“Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” – Hans Christian Andersen
I have kept a vegetable garden for many years now. Gardens of varying sizes depending on where we lived and how much time I had to devote to gardening. I have gardened in small beds and styrofoam planters in the backyard, in plots at the local community garden, and here at our current property, in a dedicated area with multiple large beds with space for perennial fruits. My experience and success with gardening have most definitely grown over the years, and I am now much less apprehensive about the process. But growing flowers has been a relatively new thing for me.
Growing up, my parents always kept neat garden beds in the mining town rentals we lived in, in addition to a sizable and productive vegetable garden. I grew up in a semi-arid area where the blistering temperatures over summer would scorch the earth till it cracked in a mosaic and flattened anything remotely delicate. Few conventional garden flowers can stand up to such conditions. Native flowers and shrubs are the ideal choices in such hostile conditions, with some of these, like Kangaroo Paw, Billy Buttons and Rice Flower, suitable as cut flowers. Native plants have a bit of a reputation for being difficult to propagate from seed, but they can be relatively easy to source as tubestock or young plants. I think native plants are an attractive and hardy option for any garden, particularly species endemic to your area. But there is something I find irresistible about a traditional cottage garden. That greedy abundance of flowers spilling over pathways and fencelines and scattered freely throughout the house in vases.
As a young girl, I discovered the Anne of Green Gables mini-series on TV. That iconic version with Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth, which I think aired in 1985 when I was 10. While it is very presumptuous of me to say, as I have not ever watched any other version of Anne, I think that was the best rendition of the story ever made. Watching this began a love affair with anything penned by L.M. Montgomery. For years, I wandered blissfully through time to a different era. An era of long skirts and laced boots, beautifully embellished shirts with puffy sleeves, figures with cinched waists and done hair. Homes were aired, cleaned and polished, and everything moved a bit slower. Caught up in a romantic whirl of blissful unawareness of the great sufferings during the Victorian era, I passed dreamily through my teens with a pomander in one hand and a book in the other.
My literary love affair continued when my parents gifted me Emily Climbs. The second book of the Emily trilogy written by L.M. Montgomery. I loved the Anne of Green Gables series, but there was an instant affinity with Emily Byrd Starr. She was studious, loved to write, and had more reserve in her nature than Anne Shirley. I felt I had met myself from a time gone by and began to question whether I belonged in (at the time) the 20th century.
“Cousin Jimmy and I had a splendid evening planning out our garden and choosing our seeds and plants in the catalogue. Just where the biggest drift is making, behind the summer-house, we are going to have a bed of pink asters, and we are going to give the Golden Ones―who are dreaming under four feet of snow―a background of flowering almond.”Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery
I still remember that passage and can recall the deep longing I felt to create such a garden of flowers. But many years would pass before that longing grew some tentative wings, and I sowed those first few frivolous seeds. I am not sure why I suddenly decided to grow flowers alongside the vegetables n the veggie patch. Perhaps I felt there was space enough to include a few cut flowers alongside the zucchinis and beans. Likely it was because I had read somewhere that many flowers are beneficial to growing vegetables as they encourage pollinators and desirable predator insects to your garden. I realised that over the years, I had become incredibly pragmatic. I had existed for so long in the headspace that anything surplus to our immediate needs was deemed unworthy. Don’t get me wrong. I have always had an eye for beautiful things. But would only indulge when that beauty had a function. Until that point, I could not see the value of flowers beyond something beautiful to behold.
Time and experience can harden a person in so many ways, but they can also soften. We begin to see the value in finding, creating, and allowing those elements and moments of joy and beauty for their existence alone, not because it achieves a function or goal. They sit in juxtaposition with the many experiences of life that can be so challenging, and they bring a pleasure that demands nothing of you but your admiration.
In the past few years, I have planted a range of flowers with varying success. Some flowers, while very successful in encouraging many beneficial insects to the garden, spread rapidly throughout the beds, becoming an invasive problem. Queen Anne’s Lace is one such flower. I have learnt to allow it to grow (as it self-seeds readily) on the garden periphery and throughout the duck enclosure. I found fennel to be similarly invasive, although it develops umbels attracting predator species such as wasps. I have been progressively removing it from the garden as it appears. Other flowers have a more contained growing habit and provide a succession of sprays suitable for floristry. I have had great success with Dahlias, Cornflowers, Cosmos, Sweetpeas, Linaria, Zinnias, Stocks, Foxgloves and Hollyhocks. Other flowers like Dianthus, Sweet Alice, Marigolds and Calendula, have a much more compact growing habit and provide vibrant colour in the garden while perhaps not providing flowers suitable for cut flower arrangements. I have tried many times but have not had any success with Larkspur, Echinacea, or Asters. I will persist!
I can say with all honesty that growing flowers in the vegetable garden has been almost more rewarding than growing vegetables. While I prefer to grow most vegetables that we eat, we can always head to the shops. It is not as easy or affordable to buy flowers to fill your home. Recently I saw a bunch (5 stems) of Peonies for $45. It is simply a luxury too great to justify, irrespective of the joy those flowers might bring for their sweet, transient life.
While we rent, I will continue to include some flowers in the vegetable garden. They have similar needs for nutrients and water as most vegetables and so are easily accommodated alongside vegetable growing. But one day, when we own a property, I dream of beds of flowers beneath window sills, spilling over fencelines and encroaching on the pathways. I imagine them amassed in vases on display in every corner of the home and the waft of their heady scent as you brush past them on the way to the vegetable garden on a warm, sunny day.
I would love to know what flowers you have had success with in the past and how you include them in your garden. And I would love to learn if you share my love affair with the penmanship of L.M. Montgomery and if you saw yourself as an ‘Anne’ or an ‘Emily’!