The Citizen Gardener: Chaos gardening

‘Control is not realistic when it comes to creativity.’ Image: Wikicommons

In the beds at St Mary’s Secret Garden, we have grown accustomed to living alongside some uninvited guests. Verbena bonariensis standing proud in the mint bed, nasturtiums tumbling down the side of the strawberry container, a rogue fennel cozied in among the carrots. While these plants weren’t put there on purpose, it seems unnecessary to take them away from the places they have chosen to grow. The resulting textures and colours are joyful and, if you’ve visited St Mary’s, you will know it is not a place of order and control. It is a place for nature’s glorious chaos to thrive.

It would seem then, that we are right on trend. The hashtag #ChaosGardening is currently all over TikTok and has amassed over 13 million views. Popularised by the freshly green-thumbed Gen Z-ers, it champions a carefree approach to gardening, where seeds are merrily thrown around and Mother Nature is left to take the reins. Some of the most common videos are of people emptying multiple half-used seed packets into buckets of soil, stirring the mixture, and then throwing it all on to some bare soil. Others feature pet animals’ favourite outdoor toilet spots and the bountiful gardens that are created via their digestive system. One such video is of a little dog enjoying a snack of some pumpkin. The subsequent clip is the dog proudly standing at the bottom of the garden (his favourite place for some ‘alone time’) among a pumpkin patch – scatalogically sown by the wee pooch himself.

The laissez-faire approach of chaos gardening is centred on a live and let live approach to nature. Plants that pop up in unexpected places – carried by the wind, buried by squirrels, sown and forgotten in seasons past, whatever the case may be – are left alone, and via the haphazard spreading of seeds, more are encouraged to do the same. This style of seeding a garden can be used with any type of plant: flowers, fruits, vegetables, and grasses, which sets it apart from similar trends such as meadowscaping. It occupies the space between the cultivated and the wild.

Carrot seeds are sown (or thrown as the case may be) among an ornamental border, providing food, and beauty in one. Calendula seedlings are left to grow when they pop up in the cucumber patch, happily attracting pollinators too.

While the term ‘chaos gardening’ may be new, the concept is certainly not. September is seed-saving season. At this time of year you will find many a gardener wandering around their green space, plucking handfuls of ripe seeds directly from the crispy heads of summer-flowering plants and scattering them in the garden as they stroll. It is instinctive to many and a joyful thing to do with the tiny hands of children who tend to delight in the freedom of the mess of it all.

One gardener who praised chaos gardening under a different name is Jean Cooke. The London-born artist and unkempt garden enthusiast celebrated what she called ‘un-gardening’. Her paintings show the beauty in the mess. She said that she liked to allow nature to take its own path. Having a garden that she ‘ungardened’ was a way that she could have control by not having control. She saw it as a form of freedom. A way of spurning the conventional, formal ideas of what a garden should be to make way for a wilder unrestrained space. While not the antithesis of gardening itself, it was about taking a new perspective on what tending the earth could look like. Putting away ideas of ‘shoulds’ and ‘must’ and ‘it’s always been’.

Cooke understood that attempting to control an outdoor space is a fool’s errand, and a stressful one at that. Control is not realistic when it comes to creativity, but especially when you’re working with weather patterns and wild creatures. A garden is not your project alone; it is a collaboration.

This shunning of control and the embracing of the unexpected is at the centre of horticultural therapy; that is, the treatment of mental health issues through connection with nature. In a garden setting, we can see the beauty and the value of change. The chaos of the natural world can help us to accept our inability to control most things in life. Some seeds will germinate and others won’t, in accepting the chaos, we find the joy.

September is a good time to sow seeds directly as autumn sowing will produce bigger, more robust plants to grow and they will pop up earlier than those sown in spring. Direct sow hardy annuals, such as cornflowers (centaurea cyanus), coneflowers (echinacea) and annual poppies (papaver).

A quick chaos gardening how-to:

Plan zones

While chaos gardening is all about creating a natural look, you can plan certain zones where you want particular flowers or plants to dominate and randomly plant the rest elsewhere.
Think of the combinations of height, spread, and colour that will work and look good, and make little mixes of complementary blends of plant seeds to spread around together. Planned mixes of seeds for different zones of the garden are more likely to guarantee success than blindly emptying packets of seed around.

Plan a colour scheme

You could also be particular about the tones and colours or heights of plants you want to use, such as choosing to chaos plant a selection of plants with complementary or layered heights, textures and colours. This is a great way to introduce a garden colour scheme.

Work around a hard landscaped structure

You may consider structuring the garden beds by using hardscaping features such as a rock garden, a container garden, water features or simply hanging baskets to create zones.

Embrace weeds

Chaos gardening also involves embracing weeds. Dandelions were proudly featured amongst some gardens in the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year which is as good a reason as any to leave those sunshiney heads be.

Steph Goward is an ecological gardener and food grower. She is the postcode gardener for E5, a horticultural therapist at St Mary’s Secret Garden, and works with a number of gardening groups across Hackney. You can follow her at @steph_orla_gardens.