Gardening: The instant garden

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Suppose you are given a garden for six months, and pounds 100 with which to make it beautiful. What plants would you buy, and how would you get round the fact that you will seldom be there to weed and water them? Anna Pavord presents the ultimate low-maintenance source of beauty and edible vegetables.

Sunflowers were the stars of a quick-fix garden that I planted last summer for a friend who had a six-month lease of a cottage, running from the beginning of April to the end of September.

The brief was simple. The garden had to be cheap. She wanted it to peak in August, when she would be spending most time at the place. She wanted it to retain the atmosphere of an old cottage garden, with a mixture of vegetables and flowers.

The patch was roughly 20ft square, bounded by gravel paths on two sides. Once it had grown cabbages; now it was completely bare. There was no outside tap, so watering would be a palaver, and anyway my friend would be using the place only at weekends, except for the August stint. So this had to be a garden that demanded little upkeep, where the plants would be left pretty much to find their own food and drink. The soil was light and fast-draining.

The first things to go in were standard gooseberries, four of them planted down a boundary alongside one of the paths. This ate up the lion's share of the pounds 100 budget, but neither of us ever regretted the extravagance. The round, lollipop heads of the gooseberries, balanced on long, 4ft stems, suited my friend's picture-book image of what an old-fashioned cottage garden should look like. I egged her on, because I love them too. They were planted as soon as she moved in, so from the beginning the patch looked less forlorn.

At the beginning of April, too, I started off the sunflowers, two seeds each in a series of 3-in pots. Watered well, then wrapped in cling film, the pots needed no attention until the seedlings poked through. Nonetheless, I thought I'd keep them on my windowsill at home until they were ready to plant out. You need to be around at the right time, to whip the cling film off the pots so that the seedlings can stand upright. You can sow them earlier than April, but I was thinking of the August deadline for the cottage. Sunflowers generally take four months from seed to the start of flowering. If we sowed too early, they would peak too early.

Sunflowers have become deeply fashionable, the bonus for gardeners being that there are now masses of different kinds to choose from. I used `Moonwalker' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.79 for 40 seeds), a branching type about 4ft-5ft tall with pale yellow flowers. I also sowed `Full Sun' (Suttons, 99p), a more traditional, golden yellow type, and `Gold and Silver' (Mr Fothergill's, pounds 1.25), which has yellow flowers above soft velvet leaves of a silvery- grey green.

Sunflower colours range upwards and downwards from the standard bright yellow, to include a pale ivory and a deep, rich mahogany. They've been planted in cottage gardens for so long that we think of them as being part of our culture, but, like most of our garden flowers, they are foreigners, brought over from America in the 16th century. English gardeners first learned about them in Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde, translated in 1577 by the super-optimist John Frampton.

"It casteth out the greatest flowers," he wrote, "and the moste perticulars that ever hath been seen, for it is greater than a great Platter or Dishe, the whiche hath divers coulers ... It showeth marveilous faire in Gardines."

From the same part of the world, at about the same time, came the nasturtium, which I also started off in pots for my friend's cottage garden. I used two kinds, `Jewel of Africa' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.19) which has long, trailing shoots of marbled foliage, and `Empress of India' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.29), which is much bushier, with steely, blue-green leaves and deep, luscious red flowers. Nasturtiums are a gamble. Sometimes they get choked with blackfly. I've been lucky with them in my own garden over the last couple of years, and so was prepared to take the chance.

The plan was that the nasturtiums should cover the ground under the gooseberries, in a strip about 4ft wide. As an extra precaution, I pushed a few seeds direct into the ground there and put jamjars over them, to protect them from voles.

In May there was another spurt of activity when we planted out two widely spaced, staggered rows of dahlia cuttings behind the gooseberries. The plan for the plot was very simple. Everything was planted in parallel rows, in the old-fashioned way. The dahlias were all red, yellow or bronze, `Hamari Gold', `Christopher Taylor', `Alva's Doris', `Jescot Julie' and the like. Some, such as `Grenadier', had dark, purplish foliage. We also planted some slips of globe artichoke, which I'd detached from the sides of mature plants in another friend's garden.

These made a kind of informal hedge on the side of the plot furthest from the gooseberries. The slips needed watering in well, but on that light soil they made fresh root very quickly. They were there for their looks rather than with any hope of a crop, but two of the plants got going quickly enough to produce heads later that summer. That was a bonus.

Meanwhile, I had also sown seed of tomatoes and courgettes, raising the plants, like the nasturtiums and sunflowers, in single, 3-in pots. By the end of May, both were big enough to set out in the patch. We planted four courgette plants in a line next to the dahlias, watered them in well and mulched them thickly with mushroom compost. They got no more water for the rest of the summer. I'd chosen the courgette `Taxi' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.55) for its bright yellow fruit, and the plants' wide-spreading leaves acted as an extra kind of mulch, stopping weeds from muscling in. An outdoor bush cucumber would have done much the same job, but without the glistening splashes of yellow.

In the same late-May session, we planted out the sunflowers and the tomatoes, setting them alternately in a single row in the space that was left between the courgettes and the artichokes. The tomatoes were tall, cordon ones, the sort you have to tie to a stake and nip the side shoots from. Bush tomatoes would have been more labour-saving, but there wasn't enough floor space for them in the patch. And I liked the idea of the tall, stout stems of the sunflowers broken up by tomatoes, hanging with bunches of red fruit. `St Pierre' (Marshalls, pounds 1.06) was the one I chose, because its flavour is so good.

By August, the gooseberries had cropped, one of the bushes producing huge, amber-coloured dessert gooseberries with insides like pudding wine.

Undiscovered by blackfly, the nasturtiums swirled outrageously around the gooseberry bushes' trunks, regularly attempting to take over the path, as well as their allotted strip. But you can easily pick up the shoots and lay them in the direction you want them to go.

The dahlias exploded, though the rain that helped the courgettes to produce a bumper crop snapped one or two of the stems of `Hamari Gold'.

However, weeds never had a chance against the beefy foliage of the courgettes and the artichokes. Only around the stems of the sunflowers and the tomatoes did a little light hoeing have to be done now and again.

For a minimum outlay (without the gooseberries, you could have done the whole thing for pounds 20), the plot gave a long and brilliant display, as well as providing at least pounds 20-worth of vegetables. The vegetables were a particular source of pleasure to my friend, because she had never before grown anything she could eat, and hadn't realised it was so easy. Every tomato, every shining courgette was a miracle, as far as she was concerned.

Quick-fix gardens have to rely to a great extent on annuals. In this particular case I used nasturtiums and sunflowers because they bulk up more quickly than other flowers. In a smaller patch, a mixture of marigolds, poppies and eschscholzia might have been more in scale.

Get seeds from Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (01473 688821), Suttons, Hele Road, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QJ (01803 614614), Mr Fothergill's Seeds, Kentford, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 7QB (01638 552512), SE Marshall & Co, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2RF (01945 466711).