A repeating theme of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show was the chaos garden. Quite a few display gardens were crackling with pictorial meadows of intermingled flowers and herbs, rich with nodding flowers that practically sing out for butterflies and bees.
The basic idea is to use seed mixes blended with all manner of plants and let natural selection choose what thrives instead of the gardener.
It’s also top of the list of easy garden ideas readily adaptable to the home garden, big or small. Many an RHS Chelsea-approved trend is out of reach of the average gardener, but this is one of the few take-home ideas you can do on a budget, in limited space, or with next to no time.
All it takes is some excess seeds and a lazy person’s way of avoiding too much work. Let’s take a look at the first step you need to take to turn a patch of well-tended soil into a true companion planting of free-wheeling wild chaos.
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What is a Chaos Garden?
Put simply, a chaos garden is all the old and leftover seeds you have to hand, all mixed up together and tossed into a single bed or container.
The end result is a self-sorting tangle of all kinds of plants, growing close to how plants thrive in the wild.
It puts pollinator-attracting wildflowers right by fruiting plants and fragrant herbs that repel pests next to vulnerable vegetables that need as much help as they can get.
What are the Benefits of Chaos Gardening?
One of the most intimidating parts of starting new garden beds is the planning required. There’s a lot of emphasis on careful planning that can slow the whole process down.
The best part of a chaos garden is that it eliminates the need to draw up garden plots, schedule planting, or ensure you get your companion plants just so. It’s just a matter of getting the seeds on the dirt and watering them every now and then. Easy!
It can also offer a few low maintenance lawn alternatives. A broad swathe of native wildflowers, clovers, and low-growing herbs is a good way to fill an otherwise flat and unappealing area of the garden.
It’s one of the easiest rewilding techniques around that’s perfect for returning a bit of the land to Mother Nature.
What’s cheaper than the old seeds you already have? I know I inevitably wind up with extra seeds every time I crack open a bunch of new seed packets.
This is also a thrifty way of taking old seeds close or even past their expiration date and getting the most from them. Who cares if the germination rate is poor when there are just so many to go around?
They’re Time Efficient
Garden beds with well spaced plants often have lots of exposed area that invites weeds, allows evaporation, and is unproductive.
Mixing various companion plants into a single area produces a low-maintenance garden where each plant supports the other.
Get some legumes like peas, beans, or even flowering clover into the mix, and they provide nitrogen to the rest, so you don’t need to fuss as much with fertilizers.
Taller plants provide mid-day shade and even structure for climbing plants. Mints and marigolds drive away pests, and low growing cover crops like oregano smother weeds.
Other plants like nasturtium serve as sacrificial wardens, attracting pests to their delicious leaves and protecting other food crops. It eliminates many time-consuming tasks that otherwise suck up our time in the garden.
They’re Environmentally Friendly
Monoculture is a problem not only for farming but for the home garden too. When we grow only a single plant, it locks out the natural rhythms of the garden.
Beneficial insects struggle to get a foothold, including those pollinating the crops and others like ladybirds that hunt pests.
It means the gardener must use pesticides instead. Monocultures are also more vulnerable to disease, so we must use fungicides too.
We can reduce synthetic chemicals in the garden by letting Mother Nature do the work for us. And when we support vital insects like pollinating bees and butterflies, it has powerful knock-on effects for the world around us too.
What are the Drawbacks of a Chaos Garden?
Probably the biggest drawback of chaos gardening is its overall unpredictability. There’s no telling what plant types will take and which will falter.
You may not get a good range of different species or a mix of less-than-great companion plants that compete aggressively for the same resources.
Not all crops share space well, so you may spend a lot of time thinning out dense patches of heavy feeders or clusters where vigorous plants risk overcrowding each other.
You may also find that tighter growing conditions result in the fast spread of disease or pests. Getting too many closely related species growing too tightly together is a recipe for disaster. Root crops in particular have a hard time with disease when overcrowded.
They Have a Messy Appearance
While the wild look of a whole chaos of plants all helter-skelter between each other is the major feature and draw card of a chaos garden, for many, a random planting is an insult to the art of gardening.
If you’re all about carefully curating your own outdoor spaces with perfect prim flower beds and enjoying the predictable abundance of carefully chosen garden plants, this may not be the right technique for you.
They Produce Uneven Yields
A chaos garden is an unpredictable beast. Its bountiful harvests come when they want, often all at once and without regard for how much we can eat.
There are only so many different ways to get through an entire garden’s worth of vegetables when they all arrive at once!
Conversely, if the germination rate is poor for your veggies, you might have nothing but pretty flowers or fragrant herbs. The more methodical way to plant an annual vegetable garden is to plant the vegetable seeds at different times.
This is called ‘succession planting‘ and is a great way to ensure your harvest is slow and steady through the growing season. Chaos gardeners, on the other hand, must be ready to deal with a lot at once – or nothing at all.
