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Magical Planting for Your Garden

We all have our own vision of what a magic garden will look like, but perhaps the most frequently held idea is that of the English cottage garden with a touch of overripeness, a hint of the overflowing cornucopia of nature's beauties, a hint of the ancient and a hint of the kitchen garden. Whatever your soil conditions and type maybe, whatever drainage is like, this type of garden can usually be achieved with great success in most gardens in the UK and Northern Europe. I'm not going to go into depth about how best to prepare your soil for the plantings, there are many resources open to all, that already do that very well. Instead I'm going to concentrate on suggestions for planting, that you should alter to suit your personal tastes and the earth you have to till and how much work you are prepared to put into achieving your own enchanted and fragrant dell.


Of course any gardener knows that the plants you may grow with success, not only depend on your soil, but also the light; lavender will flourish in the right conditions but die quickly or not grow at all if planted in the shade. The micro climate of your garden, the changing of our climate, which shows itself more each year, are all considerations when choosing which plants to grow. Perhaps you do not mind having to frequently water your plants and so the increasing dryness of our English climate is not a big consideration for you, in your planting choices. Or perhaps you live in regions, such as Devon, which are still wetter than other parts of the UK; I am leaving you to choose what is best for your garden as there are so many variables and suggesting plants, herbs and flowers that are traditionally associated with a beautiful magical garden.

Plants native to the UK are usually of ancient lineage and so give a more timeless and mysterious feel to the garden. These also have softer colours, which look more lovely under British skies; neon brights can look garish not magical and usually are best left for those who live in climates where the light is brighter, which shows them off to splendid effect.

So what kind of effects are we trying to achieve? A magical garden may have a lawn at it's centre, perhaps of fragrant camomile, 'the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows,' as Shakespeare noted. There may be trees, sacred oaks 'where faerys do dwell.' If the lawn is grass, wildflowers, daisies and buttercups or cuckoo-buds, as they were anciently known ‘cuckoo-buds of yellow hue do paint the meadows with delight' are allowed to add their sunny beauty to the grass. This is a garden where Mother Nature and man work together in co-operation rather than man trying always to subdue her pretty whims. There will be herbs and wild flowers like flowering Thyme, Rosemary and Cowslip planted amongst the flowers, for their beauty, fragrance, medicinal and culinary properties. If you like flowering borders which are a traditional part of the English cottage garden, then you will plant in swathes of colour, allowing the plants to intermingle where they choose, like the confident and bold strokes of an artist's brush. Dappled colour mixes of borders are also beautiful and easier to do if space is very tight.

Cottage gardens are usually small, intimate spaces and so it should remembered that when we can’t plant far, we can plant upwards and this is an especial feature of the magical garden. If you have fences or walls or trees, plant up them, with tangled beauties of clematis, mingling amongst the branches of fruiting trees or your oak, smothering fences with the silken blooms of climbing roses. There is often a delicacy to old English plants that is what makes them so romantic and magical looking. Columbine for-instance, mentioned often in Shakespeare, looks so delicate, so exquisite, one might expect Faery Queen Titania to peer from behind one at any minute but her very delicacy and fragile beauty, means that to really get Columbine noticed and give that sense of lushness to your garden, it is an idea to plant her in large groupings as it is a sense of sweet profusion, of nature overflowing with colour, scent and plants, fringing paths, tumbling over walls, heady with voluptuous abundance, that gives that stunning feeling of magic, of nature that is healthy, not stinted, restrained, dwarfed, intimidated or cowering but happy, relaxed, carefree and blooming. Columbines come in many lovely pastel shades and add a real feel of ancient enchantment to any magic garden. In this your magic dell there should be a feeling of timelessness, as though perhaps this place has existed always, hidden from the world, a secret garden you have discovered, modernity is far from magical usually and rarely has that timeless feeling. Instead it often has a cold, unnatural harshness, metal, concrete, shiny surfaces, straight lines, unnatural colours, we have made ourselves too much present, imposed too much of our imperfect selves and our inventions into the natural space, like a beautiful and elegant room that has been strewn with cast off, dirty laundry, a feeling of our intrusion into somewhere sacred that we despoil; nature in a straitjacket is not the effect you want. Nature aided, supplemented, nature with a flourish is the ideal feeling we need to try and create for the magical garden.

rose cottage

What other elements should we bring in to add enchantment to our gardens? Mazes, statuary and fountains are all very well if you own parkland as part of your estate. But for the usually small, magical garden, we can add little surprises to add to the wonder of the timeless atmosphere. Brick paths, sunken into the soil and made from chipped and worn bricks can make paths of great timeless beauty, as though since time immemorial feet have trodden this way. The word maze and labyrinth have the same meaning, labyrinth being the Greek for maze. Our European medieval ancestors rarely constructed hedge mazes but made them instead of a single brick path. Labyrinths or mazes, are a very ancient idea, the earliest found being in Egypt and built by King Amanemhat III in 2300 B.C. Single path labyrinths were for meditative purposes and symbolic. Often constructed as a concentric circle, their meaning being, that as the person sought to find the inner circle, the centre, he was meditating upon how to keep from straying from the one true path and not to become lost and lose the right track in life. In 12th century churches these mazes were built into pavements. Much smaller tile mazes were also set into walls so that one could trace one's life path merely with a finger. The most frequent design used was a cross with rings around it. But if we have the back and strength, then a very intriguing and evocative addition to any magic garden would be a tile (small weatherproof floor tiles in an earthy colour) or brick path in our own design, winding through and decorating a camomile or grass lawn.

