Why You Should Embrace a Chaotic Garden

Why You Should Embrace a Chaotic Garden

Here’s a secret: Gardening isn’t about plants. Plants don’t need us puttering around or deciding where they should live; they do a better job of it on their own. Gardening is about our hopes and expectations: planning a summer yield of tomatoes with nary a bug bite, or a solid hedge of sunflowers that the squirrels won’t use as scaffolding. For inspiration, we check out Instagram accounts of flower gardeners holding impossibly large snapdragon bouquets standing in a flower field, or the kitchen potager out of a Meryl Streep movie where the garden was so perfect, it turns out it was achieved using an entire team of gardeners who glued vegetables in place. Instead of aspiring to an impossible garden standard, I say we embrace chaos gardening as a way to reduce stress and bring fun back to growing things. 

You can’t control plants or the weather

The reality is that gardening can get messy. To realize a precise plan you have to be constantly weeding and feeding and pruning and planting, all within the tight confines of the summer season. You can’t control the sun or snow or rain in any given year, nor can you do much about viruses or fungus. If a crop fails, it can feel like personal failure. While gardening has been shown to reduce stress, it can also certainly cause it if you are too rigid in your plans, as many new gardeners are. Chaos gardening suggests that you just start sticking plants into empty spaces and see what happens. 

It helps to know about co-planting and invasives

Before you give in to total chaos, there are some rules you might want to think about. First, some plants coexist better than others. For instance, fennel does not enjoy the company of other plants. Brassicas prefer to stick together, as do nightshades. But within companion planting are wonderful bedfellows: Cucumbers love being with beans, and onions and tomatoes grow spectacularly together. Sweet alyssum and flowering dill benefit the vegetables around them. While thinking too hard about companion planting can be overwhelming, it can be as simple as looking at the empty space where you’re about to plant, say, a cabbage and seeing what’s around it. If there’s an eggplant, plant the cabbage somewhere else. 

You should also know if a particular plant will spread easily, like mint, foxgloves or berry canes, because they can easily take over a space. Invasives like bluebells can seem charming at first, but they’re very, very hard to control once they take root. While herbs like dill and parsley can perennialize, meaning they just spread and come back year to year on their own, they don’t take over a space and crowd out other plants like mint does. You can use plant identification apps to tell you what you’re planting, what’s near it and if it will spread. 

If you keep throwing plants at the ground, some are going to stick

What you plant will always be a mix of perennial and annual plants, meaning that some will come back year to year, and some will likely die after a season. It’s been my personal experience that if you just keep sticking plants into empty spaces, over time spaces feel fuller as the perennials take hold and you’ll find a few plants that should be annuals that perennialize anyway as you’re trying them in different spots. That’s the thing: Plants are excellent at finding the right spot for themselves. 

Chaos gardening creates less vulnerable plants

By spreading plants out across the garden you eliminate monocultures. This means it will be much harder for a crop to get taken out by a pest or virus, because there isn’t one giant target to hit, and the plants are spread out, so problems can’t spread as easily. In fact, spreading the plants out is better for soil health and plant health. An entire bed of peas is great, because peas fix nitrogen, but it doesn’t benefit any other plants, like the corn next door that desperately needs nitrogen. But if you interplant, they can benefit each other. 

Through chaos gardening the landscape takes on a much more interesting texture of different colors and heights and patterns. Around every corner is a new discovery or delight and plants that aren’t doing as well don’t make the same impact. If something dies, tear it out and plant something else, doesn’t matter what it is. 

Parameters can make chaos feel more comfortable

If you still want some control, give areas themes or loose rules. The area in front of my house is strictly for cutting flowers, but there is no order to what kind. Perennial echinacea mixes with annual zinnias and bulbs of every height and texture.  My flower wall along the edge of the property has only one rule: planting is by height, so the tallest plants go at the back. Asparagus and artichokes mix with 16-foot sunflowers and free growing foxgloves and tulips. In the vegetable garden, slow bolting cabbage lives with Egyptian walking onions and shiso, resulting in a show-stopping mix of colors and structure. When the cabbage is done, I yank it out and plant something else that’s around. Each empty space is just an opportunity to grow something new. You can even designate some areas for chaos and some for more orderly planting, if it’s important to you. 

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that gardening, while addictive, is supposed to be relaxing. While formal gardens with clean lines and obvious themes are beautiful, entire teams are required to maintain them. If you can relax a little and embrace a little more chaos, you may find more joy in your garden.


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