The Experimental Garden
“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” – Janet Kilburn Phillips
I’ve been known to be a bit of a mad scientist at times at Glenwood Gardens. (No, really.) And I must say that it’s rather fun! So many people plant the same things year after year, and don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they have success with those plants, but sometimes you just get the itch to do something new.
At Glenwood Gardens in Highfield Discovery Garden, trying something new is always encouraged. I mean it is the Discovery Garden after all. It’s implied in the name. I’ve tried so many different plants and varieties, most of which I had no idea existed until I planted them out, and they have rapidly become some of my favorites. So here is a list of my top three favorite garden experiments that hopefully you can still give a try before the year is out.
Chinese Python Snake Bean
I mean, the name alone raises so many questions. Is it a bean or a badly identified snake? (It’s neither!) I came across this plant while prowling around in one of my favorite seed catalogs a few years back. The description and pictures of 4-foot gourds that would wrap around a trellis like a snake, if given the chance, was too much to pass up! So I bought a packet to try that year. I planted out five plants (only two made it to maturity, which I found was more than enough), ran them up the trellis and watched as these delicate, almost “party favor-esque” flowers emerged on the vine. As the flowers died, long green “beans” began to hang down from the trellis. They grew so long I could just barely walk underneath them without them brushing the top of my head. When I handed them out to our smaller visitors, they were taller than they were! We’ve had rave reviews of their flavor and versatility, so everyone wanted to try them. We ran out of them with in hours! It was certainly a success in my book.
Not only do we plant veggies, we plant the things your clothes are made of as well. We have planted both cotton and flax, with great success in the garden. It’s a welcome break from the tomatoes, carrots and greens we plant en masse. The cotton comes in three colors: white, brown and green. Yes, green cotton. It’s a thing. The plants produce this beautiful, hibiscus-like flower before closing up and producing a “boll.” The boll swells and swells until it pops inside out, revealing the soft fluffy material your shirt is only 60% made of.
The flax, on the other hand, is sown much like grass, rather thickly. It produces a thin, upright stem crowned in tiny blue flowers that produce the flaxseed my mother used to religiously sprinkle on her cereal. The seed is high in omega-3 fatty acids and is considered a health food. The stems, though, are broken and raked through these rigid spiky brushes called hackles and as they are broken, they grow more and more flexible until they become like “plant thread,” which is then woven together to make linen for your pants. Pretty neat, huh?
While I’ve only really talked about annuals until now, let’s try something that can last you for years to come.
If you lived in Europe for any length of time, you have probably grown familiar with currants. Now if you’re from the good old US of A, you’ve probably never ingested one. We have two white currant bushes in the garden and they have been there longer than I have! They hang out in the back of bed 19, quietly keeping watch over the garden in all four seasons. Currant plants produce this little cluster of grape-like berries that taste similar to grapes but tarter. Now, the reason you’ve probably never seen one is that until recently, growing currants in the U.S. was illegal. How could a berry bush be illegal, you ask? Well, it’s a bit of a long story.
You see, early colonists to America brought their beloved currants to this land. They cultivated them with great vigor, but this started a problem in New England. Currants can get a plant “rust” similar to how cedar-apple rust works. The rust (a fungus) spends half its life on currants, and half its life on pine trees. New England has many pine trees, but our pine trees had never grown up with the rust the currants carried, unlike the pines of Europe. They simply had no immunity. So, in order to save the pines and the lucrative lumber trade, the U.S. government banned the growing of currants. This ban was in effect from 1911 to 1966, although some states still ban selected currants. This meant an entire generation couldn’t grow, cultivate or even import currants! This made the plant relatively unknown, and for the most part, it is still a plant about which visitors ask “What is that?”
Yes, I love green beans. Yes, I love carrots. And tomatoes will always be a mainstay in the garden, but I’m constantly looking for the next unique thing to plant in the garden. Whether exotic, an old plant brought back or things you don’t even eat all, give a weird plant a try, and create your own garden experiment!
Nature Interpreter, Glenwood Gardens