If you love sundials or small statues, place them carefully in a position that will not instantly be seen if possible and so surprise, perhaps peeping from behind a tree, flowers or around a corner. Live willow sculptures have that surprise and give that twist of the unexpected, endowing a special and bewitching atmosphere to a garden, as does anything which is novel, interesting and 'natural.' When placing seating in your garden, why not create a romantic and magical bower, by placing trellis or buying an arbour to place around the garden seat? Or you could buy a bower made from live willow that will leaf in spring and summer and keep growing, it's living magic transforming it year after year. If you grow clematis, roses and honeysuckle climbers up over your bower, you will have a fragrant and very romantic place in which to relax and get away from life's strains, that looks truly seductive. Anne Boleyn was known to love her bower, made from hornbeam branches and jewelled with roses. In a small garden the element of mystery, which adds to the magic atmosphere, can be hard to achieve, so where you place objects, seats, and ornaments is very important. You might think for symmetry to place a sundial in the middle of a lawn, but where is the surprise in that?

If money is no object, why not thatch any walls you have enclosing your garden, as they did in medieval days. This not only protects the wall from the weather's ravages, it also provides shelter for helpful insect life and our much loved song birds, who are now so endangered by our beloved household cats. Equally importantly, if you actually have a cottage with a thatched roof, thatched garden walls will be in keeping with your home and look very beautiful indeed. When choosing fencing and walls for a garden, beware, you don't want anything that looks too new. Try to have bricks used that are reclaimed, old bricks, with their subtle beauty and variation in colours will look evocative and very lovely. Or perhaps instead of a standard fence, you might try buying a living willow fence that again, will spring to life with leaves and pretty catkins in the warmer months.


Moss is nature's velvet, do not scrape it off stone planters or sundials, encourage it by painting any new stone ornament with live yoghurt. This is also a very good way to instantly age new concrete statuary and make them look fit for a stately home's garden. Of course if moss may become a slippery hazard on paths, scrape it off, but in all other places, stroke it, enjoy its rich beauty and sumptuous feeling beneath your finger tips, it adds to the timeless quality and verdant beauty of the garden. Or why not create a mossy throne, fit for the posterior of a faery queen and just as spell binding. To do this all you need is a simple wooden bench, painted with live yoghurt and a little time and patience to let nature enamel the bench with richest green softness. The Japanese appreciate the beauty of moss and rightly think it conveys a mood of peace, calmness and an archaic atmosphere. What could look more fantastical, than instead of poisoning the moss that springs up in grass lawns, rather to allow it to form a little emerald lawn beneath a rose tree, a carpet soft enough to tread on for the tenderest bare feet. Lichens too add their own beauty to stone and age wonderfully new concrete sculptures.

Now we get to the prettiest part, choosing the magically beautiful plants to create the bewitching atmosphere of a garden. To begin with, try to choose old varieties of plants, new hybrids can lose their character, their romance and become so tightly 'designed' that they look factory made and hardly real, unnatural. A magic garden is meant to change with the seasons, to be a sanctuary for wildlife, where nature can breathe. Traditional cottage gardens look ravishing with their displays of Hollyhocks, Foxgloves, Sunflowers, Michaelmas Daisies, Pansies also known as Heartsease, Bluebells, Daffodils and so on. Many people have written before about how to create an English country garden so I wont go over old ground here. But what new plants can you add to this litany of English beauties to enhance this pastoral garden and make it really magical?

