The Wild Monastery Style Garden

By Angelina Williamson

When we moved into our current house the front garden was nothing more than painfully rootbound (but thriving) agapanthus and big amorphous shrubs that I nicknamed the spider condos.

It was the kind of inoffensive garden typical of rental homes and hospital landscaping and I couldn’t wait to rip it to shreds and put something better in its place. What I planted delighted the neighbors and convinced them that I put a great deal of work into it. This, in turn, delights me because the basis for my garden style is benign neglect.

I’ve decided that the name that best reflects it is “Wild Monastery”.

The components of Wild Monastery Garden Style are:

Monastery Garden Raised Beds

  • An underlying formal structure of raised beds inspired by medieval monastery gardens
  • A formal and symmetrical permanent planting of dwarf fruit trees
  • Lots of medicinal and culinary herbs, with special emphasis on pot marigolds
  • Edibles planted in among the herbs and flowers in an informal manner
  • Emphasis on reseeding flowers and herbs
  • An eager and joyful attitude towards letting volunteers reveal themselves
  • Application of benign neglect to affect a “wild” aspect to the underlying structure

The benign neglect was not (for me) an intentional part of my garden design, but has stemmed from a lot of physical and mental challenges that have limited my ability to keep a garden tidy and weeded.

At first it was a source of shame to me because I felt I was a poor plant steward and I was sure friends and neighbors saw it as a reflection of my untidy mind and emotions. To some degree it actually IS a reflection of my messy head and heart, but what I’ve learned is that when you let a garden grow wild, it allows some surprising magic to unfold.
I believe this is true of humans too.

My Method

Monastery Garden Beds

I start off by building raised beds that are evocative of the formal symmetrical beds typical of old monastery gardens. I’ve always used wood in for my raised beds, but since my wood beds are falling apart and I must rebuild them, I’ll be doing brick this time.

What raised beds do for a garden is give it a strong underlying structure of order. You can then maintain that order in a tidy way. You can play with the forms the structure provides with plantings, or you can let your plantings re-seed and spill over all the edges and boundaries.

After I build my underlying structure, I decide on foundation plantings. I always plant fruit trees (usually in the center of my multi-height beds), roses, perennial flowers, and shrubs. Things that are going to stay in place and provide the softer part of my garden structure.

I spend a lot of time choosing my permanent plantings. It’s a meditation of what I hope to glean from my hard work in the future, what I hope to taste, smell, and see. It’s a great dreaming period for me. I never know exactly what I will fill my beds with or what I’ll plant outside the beds until they’re built.

Filling in Spaces

Monastery Garden Plants

Once the permanent plantings are dug in, I begin to fill in all the other spaces. I lose my sense of reserve completely and try to grow everything that interests me at my local nurseries. I’ve built five gardens from scratch with different homes we’ve lived in and not a single one of them could grow all of the same things.

Each one has had different challenges and strengths.
Each one has presented me with a new learning curve.
So I plant everything I love and wait and see what thrives and what doesn’t. If things aren’t doing well, I have no problem editing them out. In contrast, when something succeeds, I encourage it to stick around for the long haul.

Re-seeding plants are essential to my gardening style. Calendula does marvellously well in my garden and it’s gotten to the point where there are so many calendula seeds in my soil that they fill every gap in my garden if I let them.

And why not? You can dry them, bathe in them, eat them, drink them, and also put them in a vase if you like. Other re-seeders I’ve established in my garden are Jupiter’s beard, nigella, erigeron, and borage.

Those aren’t the only re-seeders but those are the ones I planted myself that ensure I always have good stuff growing en-mass in my garden.

Benefits of Benign Neglect

Benign Neglect

Benign neglect is the only method by which you can truly develop the Wild Monastery Style garden. You must learn to un-cultivate. Let things go to seed. Let things grow tall and weep over the edges of order.

There’s a magic that happens when you let a garden you’ve carefully planned and tended to go wild. For me it happens naturally as my back goes out or I’m hiding inside for weeks during a heat wave and only going outside to do the bare minimum.

I know some people work hard to create cottage gardens that have an “overgrown” feel to them without having any of the weeds, but there is lost magic in that.

For me, the greatest gifts in all of my gardens have been the precious volunteers left for me by previous gardeners and birds. There are certainly volunteers that have turned out to be pests, and that’s the risk with letting volunteer sprouts mature until you know what they are.

Beautiful Surprises

Monastery Garden Surprises

In my previous garden a beautiful wild white violet popped up and it was in a weird spot, but I kept it there because I couldn’t bear the thought of risking it dying by transplanting it. For four years that sweet tiny white violet popped up in spring.

In the same garden, a hollyhock reached for the sky in a total surprise of pink that delighted me. In my current garden, a tiny curious sprout that looked like it might be “something” grew into a beautiful purple aster that’s still thriving five years later and has provided me with two more of them! Sweet alyssum carpets all the bare spots of soil every year—a gift from gardens past.

My neighbors tell me how beautiful my garden is and exclaim how much work I’ve put into it. I tell them I really don’t, that I really ought to, and they don’t believe me. We’re standing there together on the sidewalk and I see all the dandelions (welcome guests), patches of annoying clover that creates burrs, an ocean of sourgrass (another welcome guest in my garden), and so many evil privet sprouts.

Monastery Style Garden

What my neighbor sees are the roses in bloom, the lush marjoram mound, the pretty potted bay laurels, and the emerging snap dragons.

That’s the beauty of the Wild Monastery Garden style, it’s a place where chaos turns into magic, where even the dandelion is given room to roam and sometimes ends up on the dinner plate. You weed out what doesn’t please you when you have the energy to do it, and while you’re laid up with chronic pain or busy chasing dreams, the permanent plantings give everything else structure and meaning.

The Wild Monastery Style of garden isn’t for everyone, but if you haven’t yet found your own personal garden style and are still exploring, I hope you’ll consider how this style might bring more wild magic into your life.

If you enjoyed this article, consider checking out the following related pieces:

+ 25 Vegetables for a Medieval Potager Garden

+ 7 Healing Herbs to Grow in Your Garden

+ Winter Greens: Grow Mache in Zone 9b

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