Living Outdoors By Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Writer
With its roots planted in practicality, the English Cottage Garden offers a
sense of sanctuary, nostalgic charm, and a luscious look in a limited space.
English gardening became well-rooted in American soil centuries ago.
Long revered in Virginia, its influence is evident from the small, geometric gardens of
Colonial Williamsburg to the formal boxwood gardens of large plantations such as Berkeley
and Shirley. Anyone fortunate enough to have toured England, a mecca for gardeners, has
been awed by the sweeping vistas of venerable estates with such imposing features as
bowling greens and towering follies. Equally inspiring, though, and ever so much more
inviting, are the little cottage gardens in every village with their romantic tangle of
humble, native perennials spilling forth from the weathered front doors to the rustic
gates. Today the old-fashioned cottage style has more appeal than ever people are
finding themselves drawn to these exuberant gardens for their nostalgic charm, therapeutic
value, sense of sanctuary, manageable size, and stimulating seasonal changes.
In the second half of the 19th century, the supreme patron of cottage
gardening, Gertrude Jekyll, was the first person to use the humble cottage environment as
a source of ideas for more important gardens. Before this, it never occurred to anyone
that a poor mans garden could inspire anything. An artist, horticultural expert, and
cultural historian, Jekyll appreciated the gardens value as a kind of historical
archive of plants. When affluent owners of English estates, who could afford to follow
each new, fashionable gardening trend, would replace entire plantings, the cottagers would
salvage their discards. These early recyclers packed their existing collections with old,
"outdated" cultivars that we now revere as antique. As a result, hardy edging
plants such as cottage pinks (dianthus), for example, still survive from
Chaucers time with colorful period names like "Sops in Wine" and
Incorporate buddleia to attract butterflies and hummingbirds into
your otherwise private sanctuary.
Miss Jekyll respected local craftsmen, regional materials, native
plants, and the flexible ingenuity of the modest plots. Since the illiterate cottagers had
not read the rules on gardening handed down first from the monasteries and then from
horticultural societies, they came up with their own practical solutions. Spacial concerns
forced them to go vertical, which produced a feeling of enclosure and intimacy, bringing
beauty, fragrance, sound, and all the the pleasures of the senses into close proximity to
be savored. This look, created by picket fences, stone walls, and arbors (either
rose-draped or practical jam and jelly producers), became popular in America in the early
part of the 20th century.
The luscious cottage look evolved from simple practicality, since plant
lovers wanted to cram a variety of flowers and useful herbs, fruits, and vegetables into
the limited space they had available. The key to the image of profusion is a variety of
plants flowering shrubs, herbaceous perennials, herbs, groundcovers, bulbs, and
pockets of annuals to fill gaps and extend bloom time. This packing of plants, even today,
actually proves to be labor-saving once a garden is established. Novice perennial
gardeners are delighted to discover their baby plants forming huge clumps after only a few
seasons. As they multiply, they expand in mass and literally support each other without
staking, so that the need for mulching is greatly reduced.
Use Native Plants
At Washington Gardens in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an inviting
gate beckons you to come inside.
The frugal cottagers being working class people rather than
lords of the manor did not have the time or money to tend temperamental or exotic
plants. They appreciated workhorse plants that could thrive on low maintenance. This old
concept has become more important than ever with todays busy schedules. Few of us
have a large staff of gardeners ready to do our bidding or the luxury of free time to fuss
over fussy plants for long. Authentic "cottage" gardening means planting things
that will grow in your locale without a lot of pampering. The pictures we see in books of
cottage gardens packed with delphinium and lupine that love the cool, rainy summers of
England would bake in Virginia Augusts.
If you live on a windswept coast, familiarize yourself with grasses
that maximize the rustling sound of the wind and get to know plants with an iron
constitution that thrive in sandy soil. If you live in high altitudes, it would make sense
that you might have more luck with mountain laurel (kalmia) than someone would at
the beach. Take a good look at the native plants that thrive in your area, less
appreciatively known as "weeds" in some circles. If they survive neglect, plant
them! Sweet peas, cornflowers, ox-eye daisies, and black-eyed Susans all thrive in
farmers fields imagine how they respond to cultivation.
Embrace plants that catalogs label "invasive" if they
thrive enough to become rampant, they must like their situation. (Your child or
grandchilds Spring Fair plant sale can always use your overflow.) Since forsythia
easily roots where it touches the ground and daffodils naturalize effortlessly, it is
tempting to take them for granted, but their bright yellow presence is an essential
trumpet of springtime. Yarrow, daylily, and sedum all contribute good substance and
reliable bloom with very little care.
Plant for Constant Bloom
Some perennials such as gooseneck loosestrife and gaillardia bloom from
Memorial Day to Labor Day, but most have about a six-week show of bloom. One of the goals
of the cottage garden is to achieve constant bloom through all the seasons. Foliage thus
figures prominently into any cottage scheme because it holds its form. Peonies bloom only
in the spring, but their full foliage makes a great companion to leggier plants and later
blooming bulbs such as lilies. Full-leaved hostas are the mainstay of the late summer and
fall garden. Artemisias gray foliage provides nice transition between colors and
textural interest throughout the year.
