There are more than 400,000 different plants in the world. Something like 10,000 plants are in general cultivation and are available to buy from good garden centres and plant nurseries.
No wonder it can be difficult to choose which plants to grow in your garden!
Every garden is unique. That’s what I really love about gardening. Each location has a specific microclimate and soil. The amount of sunshine and shade, wind and rain, frost and snow your garden receives determines which plants will grow. In turn the plants you choose influence the wild creatures that will inhabit your garden.
Here in the UK we have a temperate climate. The prevailing wind blows up from the South West bringing the warming effects of the Gulf Stream from the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of Canada and Russia are on the same latitude as the UK and they have months of severely cold weather with deep snow. Luckily for us the Gulf Stream prevents the UK from becoming snowbound all winter.
This mild climate means that we can grow plants from all over the world. And that is very tempting! Some garden enthusiasts turn into plant collectors with rare and exotic trees and shrubs filling their gardens. It’s lovely to visit these gardens and marvel at the unusual plants. But just because we CAN grow plants from far flung locations does that mean we all SHOULD? There are experts who will tell you not to grow exotics and others who insist it’s completely fine. It’s up to us as gardeners to make our own decisions about that.
Some of us are becoming increasingly concerned with the changes we make to our landscape and the effect we have on wild creatures and wild flowers. We know that certain species are in danger of extinction and it’s true that we can all do something to help in a small way in our own gardens by including a small patch of native wild flowers. In my own garden I’ve found that the insect population in particular can bounce back quickly when the right food and habitat is provided and that has a knock on effect all the way up the food chain.
In the past country gardeners traditionally grew plants for produce… vegetables and fruit to feed the family and herbs for cooking and medicinal use. The nature of each garden, the climate and the soil influenced which indigenous plants were grown. Plants and seeds were taken from the countryside and neighbours swopped cuttings and good advice. Local crafts and traditions influenced the materials that were used too and every part of the garden was crammed with fruit, vegetables and herbs with chickens and pigs too if space permitted.
Things are swinging back towards traditional country garden methods and growing flowers and food from seed is growing in popularity. Today we are not so reliant on our own gardens for food. We can always pop to the local shop if we haven’t grown anything for tea. Some of us grow fruit and vegetables. Most of us choose to grow ornamental plants for their beautiful flowers and foliage instead of the original local species. I don’t have a problem with using modern cultivars or plants from elsewhere in the world. It’s taken some time for me to reach this point of view. Where possible and practical I use local plants then I add newcomers into the mix.
I have looked closely at what’s growing well locally and used more of those plants in our garden. I try to be ecologically minded by using typical local plant associations in specific areas. We have planted hawthorn and hornbeam hedges with damsons, wild roses, elder and honeysuckle. We have the native flag iris Iris pseudacorus in our duck pond and English bluebells in the wood.
I drove past this field today just as the sun broke through the clouds. It was stunningly beautiful with hundreds of brilliant yellow marigolds and golden grass. This illustrates the point about growing the right plants to suit the conditions but you probably wouldn’t want this in your own garden. It’s a wet meadow with marsh marigolds, rushes and willow. This is unsuitable farmland for crops or grazing livestock so this field has been left alone and here’s the result. If you have a large pond in your garden and wet ground then these species could work… but there are other plants more suited to small gardens.
I’m not afraid to mix species introduced from other parts of the world with our local plants. For instance: In our Spring Garden there are Viburnums and Magnolias from China and Japan. We have planted the purple elder Sambucus nigra to complement our local plain green elder and in the summer border I rely on non-natives for a good show right the way through summer until the first frosts of autumn.
Over the years I’ve formulated a checklist of criteria that new plants should meet. This helps me decide whether a new plant from elsewhere is worth growing or not.
- Must have natural compatibility with local plants… They should share the same growing conditions such as soil, moisture and sun/shade requirements.
- They should look good and fit in with our native plants.
- Be low maintenance… healthy, very easy to grow and look after.
- Provide food and/or habitat for wildlife.
- They must be hardy enough to survive outside all winter.
- Look beautiful and make my heart skip a beat!
If you can get to grips with the conditions in your own garden you will be able to whittle down what you can grow. Then it’s much easier to choose plants from a short list rather than a really long list. It’s worth observing your garden for a while to see where areas of sun and shade are throughout the year. Have a good look at the type of soil you have and see if there are any frost pockets, dry areas or waterlogged spots too.
If like me you prefer to mix British natives with plants from further afield then I hope my checklist will help you to choose what’s appropriate for your garden and suitable for your needs.
Happy Gardening! Gillian 🙂
4 thoughts on “What should we grow?”
I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your passion. I live on the other side of the pond, America, zone 6. Like music gardening is a universal language to be understood & enjoyed by all where ever one lives, no matter one’s age or skill level or live. I am in the process of design a new garden for myself & to be shared. I want to be a good stewart of the earth & make it welcoming & beneficial to all living creatures. Designing & gardening is an ever changing learning process, you and many others in UK have helped with that education.
Thanks for your kind comment Robert. Good luck with your new garden. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy mine.
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