Cottage Gardens

They did it to me again! Standing in the grocery checkout line, I couldn't resist the garden magazine with its cover photo of billowing clouds of colorful flowers spilling over rustic stone walks. Instinctively, my mind said, "I want my yard to look like this!"And so the charm of an exuberant cottage garden has once again worked its magic on this old garden veteran, just as it has every spring for as long as I can remember. And by the number of magazine covers with the same theme I see every year, I know I must not be alone.At first glance, a cottage garden will seem to be a disorganized and somewhat disheveled collection of plants: tall spiky ones; short billowy ones; flowers in an endless range of colors and scents; even some plants whose leaves are bold enough to make a flower unnecessary. Paths of stone, bark, even salvaged building materials beckon you to wander through. Along the way, flowers spill onto the walk saying "smell me" or "pick me." To a gardener, this translates to "plant me in your garden."Dottie Bender, a Spokane Valley Master Gardener who moved from Los Angeles 10 years ago, was bitten by the cottage gardening bug. After experimenting with an "English" garden, with its more formal structure, she found that she liked the casual exuberance of the cottage garden."I like all plants," says Bender. "I like anything that comes up and grows. I don't do planning on paper. If I like a plant, it goes in."In four years, Bender has converted a half-acre of horse pasture into a garden display of "any perennial or annual you can grow from seed or propagate."Get Away to the GardenThe appeal of cottage gardening goes beyond the bright colors of the flowers. For some people it's pure nostalgia; a garden they remember from another time or that was grown by a special person. And the reason we are drawn to cottage gardens -- and gardening in general -- is hardly new (see "Cottage Gardening: A brief history").In the bustling 1990s, gardening continues to be one of the leading uses of leisure time. When asked why there is such strong interest in gardening in this age of technology, Sherrie Guiles, a Spokane landscape designer and Master Gardener, responds that our lives have become so busy that we have lost touch with our roots."People want to get back in touch with periods in their lives that were peaceful," says Guiles. "For many of us, that was when we were young and had a grandmother, mother, relative or neighbor who had a garden where the plants were taller than we were, the flowers were bright and the tomatoes were sweet and juicy."Being constantly connected to our work, our friends and families through technology does not leave much down time when we can just relax and rejuvenate our minds and bodies. Gardening can be a powerful antidote to the beeps, squeaks and megahertz of our modern life.And since the cottage garden is less regimented than other formal gardening, you can get the benefit of creating something beautiful without that nagging need for perfection.One of the best descriptions I've seen of just what the hard-to-define cottage garden is appeared in a recent issue of Country Gardens Magazine. Deb Felton laid out the key characteristics of a cottage style garden. Her points provide a good starting point; after you gain some confidence, you can throw caution to the wind and do your own thing. The basic characteristics include:* A combination of perennials, bulbs and self-sowing annuals that provide color throughout the season* A soft color scheme of pink, blue, purple, gray and white* Plants that are allowed to tumble and cascade in loose, unregimented fashion* An appearance of disorder, encompassing a variety of flower forms* Simple paths that wander through the garden and define spaces* A focal point within the garden such as a small tree, bench, pond or garden sculptureAgain, these are starting points, because another characteristic of cottage gardening, perhaps best put by Bender, is that "there is only one rule -- there are no rules."Steps to SuccessClimatic and growing factors are important because plants do have a few requirements. In the Inland Northwest, we are blessed with a four season climate with warm, dry summers and cold, (usually) snowy winters. Our winter temperatures put us in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 5, or Sunset magazine zones 1 to 2, depending on where you live. Our summer temperatures make watering a necessity (unless you are willing to plant only native species). Our soils can range from sandy to stony to clay, often within a few blocks. Our growing season is short, so our selection of plants for the garden will have to take all this into consideration. In Dottie Bender's experience, that means putting in plants that are drought tolerant and can survive dry summers and cold winters on their own in sandy soil (see "Plants that work," above). Her success came as a result of a lot of trial and error, though. Bender experimented with plants, kept the ones that grew and tossed the ones that didn't. You can gain familiarity with the local climate through books, by talking with a specialist at a nursery or, like Bender, through good old trial and error.Lifestyle also has an impact on how you approach creating a cottage garden. If you are honest with yourself and can look beyond the magazine covers to decide how much time you really have to devote to a garden, your experience in creating the garden will be a very positive one. When in doubt, start small. You can always expand later.Start developing a vision of your cottage garden by looking for gardens that appeal to you. This time of year, you may have to stick with books and magazines, but as it warms up, walk around your neighborhood and see what other people are trying. If you happen to see the gardener out working, stop and ask them questions. Most gardeners I know love to share their experiences (not to mention their overabundance of plants). Again, when the weather improves, visit public gardens in the area for ideas. The Manito Perennial, Rose Gardens and Duncan Gardens on Spokane's South Hill are marvelous places to observe plants and their uses under Inland Northwest conditions. If you happen to be heading to Seattle, visit the Bellevue Perennial Border for ideas on how to use plants. And if you want to see a world class display of the full range of English style gardening, head for Butchart Gardens near Victoria, B. C. The displays in Butchart's world renowned gardens are considered some of the best examples of the range of styles within the English tradition outside of England itself.While you are collecting ideas, you can start evaluating your potential garden site. A key tenet of the philosophies of both Gertrude Jeykll and William Robinson, the 19th century creators of the cottage gardening style, was to weave the natural characteristics of a site into the design. They both used existing native plants, trees, meadows, buildings, streams and ponds as elements in their designs. What natural elements on your garden site can be woven into your design? For those who live on rocky hills, it may be the immovable rock outcrops. For those who have mature trees, it may be the shady spaces under the trees. Do you get a lot of sun in the heat of the day? Is your site exposed to the winter winds? What areas of your garden get