St David is the patron saint of Wales and St David’s Day occurs on March 1st.
The idea for this article – Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons – came into being as I was creating a modern planting design in the weeks leading up to St David’s Day.
It was the juxtaposition of the modern planting, Medieval planting and monastic gardens that started floating around in my head.
Random as these things often are, the catalyst was the mention of Welsh cakes for tea on St David’s Day.
Or more specifically, being interrupted whilst working on the modern design with the request to make these griddle cakes!
So how did I get from Welsh cakes and a sixth century saint to the foundations of a usable garden design?
Firstly, a brief look at the monastic gardens of St David’s time. Then, how the Welsh symbols of daffodils, leeks and dragons could play apart in putting together a modern take on a sixth century garden. So that a relaxing, easy maintenance, wildlife friendly, edible ornamental garden can be achieved in the twenty first century.
Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons – the Monastic Garden
These early monastic gardens were not on the same scales as the later medieval gardens to be found in Benedictine monasteries such as that at Westminster Abbey.
The differences between the styles of monastic rules was to a certain degree reflected in the setting out of the gardens. For example, whether there were individual or communal gardens for the monks.
But one element was the same. The prime aim of the monastic garden was to provide food for the inhabitants. It should also have medicinal herbs and a place for a little ‘Garden of Eden’.
Simplicity was a key component of these gardens. they weren’t ‘designed’ in the sense that we think of garden design now. But they were designed to be practical and largely self-sustaining. The monks had many duties. Early Celtic monks travelled to bring the comfort of their religion to far flung communities. So while they were away, their gardens needed to manage on minimal attention. To be easy maintenance gardens, you could say. Many perennial crops would have been grown alongside the annuals. For example, Gooseberries and Apples; ‘greens’ such as Sorrel and the Chenopodium family.
Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons – St David’s Diet
Born in the sixth century St David was the leading figure of the Welsh Age of Saints. Of noble, possibly royal birth, he was educated at the monastery at Henfynyw under St. Paulinus and became a priest.
His was the Celtic version of Christianity and suited the times. David established many religious foundations, churches and monasteries during his lifetime.
Dewi Sant is the original, Welsh name for St David. But he had a nickname – Dewi Ddyfrwr, the water drinker, or Aquaticus in Latin. Unlike nowadays, when clean water is easily obtainable, and we are encouraged to keep hydrated, in earlier times, this was not the case. Although water was drunk, it was common to drink ale, small ale (a weaker, less alcoholic version) and wine (made from both grapes and easily picked or cultivated fruit),
History has it that St David was a vegetarian. This was not uncommon for the time; meat was not a regular meal for the majority of the population.
It could have been for religious reasons or it could have been for more practical reasons or even for his health.
A vegetarian diet, even in the sixth century, would not have been boring. Much use was made of wild gathered – foraged – food as well as that grown in the garden and field. For example, lentils are thought to have been one of the earliest leguminous crops grown in Britain. Parsnips and Bilberries could be picked from the wild.
Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons – the Modern Interpretation
Cloister gardens, kitchen gardens, herb gardens, paradise gardens, walled gardens, courtyard gardens. All these play their part in the interpretation. There is a strong feeling of continuity looking back and seeing these simply structured gardens and comparing them to the busy Victorian gardens.
Then considering what needs to be different and what can be the same for a garden of today. What are the key points of our brief?
edible ornamental garden
We’re also aiming for a garden which is organic and has at least some elements of being:
The general design is based on a formal grouping of raised beds, paths and places to sit. These do not have to be symmetrically designed, but could be placed mainly to one side of the garden. This allows plenty of room for that necessity of modern family life, the lawn.
A seat in an arbour on which grow scented flowers, roses perhaps, would be a relaxing place to sit. To make it more ‘medieval’ the seat could be built and planted on top with lawn chamomile, Chamomile Treneague. A scented cushion of perennial foliage to help you to relax even more. Or you could have a living willow arbour and relax ina sea of green leaves all summer long.
