Chaos theory in the garden

How much chaos is tolerable in the garden, and to what extent should we strive for order and its accompanying neatness? I’ve been thinking about this recently as I wonder just how many exuberant nasturtiums and calendulas I should weed out of my veg plot. When romantic tumbling cottage garden charm becomes untidy, is it time to be ruthless?

Colourful chaos – there are veg in there somewhere!

Ordered rows of veg and flowers can be both extremely practical and visually appealing, like well-turned out units on a military parade. Each veg group occupies its own space, and as a whole the crisp, clean lines exude efficiency and pride. Weeding and harvesting is easier, and there is less competition for space and light.

A stray calendula provides a resting spot for a colourful visitor.

There are no military parades in my plot this year, it’s more like an improvised demonstration of unruly students. A bit messy for sure. The amazing thing is that the veg still pull through, mingling with the flowers and popping up cheerfully yet haphazardly here and there.

Broccoli pops up!

There’s something lovely about seeing the veg like this, mixed in with everything else. You start seeing them as plants in their own right, with beautiful leaves, striking forms and interesting fruit. The grey-blue brocoli pictured here is a wonderful contrast to the greener growth around it. It has a strong presence and its flower head is not only edible but interesting, like a sedum.

Sweetcorn going strong.

One of the biggest stars for me this year has been the sweetcorn. I have just seven plants, grown from seed. They look as statuesque and handsome as any bamboo, and mine are just starting to show their feathery flower-heads. Beneath them is a magnificent courgette with massive marbled leaves, a great contrast with the tall, straight stems of the corn.

Courgette and corn combo.

Apart from the interesting effects of mixing the veg up with other plants and flowers, there’s also the value to wildlife. This year I planted some colourful varieties of echinacea and some salvia right by my veg area, and the bees and butterflies love them. The borage was also a huge hit with the bees, though it did get out of hand and sadly I had to pull a lot of it out. Perhaps it’s just a bit too unruly for a small space, and next year I should try to plan a separate borage patch nearby.

Echinacea and butterfly
The bees loved the salvia, backed by day lilies.
A dwarf sunflower – there is almost always a bee in here!

So overall, I’ve embraced a bit of chaos in my garden this year. The veg are still coming on strong, the flowers are doing their thing and the insects are definitely at home. It would be a good idea to keep a few straight lines in for paths and tidy up the edging, but apart from that I think I prefer my unruly students to the neat parades of veg, disciplined as they are.