The best-laid schemes

Last month included an important date in the diary of a Scot and, aside from the excuse to tuck into a plate of haggis, Burns Night also had me thinking on some of our national bard’s most well-remembered words:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley.’ Robert Burns

It’s that time of year again. Time to start making plans for the garden in the year ahead, but also time to reflect on the decisions made last year. To consider which ‘schemes’ went ‘askew’, as well as those which worked as I had hoped.

The borders in our garden are a yearly work-in-progress, but the great thing about our vege and cut-flower beds is you can consider them a clean slate at the beginning of each year, so here are a few things I’ll be keeping in mind as I plan their contents.

Things that didn’t work so well:

French beans, ‘Hildago’. These were very edible and a useful addition in the kitchen, but they took up quite a bit of space for the amount of crop they produced. I’d definitely include them in a bigger vegetable garden or allotment, but I’d rather save the space for something fast growing and fast cropping in future.

‘Hildago’ French beans from the veggie bed

Sugar-snap peas. These did crop quite well initially, but were absolutely massacred by snails, making them virtually useless. We did have a particularly bad year for snails though and, while the sugar-snap probably had the worst of it, I’m inclined to give them a chance. But, if so, then I’m going to have to get to grips with these wee beasties in a big way. More on snails in future, I think.

Golden beetroot. These were great in principle, but in reality they just took up too much valuable space in a reasonably small area. Again, I’d happily include them in an allotment in future, but they don’t provide maximum benefits for our small suburban veggie bed.

Pickings for the day in Autumn, including Golden Beetroot

Dahlias. I’ve only grown a few in the past couple of years and I’ve got mixed feelings about them. They produce such gorgeous cut flowers later in the year and I haven’t found them as hard work as they’re sometimes made out to be. They did provide regular, useful blooms, but they didn’t feel as ‘good value’ as some annuals that were also producing at the same time. This was made worse by their vulnerability to snails, which reduced their yield somewhat. I suspect I may also need to find the right Dahlias for me. I did rather like the subtle tones of ‘Schipper’s Bronze‘, which also has fabulous dark stems. On the other hand ‘Jescot Julie‘ was a big disappointment as I’d expected a much wider range of colour and fuller blooms. I’ve also noticed that this year the supplier has changed their photographs, which now look much more like what I actually got and leaves me wondering whether others felt thus way as well. If I had a massive garden I’d definitely include lots of Dahlias in a cutting garden. As things are, I’m undecided about how much time to invest in them this year, but I plan to post more on them in future.

Dahlia ‘Schipper’s Bronze’.
Dahlia ‘Jescot Julie’.

Things that worked well:

– Self-seeding. Three years in and my policy of letting my choice of self-sowing plants remain is really beginning to bear fruit, so to speak. Not only are we starting to get lots of extra plants for free, but it’s also resulting in some lovely mixtures and natural placements.

I never would’ve thought to plant a foxglove at the foot of our apple tree, but I love that nature did.

Pak Choi. The year before last, I sowed some a little late in the day and didn’t get much use out of them. This year I sowed them as early as I could and we made real use of them during our building project. Having no working kitchen, dry days were a real treat for us, as we could sit down by the raised beds and pick some leaves for cooking stir fries on our barbecue griddle! Not conventional, perhaps, but it worked surprisingly well.

Cherry tomatoes. We only had four tomato plants, but they needed picking daily at their peak. My toddler gets through a lot of these in a week, so we did have to supplement with shop-bought ones as well, but they were flavourless and under-ripe in comparison to our sweet, home-grown tomatoes. I think they’re also probably my top recommendation for anyone with young children, as my two year old helps himself whenever he fancies a snack – something I never tire of seeing him do. These are really my husband’s territory and this year I’ve suggested he experiment with different varieties to see if we can increase our crop in the same space.

Cherry tomatoes picked last Summer

– Herbs. I love herbs. We grew a lot of them in my childhood garden and I can’t imagine cooking without them. Even renting flats with no garden, I always had a few fresh herbs growing in the kitchen. Last summer I struggled to keep some of the tender herbs wet enough in the hot weather and they bolted a lot, but now I’ve got a working kitchen again I plan to have more of them inside this year. Meanwhile, there are plenty of herbs that worked well last year, particularly Mediterranean ones which thrive in the well-draining parts of the garden. We have an abundance of sage and rosemary, which I‘ve been taking cuttings from to propagate further. More of that later this year, I suspect. As well as adding flavour to our meals, they provided useful foliage in cut flower arrangements. This was especially helpful in late Autumn, as cut flowers became less abundant and I could pas them out with herb ‘fillers’. Lemon balm and chocolate mint were two of my favourites in a vase last year, as their dainty flower spikes added interest as well.

Flat-leaved parsley ready for use in the kitchen.
Herbs providing foliage in a vase last Autumn.

– Cut-flowers. We had plenty of these last year, with enough for the house each week from early Spring to very late Autumn. Some of my favourites included Scabious (more on these to follow), Snapdragons and Sweet peas. I’m in the process of planning what will be in the cut flower bed this year, so more on this to follow.

Fresh cut flowers in our half-finished kitchen last Summer. These include Scabious, Feverfew, Snapdragon, Nigella and Cornflowers.

Verbena ‘Bonariensis’. These were grown in the cut-flower bed, but I plan to move them into a new border, which I’d love to start this year, though we may have enough on our hands already. They are self-seeding nicely, so there should be plenty more to come and they provide height and colour in the Summer and seed heads for the birds in winter. Most importantly, butterflies and bees love them and they practically hum in the Summer.

Butterfly-attracting Verbena ‘Bonariensis’

There are plenty more lessons learned from last year, but those are just a few for me to be thinking about. With the weather becoming milder and the soil warming up, it’s time for me to start making more ‘schemes‘ for the year ahead…