spaces. They’re incredibly beautiful, but they’re aspirational landscapes.
But it’s also a planting style that was originally created for European parks, where planners wanted something that looked incredible, was really easy to care for, didn’t involve much work and was ready to go pretty quickly. When I started planting a few gardens for friends I did them like that, and fom my point of view it was just a case of adapting those New Perennial ideas for a smaller space.
It really is a case of starting with quite small plants in pots – you can do it at any time of year if you’re using a plant that’s pot-grown. After planting them in spring, they’ll grow throughout spring into summer, evolve into seedheads in autumn and then they’ll hold their structure through winter. Come the following spring, it’s literally just a case of cutting every single plant back to soil level.
Is this something you’ve done in your own space?
It is – my garden is the one pictured, and I genuinely did it within a year. So I worked it through myself, and the book explores that garden, but also how other people can do that themselves using their own colour palette.
Is there room for edibles in this kind of garden plan?
There probably isn’t , in that it’s designed as a community of plants that grows together and follows the rules of nature and works as a whole. And if you were to introduce something else, an element of that would be lost. I suggest that even in a really small area you need some area of grass or hard landscaping which is usually existing, so I’d suggest that you grow edibles in containers at the side. The whole principle of this kind of garden is that it’s planted as a whole, it grows as a whole, it’s cut back as a whole and a lot of edibles aren’t following that same cycle.
That’s interesting because I’ve recently decided that I’m going to stick to just growing herbs on my balcony, after years of experimenting with different edibles. It feels like quite a controversial decision.
I think probably less is more and it’s better to grow a few things really well than a mish-mash of things that don’t go together. The key, especially in a small space like a balcony, is that you want something that you can pick regularly. If you’re growing something like a tomato, you’ll get a few fruits for a small period of time so I’d guess that using that space to grow something that you can constantly harvest is a better use of it, really.
You must get asked for gardening advice all the time. What are the most common dilemmas from beginner gardeners do you hear, and what do you suggest?
People will say, “What can I grow in my garden?” They probably know the flowers they like if they see them, but find it really hard to know how to put them together, and find it difficult to know how things will develop and grow. So what I try to do with the book is really narrow that palette so there’s a huge scope of choice and within that all those plants will grow in different ways but roughly at the same rate.
I know when I first started gardening people said, once you understand a few really basic things, it’s really easy to fit every new bit of knowledge into that. And I think that is absolutely the case. I also try to get across that it’s not actually that difficult: we’re all used to doing things in our houses, and that’s just because we’re used to hearing about it, reading about it, talking about it. And gardening is only the same as that, there’s no great mystery.
I did wonder which of the plants in your collection were suited to particularly exposed or sheltered spots – you don’t specify. Is that because they’re very tolerant?
They mostly are. There are some that are better suited to shade, and some to sun, but that’s actually quite a traditional way of looking at plants and actually the whole idea of New Perennialism is a different way of looking at plants – what their shape is, how they grow - rather than separating them by traditional characteristics. I’d also say that in most urban gardens there aren’t huge trees with pockets of shade – shade is usually created by buildings. But because this is planting that goes across the garden rather than just around the edges, it opens up the palette you can use.
Too often I feel like people see a garden and they just see edges.
The trouble with the traditional way of people doing it – with a narrow border around the fence or hedge – is they’re giving themselves the trickiest bit of soil to plant in. And if they bring their planting out into the garden, then they’ll see more of it from the house and it opens up the kind of things that you can grow.
Selfishly, as a balcony gardener, I’m curious to know which of your planting schemes would work in containers.
Actually, this is the kind of planting that works really well in containers, because they’re not really hungry plants. The same principles apply: it’s a bit like arranging a bunch of flowers, where you want a mixture of shapes, a mixture of patterns, and some repetition.
How many plants you’d want would depends on the size of your container, but you could use something like the Perovskia Blue Spire, which offers height; the Nepeta Walker’s Low, which brings lower ground cover and stops any weeds getting in. Then maybe a salvia or a grass, something like a panicum.
So you’re keeping the colour palette quite narrow but you’ve got contrast in the shapes. And you’d plant and treat the container in the same way as you would the garden. The only difference is you’d need to water it in a container, which you wouldn’t need to in a bed.
Where do you recommend beginners buy plants?
I get most of my plants through mail order, which is really brilliant and easy way to do it. The plants tend to be smaller, which is more economical, and you get much bigger choice. It’s really lovely and exciting when they’re delivered. I’d recommend going to Beth Chatto Nursery, who have a lovely selection of plants, and are really helpful if you ring up. They’re a really good choice for the beginner gardener because there’s so much detail on the website, and they’ll put together a palette of plants for you and they’ll all arrive ready to go.
This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.