Raised beds, edged with willow hurdles if you fancy keeping to the monastic theme, are important. Neatness is a frequent ‘want’ when I’m talking with clients and raised beds make a garden look neat. The repeating pattern of the beds gives a soothing regularity. Paths in between can be fun for children to run through, weaving in and out in different directions, playing chase.
Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons – The Flowers (and Herbs)
Harbingers of spring, Daffodils, or more properly Narcissus, are most definitely not edible, but toxic. Whilst you should especially keep the bulbs away from dogs and toddlers, this shouldn’t necessarily prevent you from enjoying daffodils in your garden.
There is such a range of flower shape and plant size, scents and even colours that you are almost spoilt for choice!
Bulbs are perennials, so planting daffodils in the borders will be minimal work once that planting is done. Add in some herbaceous perennials that they can grow through and you have a weed suppressing ground cover too.
Herbs are a critical element if we’re taking inspiration from monastic gardens. if any of you have read the books or watched the TV series about Brother Cadfael, you’ll know he made great use of his herb garden.
Low hedges of perennial, evergreen herbs make an attractive aromatic, year-round feature in your garden. Lavender, Rosemary and Thyme would be obvious choices, but Teuchrium germander, or Teuchrium chamaedrys is traditional for medieval gardens. This has pretty blue-purple flowers in summer that are loved by bees.
Roses have a long history in gardens. The roses St David would have known would have flowered once. Most would have produced rose hips after flowering which would have been used in medicinal remedies. Thanks to modern rose breeding, we can enjoy roses which have the look of old varieties but flower over a longer season. And yes, some will also provide rose hips after their last flush of flowers.
Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons – The Vegetables (and Fruit)
Leeks are members of the Allium or onion family. Perhaps not the first vegetables that spring to mind for an ornamental kitchen garden, there are some decorative varieties out there, such as Leek ‘Cumbria’.
All the fruit trees will provide you with spring blossom as well as fruit. Whilst you may not have a garden large enough for a separate orchard, you probably have room for one standard fruit tree or a few cordons or decorative espalier trees.
If you’re not a great eater of tree fruit, why not grow strawberries?
Perennial and evergreen vegetables and herbs which provide ‘greens’ for casseroles and salads are such a useful and easy maintenance addition to the vegetable garden. Yet many people are unaware of their virtues.
For example, Sorrel, Rumex acetosa,will die back in a hard winter when standing in the vegetable patch. But it should give you delicately citrus greens in early spring if you keep one piece under cover. Perpetual spinach gives a constant supply of green leaves for the pot, although the older leaves have less taste they still have nutrients. A prettier and tasty winter standing, perennial leafy vegetable is rainbow chard.
Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons – The Dragons
No I haven’t gone totally mad. I’m suggesting cute dragon garden ornaments (you could get a red dragon – Y Ddraig Goch to give it its Welsh name)
Or plants with dragon in their name. Try Hosta ‘Dragons tails’, Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’ for foliage plants.
Antirrhinum – Snapdragons – for fun flowers. Do you remember ‘snapping’ the flowers so the ‘jaws’ opened and closed when you were a child?
And you could grow the hot chilli pepper ‘dragons breath’ to have in your greenhouse.
Garden Design Inspiration – Daffodils, Leeks, Dragons
This has been a window into to show how I may be inspired when creating garden designs and planting designs. I’ve given you a few ideas to get you thinking and dreaming and planning too.
It is, as I say just a beginning. There is a lot more to a garden design than the first few thoughts. But it all begins somewhere…
And as for that modern planting design, it had a fresh approach after writing this. they do say a change is as good as a rest 😉
Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog
Doves, Dovecotes, St David’s Day
Leeks for St David’s Day
Daffodils for St David’s Day
5 Miniature Daffodils for Pots and Containers
Daffodils – Heralds of Spring in your Garden
Knowing your Onions – Grow Your Own Gardening
The illustration at the beginning is by Rory Waterfield and was originally drawn for the Plews eBook “In Your Spring Garden”
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