One of my favorite things about gardening is being part of a cycle. Whether it is a favorite rosebush, ripe apples, or the first tomato, greeting old friends is a comfort and a delight. This year, I am giving more space to my favorites, and to plants that come back again in their season.
My other favorite thing about gardening is that you can always try something new. Most gardeners can think up far more projects, plantings, and experiments than they actually have time and energy for—never mind space. So I'd like to suggest some ways that you can try new stuff without adding a lot of new garden space.
One new idea that is gaining momentum is growing perennial vegetables. Like many new things, perennials are an old, old thing rediscovered. Before modern supermarkets, perennial vegetables were what people in Europe ate after their root cellar was empty and before new crops could sprout and grow.
Not only do perennials provide food at a time when nothing else does, they do it in a space that few other food plants want. Many of these crops disappeared from agriculture because they didn't fit well into plowed fields. But they are just right for subsistence farms and homesteads—or for suburban lots--because they fill a variety of niches in the landscape.
Like berry bushes, perennials can go where vegetables would be difficult--fence lines, along the foundation of the house, under trees, and shady, rough, rocky, steep, or odd-shaped spots. I especially like them next to paths and patios where you don't want to be digging and disturbing things, but want something low and manageable.
Some are happy to live near fruit trees, benefiting from both summer shade and the yearly mulch of leaves, undeterred by tree roots. Chives, Garlic Chives, Good King Henry, Miner's Lettuce, and Sorrel are all good in this niche. Others, like Sylvetta, can make a permanent erosion barrier on slopes. Caucasus Mountain Spinach is a big vine, and loves to grow on the north side of a building. Rhubarb and Lovage are a big, handsome plants that are perfectly at home in the front yard or back patio, with shade-loving flowers like bleeding hearts. You couldn't find a better "architectural plant" for the herbaceous flower border than either of these.
Of course, flowers themselves come from every sort of niche from desert to swamp. If you have evergreen shrubs that don't add much but greenery, consider a pollinator and beneficial insect border instead. Street frontage, lawns, and front porches are perfect for butterfly and bee habitat that provides pest control for the rest of the yard, but is pretty enough to please the pickiest neighbor.
Herbs are another category of plant that will live in marginal conditions that vegetables would disdain. Most familiar herbs like poorish, very well-drained soil, but others want the opposite—a marsh. You can take advantage of a rocky spot for Thyme, Sage or Grindelia, and plant Marsh Mallow, Meadowsweet, or Figwort next to your leaky faucet.
Self-Heal spreads by runners, making a carpet in shade. Instead of worrying about it taking over your herb beds, why not use it to carpet the ground under trees or berry bushes? Even a plant as aggressive as Mint can make a pest-fighting groundcover under big vines or mature trees. Vigorous bulbs like big daffodils and lilies (not tulips) pair well with peppermint, marjoram, or oregano as a groundcover. Next time you walk around the garden, lift your eyes past the boundaries to see what niches are boring, empty or filled with weeds. There is usually something interesting that needs to grow in just that kind of spot.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.