An all-white garden will take on an ethereal glow at night in
lamp light or moonlight.
Most Virginia gardens are spring showcases. The azaleas and dogwoods
are a beautiful backdrop for spring bulbs and creeping phlox, but as spring wanes, and
both the temperature and the bug population climb, many faint-hearted gardeners go inside.
Plan a summer focus a dwarf crape myrtle or a butterfly bush and then come
back strong with an autumn extravaganza when the cooler days are once again
gardener-friendly. Try dendranthemum, asters, balloon flower, and Japanese anemone;
you can also have a second flush of bloom on many spring-flowering plants when the weather
cools if they have been cut back and deadheaded properly. Give some thought, also, to
valuable evergreen perennials (such as hellebores, Shasta daisies, coral bells) and
to small shrubs that berry (like "Harbour Dwarf" nandina) or that retain seed
pods (sedum) for winter interest. You want your winter display to be more than a patch of
brown mulch, especially if your garden is at the front entry.
The traditional cottage garden is, of course, in the front yard. Never
use this American term "front yard," however, unless you want to produce
distasteful frowns all around as I did when I made this blunder. I was politely corrected:
a "yard" in Britain connotes a field or a barren lot (or, as a proper noun, a
police station). Refer, from now on, to your "front garden" or "back
garden" as you develop the inviting English cottage look. Turning the front wall of
your house into one side of the garden by vining is an easy first step it can be a
great cosmetic remedy to a non-descript facade. The ugly brick of my 1950s tri-level, when
painted white, became a pleasing backdrop for romantic treillage, windowboxes, and
climbing roses ("Zepherine Drouhin" and "New Dawn" perform even in
Enclosures Create Sanctuary
Found objects can establish a garden boundary and provide an interesting
backdrop for colorful vines.
Vines clambering upward soften walls, porch columns, and railings or
can frame a door or large window as a focal point. You must conquer any tendril anxiety
you may have at this point. True, wisteria and trumpet vine can become like tree trunks,
but are magnificent with the proper heavy supports. Such rampant vines can be kept in
check by pruning their main leaders, but manageable vines such as honeysuckle and akebia
can be held in place by large hooks or masonry nails.
The only fixed feature is a path leading from the door to the gate or
street entry. This main axis establishes a formal framework that will be informally
planted. The simplest treatment would be to line the walkway with classic cottage plants
such as hardy geraniums, primrose, ladys mantle, veronica, rose campion, phlox,
Canterbury bells or carpeting herbs that, when tread upon, emit fragrance. A fuller
treatment, though, continues the feeling of enclosure on the other three sides of the
garden by, again, going vertical. Install a fence or stacked rock wall along your street
side and watch old-fashioned hollyhocks tower to provide summer screening. If you cannot
afford to extend the fence or wall on the other two sides, plant a fast-growing hedge or
tall grasses to define your boundaries. The resulting garden "room," whether in
the front or back, continues the sense of enclosure that fits the modern gardeners
desire for privacy, makes the most of shrinking lot size, creates a sanctuary that brings
Nature closer, and reduces the amount of time necessary to cultivate a limited space.
It is important to start small as you develop a section nearest the
house or an intimate corner using a fence backdrop. For now, mow all the grass beyond and
expand later. Soil preparation is key to success with perennials. Beds dug at least 12
inches deep and enriched with composted materials and peat moss will be so thick and lush
that you will be inspired to add more space as you have time and money to amend the soil
carefully and thoroughly.
Create a Focal Point
Nestle a distinctive seat in your garden as a focal point.
When planting, never group fewer than three new plants arranged in a
triangle; they will eventually grow into a clump. The larger the scale of your garden, the
more horizontal your overlapping sections can become to achieve an interwoven effect of
informal drifts, the way they sow themselves naturally in their native habitat. Repeat
bloom and foliage colors along a border and from one side on the other to achieve unity.
Include a visual focal point, whether it is a birdhouse, feeder, or bath, a piece of
statuary, an interesting found object, or a bench upon which you can sit when you stop and
smell the roses (the plant most associated with the cottage garden).
It is no wonder this quaint garden style is experiencing such a
resurgence, for it seems to offer something for everyone. Though practical, its aesthetic
beauty is striking. Nostalgic, it transports us to a gentler, more carefree time (your
grandmothers garden come to life). Therapeutic, it soothes, yet can also stimulate
all the senses. Scaled-down, it fits todays building sites and provides a feeling of
sanctuary. Ecologically sound, it works organically with Nature to support the delicate
Web of Life. Finally, being perennial, it not only delights us with the life-cycle
continuum, but also, by multiplying reliably, it gives so much for such a small initial