What is a working garden? My definition for this is a garden in which plants give you something or perform a function. It is a garden that appeals to all our senses not just a visual element. I think of my garden differently these days. There was a time when I grew lots of flowers, vegetables and herbs without a thought to why I was growing them except for their beauty. Now each plant needs to have purpose in the garden. I know some of you are shaking your head thinking just being pretty is enough but plants should do more than that.
Of course, the trees in the garden are here to stay as their purpose should be clear to everyone. Not only do they provide habitat for wildlife, they keep our homes warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer when used to block prevailing winds. Trees are the backbone of any landscape and using evergreens gives us something to look at in the winter. These should be the first plants you choose for a new garden.
When choosing shrubs as the understory plants for your trees, you should look for shrubs that have year round interest. A good example of a plant that really pays the rent is blueberry or Vaccinium. Placing a few blueberry shrubs in the landscape will provide you with spring flowers, fruit in summer and outstanding fall colour. The soil here on the south coast of British Columbia is perfect for blueberries and they need minimal help to get started. Provide them with sunshine and a well drained site and you are on your way to enjoying a bountiful harvest.
I find winter can be a challenge for gardeners eager to see some colour in their gardens. Planting Hellebores and other winter blooming plants can alleviate the winter doldrums. By choosing Hellebores correctly you can have flowers from December to April. Doing a bit of research before you buy them can pay off in the long run. Above is a selection of blooms from my garden but now you can get double flowering forms as well.
My favourite winter blooming shrub is Viburnum bodnantense with its fragrant pink flowers from November to February. This shrub leafs out in February and falls into the background until its ready to bloom again. Its leaves are a bit coarse and ribbed making them interesting to look at.
Adding perennial plants to the garden means you have them returning year after year. There are many tried and true plants that are workhorses in the garden. The one that comes to mind is the hardy geranium. Not only are they drought tolerant they bloom for a long period of time.
So when choosing plants ask yourself if the plant is drought tolerant, is it fragrant, is it edible or does it have more than one season of interest? Does the plant have interesting features such as peeling bark, does it sway in the wind bringing movement to the garden or does it have tactile features that make you want to feel it? Perhaps the plant has soft velvety leaves or sharp spiny ones that would create interest in the garden.
I think since I started growing food I think about what a plant can do for the garden and for me. Does it attract pollinators to the garden or can I use it for an herbal craft or recipe? Am I critiquing the garden too much? I want to be sure that what I am growing is paying the rent. Now that properties are shrinking we need to think critically about what we place in our gardens. Just being pretty doesn’t cut it in my garden anymore.