In James Fenton’s book A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed, he not only explores the possibilities of creating a garden on a small budget and entirely from seed packets, he also advocates another kind of gardening entirely. He points out that most garden design experts recommend focusing first on structure, laying out the location of trees, large shrubs, ponds and patios, and then filling in the gaps with those little blooming things called flowers. The idea is that a garden should have good bones, and that annual flowers, as well as perennial flowers that don’t offer much in the way of structure when they’re not in bloom, should be seen as extras in a show whose major stars are trees and shrubs. Fenton argues otherwise, claiming that you should plant what you love, let the flowers themselves shine, and don’t get bogged down in ponderous graph paper designs and hardscape.
Actually, he later admits that there is a certain wisdom to the shrubs-and-trees-as-backbone approach, but points out that many of us don’t stay in one place long enough to fully experience the garden in its maturity, and besides, a garden built on packets of seeds is a perfect way to pass the first couple of years in a new garden, while you get to know the site, improve the soil, and figure out the unique microclimate of your property.
There’s something to be said for Fenton’s approach. I allow part of my garden to look perfectly boring all winter—no bones, no structure, no shrubs, no trees—because in May, it explodes into bloom and stays that way until October. I’ve planted all my favorite flowers there with just one rule in mind: when fall comes, there must be no large plant mass left to deal with. Everything gets chopped down to the ground where it sits, failing to inspire, never drawing praise, utterly lacking in curb appeal, until the following May.
The nice part about planting a garden like this—a flower garden that’s all about the flowers—is that the kinds of plants you’ll choose are likely to be very affordable. Cosmos, daisy, bachelor button, yarrow, poppy—they’re all available as seeds or inexpensive six-packs, and they’re so widely available that you can slip one into the grocery cart every time you walk past that little rack of plants outside the store and no one will be the wiser. Over time, many of these plants re-seed or allow themselves to be divided so that the territory you’ve devoted to them can expand. And if you decide later to make the garden more permanent and put in some of that “structure,” it’s no great loss to rip out some plants and move them or give them away.