daisy lawn

Try planting a profusion of Musk Roses, instead of modern hybrids; the scent of these was famous in Shakespeare's day and for good reason. Strawberries look as beautiful when growing as they taste, and make good companion plants when sown beneath roses. Think how beautiful that will look when they flower and fruit, the bright jewel red beside the scented rose petals. Honeysuckle, also known as woodbine, Lonicera periclymenum, climbing over a fence and creating a sumptuous tangle with climbing roses adds sweet perfume and magical beauty to the garden as Shakespeare said, 'So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle gently entwist...' Both Wild and Sweet Marjoram look delicately lovely in their differing ways. Sweet Marjoram is a pale emerald green ground cover plant, with aromatic leaves and looks wonderful planted together with Cowslips. Sweet Marjoram is perfect added to salads. Its sister Wild Marjoram is a flowering plant whose clustered florets of tiny flowers look truly romantic. Cowslips, as already mentioned should never be forgotten, not only is it a beautiful wild flower, as Shakespeare said, 'where the bee sucks there suck I,' in other words it provides a nectar that will encourage our endangered bumble bees to flourish. Cowslip was also used as an ingredient in that delicious old English dish, Tansy, which was a delectable pudding or omelette. Tansy should not be used in cooking any longer, although it is delicious, it creates toxins in the liver and digestive tract but it does make a very reliable insecticide. Tansy, also known as Mugwort, is a lovely perennial herbaceous flowering, sunny yellow plant. It is a very good companion plant, with cucumbers, roses or berry plants. Tansy repels ants, cucumber beetles, and other pests. Marigolds otherwise known as Calendula, when planted against green foliage or a grassy backdrop, look sensational and are a delightful addition to any green salad, as any Tudor would tell you, they are also very easy to grow. Lavender is of course a scented addition that always makes a garden fragrantly inviting, and is very lovely when planted besides paths, it's sweet and calming scent released into the air as you brush past it. Fennel has an airy, faery like presence when in bloom, as delicate and pretty as lace with its wisps of feathery leaves and tiny star-like yellow flowers. If you are a real nature lover and want to be generous and share your garden with wildlife, grow the endangered Lady-Smock. It is another delicately delectable flower, an herbaceous perennial plant, that encourages the endangered orange tip butterfly into your garden and is thought to be sacred to faeries too but is unlucky if brought into your home. Lady-Smock, with her silver white blooms, likes to grow near water. Shakespeare recommended that we grow Hyssop near lettuces or nettles, which nettles you may let grow in some tiny patch, untouched to make good soup. Hyssop is another gauzy, dreamily and romantically delicate flower with blue blooms that grow up an elegant long stalk. Hyssop has healing properties which were mentioned in the Bible and known by all herbal healers but which at last are being rediscovered by medical research. Mistletoe is thought to be very propitious, so why not grow some and allow the luck into your garden and home all year round. Amanita muscaria, or Fly agaric, a toadstool with a bright red cap, looks incredibly magical when grown, or rather when allowed to grow in damp conditions and would look wonderful beneath trees where it likes to spring up. But be careful as this mushroom is very toxic. So if you don't have children, it is worth encouraging for its bright scarlet cap alone, which looks like a toadstool straight out of a children's faery story illustration.

Vegetables grown in beds, amongst other plants can also add great charm and usefulness to the garden. Cabbages, however prosaic they sound, look wonderful, very ornamental and sculptural, like giant green roses, their beauty can't be missed and adds an air of the medieval kitchen garden to your plantings. Carrots bloom with the loveliest white clustered, delicately petalled flowers that look like confetti. Onions flower with stunning white blossom heads that form large pom-poms that remind one of a bridal bouquet and will not look out of place in any flower bed, but enhance it. The flowers of the potato are palest lilac with bright yellow stamens, making one think what wonderful plants these are, so good to eat and so very lovely to look upon. Snow peas in bloom have fragile, romantically gauzy flowers, that look like butterfly wings. Think of a vegetable that will grow outdoors in England and you will usually find it has stunningly lovely flowers too, which is why no doubt the first gardens in England evolved from the kitchen garden, the vegetables and herbs being so ravishing when in bloom, that people were encouraged to grow flowers simply for their blooms alone.

ornamental cabbages

Any witch will tell you, as farmers of yore knew and now are discovering afresh, planting, pruning, mowing and harvesting in the magic garden, should be done for best results according to the waxing or waning of the moon. This has been scientifically proven to aid growth and the health of the plants that we wish to flourish or eat at the height of their beneficial phytochemical potency. Lunar gardening reaps real results, whether you believe it or not, try it for yourself. So the best time to till and turn garden earth is during the last quarter of the moon, the decreasing lunar phase. The reason for this is that the water table is then at it's lowest level. Therefore there is less moisture in the soil, making the soil lighter and less heavy for you to heave about. The moon goes through a total cycle every twenty nine days. For lunar gardening this is divided into four phases. To be an efficient lunar gardener you will need a calendar that gives you the exact date and times of lunar phases. The new moon heralds the start of the lunar month. When the new moon appears in the first phase, from there to the full moon, the moon seems to grow until it reaches it's fullest and fattest in the middle of the month. This is the waxing moon.

During the waxing moon, sow your seeds and plants that are to sprout above the earth. Remember to repot your plants, both house and garden varieties. Now is also the best time to nourish the garden with fertiliser and to plant deciduous and evergreen trees. But when the moon wanes and seems to be dissolving, growing smaller and smaller in the night sky, that is the time for other garden tasks. Plant vegetables that grow below the soil and prune shrubs. Now is also the best time to be rid of pests like slugs and to grow your wild flowers. And don't forget to plant perennials and biennials and bulbs at this time.

There are thousands of flowers and plants that will add that delicate and mysterious charm necessary to create a real magical planting scheme. I cannot mention them all here, but hope that this taste of the herbs and flowers that can make a magic garden, has whetted your appetite, and encouraged you to bring nature's magic into your own special garden. But remember too, that whatever you love and has meaning for you, forgetting what any expert or style icon may say, will always create magic for you.

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