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Grow your own box scheme

Amazing grazing from Parham

The Telegraph, 7 Sept 2019

What could be more satisfying than ambling each morning into the back garden to gather up an armful of flowers for the house, and a basket of vegetables and fresh herbs for the kitchen? Not too much to ask you’d think. But how many of us have available space for a permanent cutting garden, raised veg beds, herbarium and floriferous borders? We may want our gardens to be all things to all people, but unless we are one of the lucky few, endowed with limitless acreage, we have to make choices, and that often means sacrificing a ‘must have’ on our horticultural wish list.

 

This is where the concept of the ‘grazing bed’ comes into its own, a dedicated space designed to cater for all of the above. Of course, you might not think such a challenge would ever arise in a large estate like Parham. And you’d be right. After all it’s not as if space is exactly at a premium here: the four-acre ornamental walled garden is flanked by seven acres of pleasure grounds and the whole estate comprises some 800 acres. Yet, there is one section of garden where this challenge – of maximising a relatively small patch to meet multiple horticultural demands – has become something of a creative endeavour.

One of the main features of Parham’s kitchen garden is its series of three-metre-by-three-metre square box parterres.  Bordered neatly by thigh-high walls of Buxus sempervirens, each of these ‘mini plots’ or ‘grazing beds’ is conceived and planted afresh each year. The raison d’être is threefold. First, to provide a diverse selection of food for the family and on-site restaurant. Second, to supply abundant seasonal cut flowers for thehouse. And, last, but not least, to echo the overall aesthetic of the gardens - think productive and pretty.

Planning

So where to start? First I come up with a distinct colour scheme for each square, and compile a planting list. My jumping off point is usually the colour wheel. Some years – for maximum impact – I’ve gone with contrasting hues (blues and oranges; yellows and purples; reds and greens). Other schemes have been more subtle, opting for adjacent tones. This year I’ve hedged my bets and mixed it up a bit.

Longevity is also important – I try to choose plants (not always successfully) that will give good colour and/or productivity right through the season. Then there’s the balance of ornamentals and edibles. For my first attempts I was determined to give equal billing, but this often proved impractical. I remember cramming one bed with curly kale, swiss chard, dill, parsley, courgettes, and pumpkins, alongside an equally abundant cast of annual cut flowers. 

The trouble was the courgettes and parsley got rather hemmed in by the hedges and swamped by their taller counterparts, which made harvesting a bit of a jungle expedition! Also, it’s often tricky to find veg that ticks all the boxes – namely tall, colourful, bolt-resistant and cut-and-come-again friendly.

 

The result is that lately I have upped the ornamentals and scaled back the edibles to a few select stars, such as the brightly coloured Swiss chard s, various kales, mini pumpkins and climbing beans.

 

For me, height is also a major factor. Again, due to the attractive, but in practical terms rather problematic, box hedges, I try to select tall cultivars, otherwise the scale can get all a bit Alice in Wonderland. This year I chose what I thought was a tall, showy, yellow African Marigold to grow alongside yellow climbing beans, blue Cavolo nero, Amaranthus caudatus ‘Green Cascade’ and Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Yellow Torch’. The seed packet promised 75 cm-1m in height, but the result was decidedly less statuesque. You live and learn.

Another issue is pests and diseases. I make sure I’ve got plenty of back-ups because slugs and snails and (god forbid) rabbits can deplete stocks fast. When it comes to using brassicas (ie kale) in the designs, there’s a few things to consider. I try to avoid repeat planting in the same patch (basic crop rotation). I also remain vigilant against the infamous cabbage white butterflies, which can strip a crop bare. Netting isn’t really an option in an ornamental display so it’s a case of mounting a weekly caterpillar patrol.

Growing

With my plan in place, it’s time to shop. January at Parham is seed buying time, and this is when I collate the extensive seed order spreadsheet and sowing timetable. My go-to seed companies include Plants of Distinction, Higgledy Seeds, Moles, Chilterns, Unwins, and The Real Seed Company. The sowing timetable, honed over the years, by taking into account previous successes and failures, dictates the schedule. First the hardy plants (scabiosa, Ammi majus, Daucus carota ‘Dara’) are sown as early as February.