Tips for Successful Chaos Gardening
Mix lots of different seeds…
Don’t be stingy, and mix as many different plant types as you can. The wider your variety, the less they will compete with each other.
You’ll see the best results if you have flowers with herbs with vegetables, as they all have different growth habits and needs.
Make sure you really blend them thoroughly and make sure the seeds stay mixed as you sow. You’ll need to ensure larger seeds don’t settle to the bottom of the mix, or it’ll all be smaller seeds clustered together at the start and the big guys bashing shoulders at the end.
…but use plants with similar needs.
While a big blend is ideal, keep it to plants that thrive in similar growing conditions. You’ll need at least a little careful planning to make sure they all play nice in the soil and light conditions you have to hand.
Cool-weather darlings like lettuce won’t do well in the full summer sun, and warm-climate herbs like rosemary or parsley will struggle in cool, shaded conditions.
Also, bear in mind how you harvest. Root vegetables need to be dug up, so if you want a rich wildflower meadow dripping with native plants, go easy on the spuds and carrots.
Likewise, if your main desire is a hearty crop of tomatoes and peppers, be sure to include clovers, peas, and other nitrogen fixers that will help their heavy-feeding neighbors along.
Water little and often.
One of the great benefits of a chaos garden is that they have excellent soil health that retains moisture well.
Once they get going, you won’t need to water as often, as the heavier cover and organic material that builds up in the soil helps everything stay nice and moist.
Bring in the goodies.
As each new harvest appears, bring it in as soon as you spot it. Regularly cutting back edible leaves and removing fruit as it appears prompts new growth.
The harvested plant will be spurred to produce fresh foliage, and neighboring plants will enjoy a bit of time in the spotlight.
How to Plant a Chaos Garden: Step by Step
Step One: Choose your location.
Start by choosing the chaos garden location of your own. Take a good look at the light available, the drainage, and your aspect.
Are you planting straight into the ground, or is this going into a raised bed or container? Each has its strengths and weaknesses to take into account.
Chaos gardenening with smaller crops and flower seeds is perfect for otherwise neglected random spots around the garden. It’s a fun way to fill those gaps between a more formal flower bed and a herb garden.
Step Two: Choose your seeds.
Once you know where your seeds are going, round up all your old seed packets and get sorting. Pull together all the random seeds that suit the light levels and upcoming weather.
Don’t be coy – ornamental and crop plants that share basic needs will comfortably grow together.
Step Three: Prepare your bed.
Before planting, it’s a good idea to check over your bed or container and prepare it for planting. Heavy watering is a must no matter where you plant, and most garden soils will benefit from adding some well-rotted manure or compost.
When planting into containers or raised beds, make sure your drainage is good. For raised beds and larger containers, I like to turn through some organic material like the compost mentioned above.
Smaller containers benefit from a bit of help, too – perlite is a great addition that promotes drainage and supports good root health.
Step Four: Prepare your seeds.
Next, prepare your seeds. Dump the selected packets into a large bowl and soak them overnight in a little warm water. Older seeds will have better luck germinating if they’ve been fully re-hydrated before they go into the soil.
Once the seeds are nice and plump, drain them with a coffee filter, paper towel, or fine-mesh sieve. Make sure your mix stays mixed, too – gently
stir as it drains to stop the smaller seeds from separating from the big ones.
Step Five: Plant.
Finally, the fun part – planting!
I like planting in the morning to give the seeds time to settle into their garden beds before the day warms.
Rake over the top inch of soil so it’s loose, then just scatter the seeds evenly over the surface. Gently smooth the loose soil into place with the back of the rake, water lightly, and you’re done.
How to Maintain a Chaos Garden
Chaos gardening has less need for constant tending than most, but yo. It might be a low-maintenance option, but there’s still work to be done.
- Regular watering is a must. Water as the weather requires – for most, this is a light sprinkling in the morning to maintain moisture.
- As seedlings appear, thin areas that are too tightly planted. Watch for taller crops blocking the light.
- You may also need to remove large species that threaten to crowd the bed if they’ve come up at an inopportune location.
- As the season progresses, watch for disease. Mildews are the biggest risk to a diverse area of plants, as they are opportunistic and will attack many different plants. Pruning back dense areas to promote good ventilation is one tactic. Applying a milk-based spray made from one cup of whole milk in a gallon of water is also surprisingly effective.
- Harvest as your crops mature, and remove expired annuals as they come to the end of their lives. While it’s tempting to allow them to become mulch, it’ll help prevent disease if you take expired crops from the bed and compost them elsewhere.
- For a self-sustaining garden, do not deadhead flowers and allow the occasional cropping plant to run to seed. My own chaos garden produced a few generations of lettuce unprompted. All it took was letting a few flower and go to seed.
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