There has been an awful lot of pontificating on this blog and not much actual gardening, but recently I’ve actually been outside planting. Seeing as how I’m working 20 hours a day hurtling towards an impossible-to-meet book deadline this may seem unlikely. However – unlike cleaning – bare root plants in March will not be put off indefinitely, and so I have planted one plant a day, usually in the time it takes for the kettle to boil for my afternoon cuppa.
However, the pontificating habit dies hard, and if you will allow be a short pontificate I will tell you what I’ve planted. I have had a song in my head all week, partly inspired by International Women’s Day, and partly by the things I’ve been planting. ‘Bread and Roses’ was written about a textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Legend has it that the women strikers carried banners reading ‘We Want Bread, But We Want Roses Too!’ which this site takes as meaning ‘equal work together with special consideration as women.’ The line that most appeals is ‘Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!’, which I think means: we want food and subsistence, but we also want a quality of life that only art and beauty can bring. These are obviously not entirely female needs, but I think there is something about the way women and men traditionally garden that echoes this: men grew the big leeks (the least said about which the better), women grew the mixed cottage gardens.
I have been banging on here about forest gardens, and about how I am planting one and how they are going to save the world, all of which I do believe, but I do have a problem with them, and that is the way they look. Actually no, they are perfectly pleasant to look at – like somewhere you would go for a nice stroll, or a picnic – but they are not my idea of a garden. I have visited Martin Crawford’s forest garden in Devon and I have looked at this video (thanks to Anne-Marie Powell for the link) of Robert Hart’s forest garden in Shropshire, and while part of me thinks ‘Wow! Forward thinking and revolutionary!’ another part of me thinks ‘Garden? Really? Where are the dahlias?’
There are two problems, as I see it, with your average forest garden from a garden design perspective (get me): a lack of structure and not enough flowers. Everything is very green and leafy and similar looking and foresty. Now I could just get over my concerns, but I think there is a middle way: I want bread, but I want roses too. So over this last couple of weeks I have planted one apricot, one gage, one thornless blackberry, one kiwi, one hazelnut, one jostaberry, one fan-trained cherry, but I’ve also planted a Chusan palm which will provide a strong, bold leaf shape and will sit on the edge of my circular lawn (circular to avoid any hint of the accidental) which is bordered by my (nascent) box cloud hedge . There are other big and bold plants that will break up the green leafiness: a hardy banana, two paulownias, one Cercis Canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, a Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ plus a load of box topiary. Then there’s roses and agapanthus and the like. The idea is generally not to let the green and leafy stuff take over, to form a backbone that the edibles can hang around. The edibles will be the bread; the topiary, agapanthus and roses will be, erm… the roses. And perhaps even – if this isn’t straying too close to some kind of horrendous stereotype that will lose me all my new feminist friends – the edibles the male, the roses the female. It is only now, writing this down, that I realise how odd it sounds: subtropical foliage plants, roses, topiary, nut bushes and fruit trees. I hope it will work. In my mind it does. If I can find any time to actually do it, rather than just endlessly thinking about it, I will find out if this really is the way to have it all.