The half hardies and much of the veg (everything from courgettes to zinnias) come later (usually May), as temperatures warm up. If in doubt a rule of thumb is sow approximately three or four weeks before you intend to plant out. At Parham, we sow under glass with a good seed-sowing compost. We sow into seed pans or trays or direct into modules depending on the seed size; large seeds, such as squash, sweetcorn and sunflowers are all best in modules.

The tray-sown seeds are then pricked out into modules once large enough to handle. Some are then potted on into 9cm pots; others will be planted out direct from modules. Everything is then gradually hardened off (acclimatised to the great outdoors) before planting can begin, usually starting in the first week of May for the hardier plants, right through to early June for the frost tender.

Planting up

Next, the beds, which have been mulched with organic matter back in the autumn, are weeded, lightly forked over and enriched with a high nitrogen fertilizer, before planting can begin. My first step is to create a central focal point: typically, an eye-catching climber adorning one of Parham’s hand-made birch ‘obelisks’. Over the years I have used mini climbing squash, climbing French beans, and all sorts of ornamental annual climbers.

Then the space is laid out in an informal bedding scheme, planting each variety in swathes (odd numbers). I aim to knit together the different textures and tones to create an overall effect of abundance. For spacings, 30cm or a trowel length apart is a pretty safe bet. I tend to work to a rough symmetry, so that the bed has the same aesthetic impact from whichever angle you view it. If you have open beds, without a barrier, remember to plant things like courgettes at the outer edges for ease of harvesting, and to avoid tramping over your masterful creation. Certain plants will of course need staking; cosmos, helianthus, scabious, dill, even tall kale cultivars. I create hazel cages for support when the plants are still small, which they can then grow up through.

 

At Parham the schemes that work best are those that spill over the box hedging so that a passing gardener can snip away ad-hoc to fulfil any last-minute catering or floristry requests.  And unlike the outer crop rotation beds, which need to be ‘topped up’ throughout the season, once the ‘grazers’ are planned and planted up, that's it; it's then just a case of coming and cutting again … and again, until the end of the season. And then we start again.

For an idea of how to create your own small, but perfectly formed, grazing bed, here's the planting schemes for three of this year's parterres: 

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Red alert

This bed is hard to miss. First, there's the cannas: four dramatic seven-foot high indica ‘Russian Reds’, whose arching burgundy leaves provide a decidedly exotic backdrop. These flank a central birch obelisk from which bright red climbing onion squash (‘Uchi Kuri’) will hang like glowing lanterns. Curly fronds of ‘Redbor’ Kale, and red and orange chard make up the rest of the edible contingent. The floral fireworks come courtesy of Amaranthus caudatus ‘Dreadlocks’ (a study in showy scarlet), and the bright oranges of Calendula officinalis ‘Neon’, Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Orange’, and Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’. In previous years we have also added ‘climbing’ green courgette, ‘Black Forest’, Cosmos ‘Double Click Cranberries’, Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ and Gladiolus ‘Zorro’ to the mix.

 

Cornucopia

This bed comprises a central grid of towering sweetcorn (‘Wagtail’), surrounded by an outer rim of Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant White’ and ‘Giant Lime’ (both selected as firm favourites from our 2017 zinnia trial for their height and sheer vigour), and the six-foot tall, carmine Amaranthus ‘Red Fox’, a strong architectural statement and a prolific self-seeder.

Lime cordial
This bed is all about the zing. The central obelisk supports French climbing bean ‘Blauhilde’, whose purple pods are echoed in the similar burgundy tones of ‘Redbor’ kale, Canna ‘Black Knight’, Nicotiana ‘Tinkerbell’, and Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Scarlet’. These are then set in a sea of almost phosphorescent green, thanks to two more Nicotianas, ‘Lime Green’ and the taller langsdorfii.

Mellow yellow

Five tall hazel pyramids, clothed with the yellow climbing French bean ‘Neckargold’, are underplanted with a mix of blues, yellows and greens. The indigo tints of Cavolo nero, contrast nicely with Tithonia ‘Yellow Torch’; Swiss Chard ‘Canary Yellow’; the shorter-than-hoped-for but still suitably showy African Marigold, Tagetes ‘Spinning Wheel’; and Amaranthus ‘Green Cascade’. I am still waiting for the ‘Blue Angel’s Trumpet’ (Acnistus australis) to do its thing; I’ve been promised six foot and showy – fingers crossed!

Photographs © Andrew Crowley