I garden for pleasure and therapy. I don't take kindly to Latin, I don't view my garden as a kitchen or a trophy and it is a real financial treat to go to a garden centre. I garden for the generosity of life, for all the times plants remind me that it simply doesn't matter if I screw it up. So here's my list of plants that embrace screw-ups and tiny budgets.
Succulents are the masochists of the plant world and are therefore currently the hipster’s best friend for a reason. They look cool, each is as esoteric as the next, they love a triangle and thrive with little knowledge and effort. They’re what hipsters/Instagram users aspire to be: #lifegoals etc. They grow quite happily left on a windowsill or in between cracks without so much as one drink every quarter. Give them a pot of their own, some well-drained soil, a handful of gravel and some sunshine and frankly you're laughing. They’re also one of the easiest families to propagate, simply take a leaf, pop it on some gravel and watch an actual immaculate conception occur. Magic. But good god, don’t be fooled, they are hipsters by nature - they love showing off. Don’t leave them on a dark shelf inside - they may like it rough but they want it all done in the spotlight.
IMO's TOP 5 HERBS
In the brilliant book The Practical Herb garden over 250 plants are discussed and the index alone covers nearly 10 pages. Herbs are a diverse bunch, spanning every continent on earth, but despite this novice gardeners and those seeking a low-maintenance garden are regularly told how easy they are to grow, as if there's only about 7 of them and they all like the same conditions. Now maybe it's because whenever I attempt to grow basil it looks annoyed to be alive or because I'm the only person to grow chives without flowers, but I've learnt the hard way that only certain herbs are going to work well for you. In my case they tend to be woody ones that don't mind harsh sun and sharp rain showers.
I have no truck with the “lavender smells of grandmas” brigade. Maybe it’s because my grandmothers smell magnificently of perfume, fags and casseroles, or because the younger Babyboomer generation of grandmothers are way too much into red wine and Channel to bother with lavender hangers. But either way, so what if lavender does smell of Nans? Smelling of a generation of women who gave birth before epidurals, survived actual frigging wars, decoded the Enigma, fought for civil rights and still managed to pull off the New Look, yeah I'm happy to smell like that. And anyway Lavender is multi-sensory. It tastes of picnics in the woods and works a psychosomatic treat on my stress-levels. Lavender is ruddy marvelous.
Take a cutting of about 10cm, pull off the leaves at the bottom, stick it in the edge of a gravelly pot with a couple of others, tie over a plastic bag to keep it humid and before you know it you’ll be potting-on a mini hedge row. I’ve never tried growing it inside but as long as the position is sunny and it isn’t forgotten or drowning there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be happy. Indeed, it usually pops up on one of those ridiculous “purifying plants” pins on pinterest (all plants ‘purify’ air FYIFFS, it’s why cutting down trees is a bad idea). Be sure to cut the first flush of lavender flowers off - this will make it produce twice as many second time around. To ensure lovely bushy new growth do the same in autumn.
Over the years my little pot has produced enough flowers to make an abundance of home remedies from pillow packs to face scrubs and if like me you have to be creative with your present buying, then being able to make personalised gifts like lavender sugar and sleeping masks makes you feel like a relatively decent friend (even if your lavender-hating-“smells like grandma”-friend has to lie and say they love it, in which case isn’t it good you have such loyal friends!)
OK yes I’ve killed a rosemary, but the ants started it and despite my husband’s love of a good ant farm, and my efforts to encourage wildlife, once those buggers start undermining my plant’s root system then that’s it, out comes the totally un-organic spray guns and the kettles of boiling hot water. Plus ants FARM aphids, really! I have no truck with them. But I digress...Rosemary oooh Rosemary. Well drained soil and a little rather than a lot of watering and you’re away. We have three different varieties growing in our yard, two of which were grown from cuttings and all three of which taste great on roasted potatoes and carrots.
Much like my devotion to Bey, my husband is devoted to his bay (and his bae I might add). As our household’s cook he’s mainly interested in the garden as a living pantry and since bringing this unassuming little plant home we’ve had it added to pretty much every savory dish going. Personally I love it for it’s white winter flowers and because it’s dusty scent reminds me of the dark, giant, bays that have punctuated our parks, with woody dens and hidden bases, for generations of children.
If you can be bothered you could grow fennel for their delicious bulbs, but without proper beds or indeed patience I've yet to grow them for anything other than big impact on a teenytiny budget, which they do spectacularly. Come summer I love how, despite nothing more than a 1.5 litre pot, these plants can dwarf me. The flowers are great as cuttings or leave them until autumn and collect the seed for aniseed sweets. I plant them alongside pinks, so that come early spring, when they are cut down to the earth, my cold wet nose can be warmed by the sweet scent of aniseed and cloves. Hover flies love them too, which is a bonus because so do aphids. In fact my aphids seem to love them a bit too much. But like nasturtiums this isn't a bad thing as they have a habit of distracting the little green meanies from other precious crops. I grow mine near roses for this very reason.
For the past two years, I have been growing a mint on my window sill in nothing but water and shade. It is quite possibly the easiest plant I have ever grown. Mint is the sibling that always wins Monopoly, you love them dearly, but don’t let them loose or you’ll be left with nothing but Old Kent Road and bruises. Seriously this plant is tenacious and needs boundaries, best kept in pots and given a good watering from time to time, we grow chocolate, apple and what I guess is 'original' flavour. Plus in summer you’ll be greeted with lovely prongs of heathery purple flowers that are beloved by bees.
TOP 3 LEAFY EDIBLES
The joy of chard, rocket and sorrel is that if you’re lucky to live in the micro-climate of London then with the sowing skills of a sneeze you can reap the distinctive taste, colour and scent of these delicious cut-and-come-again greens practically all year round and for the price of one over-priced chlorinated bag of salad.
If like me you’d love a lemon tree but £35 seems a bit steep, then grow sorrel in abundance. OK so it won’t give you blossom, woody shade or lemon oil, but if you want to pull *that* face then sorrel’s mouth-watering zest is the best zing you'll find this side of a packet of Skittle Sours. Plus it is well lush as a side-salad for pasta.
Rocket by name and by nature. This mid-week salad staple is best grown in pots, as just like mint it'll be all up in your business if you're not too careful. By mid-summer I let my rockets go to seed as I love the sweet scent of the yellow, pink and tortoiseshell flowers that erupt from those peppery leaves.
Like the risque teenager I never was I only recently started experimenting with this psychedelic coloured plant. To my delight having done nothing more than shove a plug of it in a pot last August, we've basked in it's free leaves for months now. The root system is as colourful as the multi-coloured stems, so this is a great one to plant with kids...or fully-grown adults like me.
Sunflowers, sweet-peas and nasturtiums are all grown easily from seed costing very little and pinks can provide delicious clove scent all year round and are great in windy positions. But if you want year-round interest, that will give shape in a little space, a plant that will constantly surprise you, one that smells as good as it looks and is hardier than it appears then go for a rose. Preferably a David Austin one at that, which are grown for their scent and reliable health. Cheap varieties of dwarf roses are remarkably hardy, but many don't have that come hither scent. Still I’ve had a little pink one in the same pot now for 7 years and yes aphids love it, yes I should probably re-pot it, but the great thing about roses is that they don’t like you touching their never-regions. So put them in a pot a size up from their current one and then just stick to pruning and deadheading them. You'll be pretty much guaranteed flowers for most of the year!
So there you have it: my top brass. Ultimately, though, everyone's bit of earth is different so what works for me might not work for you and vice versa. The best thing to do is to just get out there, start sowing and see what happens!
Historian by trade. Gardener by passion.