My messy garden is a magical and alive place, which manages to delight and surprise me daily. It is a garden which is happy to keep growing and flowering, even if I tend to neglect it. Too much neglect and it becomes a jungle, but that is all part of the joy of gardening in the subtropics.
Being messy has some definite benefits to the health of the garden. Dropped prunings rot in-situ improving the soil (chop and drop), sticks and leaf litter provide homes for lizards and small critters, little birds find shelter in the dense growth and the weeds add to the plant diversity and feed both us and hordes of good bugs.
Messy gardens also offer surprises. Plants that seem forgotten suddenly poke through in flower. Whole sections of my garden seem to disappear and then suddenly something flowers and I get the joy of rediscovering those areas all over again.
Perhaps the word “messy” is too off putting, maybe I should say “a little less than tame and tidy”. Either way it is a joy to allow plants to grow madly and flower their hearts out, to allow them to entangle with their neighbours so the overall effect is a glorious intermingling of different coloured flowers. It looks great, it saves me having to mulch, there is no weeding (no room for them either) and nor is there much need for feeding, as the prunings takes care of that by rotting back down.
A garden should suit its owner, so every garden needs to be created and cared for in a way that is an expression of its owner. For many people that means open spaces. For some it is all about the lawn and perhaps a neat row of flowers. For others, a garden must be only straight lines with all plants spaced exactly evenly, and then there are those who prefer a garden with no straight lines at all. I have enjoyed creating all of those gardens for clients. But at the end of the day I come home to my garden, where I can let my creative messy side run amok.
My favourite book when I was a child was called Lemonade Serenade; or the Thing in the Garden by Don Madden. It was published in 1966 and is still a favourite. The pictures are pure escapism – so full of colour and wildness, with a crazy overgrown garden full of huge flowers and friendly insects, not to mention the elf, that as it turned out, lived there too. Even after years of gardening and reading “grown up” gardening books, I still feel this book is the biggest influence on my own personal gardening style. It still gives me a sense of the impossible being very much possible in a garden.
With the mess, also comes excitement in my garden. Both friendly and less friendly insects have an important role to play. Brisbane summers are filled with huge spiders. Sometimes the webs get filled with fallen leaves that make a real mess. In cleaning these up it’s common to find the remains of flies and grasshoppers and I am grateful to the spiders for the pest control.
With a little rain, summer tropical growth can be so rapid that a neat garden can become a jungle within weeks. For that reason alone, learning to love a less-than-tame garden, can go a long way.
I like to let plants do whatever they want. Mostly there’s an abundance of flowers. There is always an abundance of green. Some plants fall forward but most of them lean on each other and reach for the skies.
Every so often I decide I need a little more wriggle room and things get chopped. I am in one of those phases now and parts of my garden are being ferociously chopped down. These clippings are spread over any bare patches to compost and improve the soil, ready for whatever comes next. While it looks messy now, within a month the area will be transformed.
A messy, crowded garden can be a very secure place to be; a secret hideaway where no one can see you through the growth.
A simple design trick to successful messy gardens is to create space within the mess. In most gardens a neatly, mown lawn provides just that – an area of calm green to rest the eye. By contrasting this chaos with an empty space, the interesting things in the garden can be comfortably appreciated. In fact, busy gardens can appear a lot less messy when there’s a neatly mown lawn.
I have no lawn, but I do have open gravel areas and an area soon to be planted with low ground covers to produce the same effect. Every so often the garden encroaches too much on these open areas and needs to be put back in its place.
If the garden makes me feel claustrophobic instead of snug, time for a BIG prune. Actually, my latest inspiration for a major hack was trying to get past a lablab bean to feed the chooks. A nasty rope burn from the stray tendrils meant that bean had to go! Being a messy gardener, all those prunings will be piled at the back of the beds or somewhere not far away to break down and fertilise the next growth cycle, and to provide habitat.
We often get a prod from nature reminding us to be a good gardener and tend our patch. For a friend of mine it was a resident snake. Our strategy to allow her to enjoy her garden again was to create pathways wide enough to fit a wheelbarrow comfortably.
A lovely old fountain forms central part of the garden and creates space. By widening the paths and keeping the nearby planting space narrow and filled with low growing plants, her garden will still be full and gloriously messy, but she will have a sense of space and importantly she will be able to see the snake on the wide paths before she gets too close.
When I talk about messy, I refer to the chaotic mingling of many unpruned plants. I am not in favour of the permaculture trend towards using polystyrene boxes in the garden. I love pots and found items but believe a little care should be taken in their placement. (My next instalment will be tips for successfully using repurposed items in the garden and having fun with it.)
Perhaps one of the most important reasons to allow some messiness in a garden is the wildlife value. A garden that is too neat will not have habitat for lizards, frogs, and small birds. It will not allow a few chewed leaves, evidence that caterpillars will soon be butterflies. It will not have fabulous insects in every shape and size busy eating each other and feeding the birds, lizards and frogs, and it probably won’t have as many flowers. If you like a neat garden, why not find a little spot at the back for a little messiness and see what little visitors start appearing.