morning, midday and late afternoon sun? How difficult is it to get water to your new garden site?Use your time efficiently and prioritize which parts of the garden you want to plant first. If you are going to have to bring in heavy equipment to move soil and rock or trim some mature trees, remember that as you plan. If you have a favorite view from the breakfast table or one that greets you along the driveway when you come home, consider planting your garden there and put in low maintenance plants in other areas. In my yard, I have one cottage garden that greets visitors along the driveway, another near the front door and a long one I can see from my kitchen window. The rest of the yard around the house is planted with evergreen shrubs or left as natural meadow that look good but take little care or water.Next, look at your soil. Take a shovel and dig soil samples from all the areas of your yard you are considering for the new garden. Is it sticky, heavy clay, sandy, rocky or, if you are really lucky, a nice loam? Finally, make friends with a good nurseryman at your favorite plant place. A knowledgeable nurseryman can give you a lot of good information and tips on growing different plants under different conditions, especially those that grow well in a particular soil type.Now it's your turn. I won't tell you how to arrange the plants you've selected, or where to locate a garden path, because then I'd be breaking the only rule of cottage gardening -- there are no rules.Sidebar OneA brief history of cottage gardensDuring the 17th and 18th centuries, garden-making in Europe for pleasure was largely an activity of the rich or royal. Their gardens were enormous spaces filled masterfully with formal arrangements of closely manicured shrubbery laid out to resemble an Oriental carpet -- one of the fashionable trade goods being brought back from faraway lands. In addition, great beds of colorful greenhouse-grown annual plants were "bedded out" in precise geometric patterns around the estate.By the beginning of the 1800s, Britain had replaced the continental kingdoms as the most powerful and wealthy nation in the world. With wealth and power came the status to set the style of the time -- in this case, it was the gardening style.The wealthy nation and its industrialists had the resources to send great expeditions to the far corners of the world to look for new raw materials and markets. These expeditions found "green gold" in China, Africa and North and South America. Green gold came in the form of thousands of plants never before seen. Exotic plants of every imaginable size, shape and color began to find their way into British gardens. Any English expedition worth its salt had a botanist on board for just this reason, and every time a ship returned to port, the horticulturists were as excited as the capitalists.At about the same time, the development of transportation and industrial machinery powered by steam kicked off the Industrial Revolution in England and the U.S., which ultimately spawned a middle class that had disposable income to spend and the time to do non-essential activities like gardening. By the mid-1800s, gardeners were turning away from the formal garden design of continental Europe in favor of landscapes that took advantage of the different characteristics of the plants. Given that many of the now wealthy gardeners grew up with gardens that were planted for food and medicine around their cottages, it is not surprising that this "cottage" approach to gardening showed through in the new styles.Two individuals blazed the trail to this new style in the late-1800s, William Robinson and Gertude Jekyll (pronounced Geekle). In his two books, the Wild Garden and the English Flower Garden, Robinson advocated the idea of using hardy native plants in a natural setting that highlighted the characteristics of both the plants and the setting. His theme was picked up by Jekyll, whose training as a painter led her to design gardens where the characteristics of the plants -- their flower and leaf color, shape and time of blooming -- were blended together to create three dimensional "paintings." In her masterpiece Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden, she laid out her schemes for the garden, month by month, and for different types of sites. Access to gardening articles in magazines (which were beginning to be mass produced and distributed at the time) quickly disseminated Robinson's and Jekyll's ideas through society.It did not take long for this new style to find its way to the United States, where it took hold with similar intensity. By the turn of the century, the English garden was a mainstay of a proper British and American lady's household, and its care was considered a fine social art. Lavish gardens were built on the estates of the rich and famous where they were tended by an army of gardeners. Even the not-so-rich or famous had their gardens around their new urban houses built with the wealth of a good paying factory jobs. Even through the frugal times of the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, the cottage garden doubled as a vegetable garden (aka victory garden) to see families through the shortages.The emergence of the environmental movement of the late-1960s and 1970s brought renewed interest in gardening as a way of "getting back to nature," and a whole new generation began to rediscover many of the secrets their grandparents used to grow their gardens.Sidebar TwoTime saving gardening tips* Mulch, mulch, mulch. If you don't do anything else, mulch your beds. Most of the work in a cottage garden (or any garden for that matter) is created by weeds. By mulching, you remove the light that weeds need to germinate. Materials like shredded pine needles (no, they don't add too much acid to the soil), bark, shredded leaves and grass clippings are all available in our own yards. A three-inch layer under and around plants will keep beds weed free the entire growing season.* Plant your new plants close together. If you don't want the weeds crowding your plants out, crowd the weeds out. I call this my law of the jungle.* Place plants that require more water closest to the source, be it a sprinkler, hose or where you are likely to pass by frequently and can give them a quick drink.* Look into installing a drip irrigation system for parts or all of the garden. Often the outer edges of a garden are missed by the sprinklers. A series of drip lines set in and around your plants will keep them evenly moist. They can even be adapted to an existing sprinkler system.* If you like to wander about the garden, set up some storage boxes in key places where you can store string, pruners, a small trowel or hand rake. I use old mailboxes set in the farthest corner of my garden to store clippers, note paper and a spray bottle of weed killer for those spots of weeds I have real problems with.* Spread bird or trellis netting over beds of plants under trees before the leaves and needles begin coming down in the fall. In the spring you merely have to pick up the net and pull all the leaves out of the garden.* If a plant needs to be moved but it isn't the right season, tie a piece of bright ribbon on it so you can find it in the spring when it's the best time to move most plants.* For plants that need to be staked, save some of the prunings from woody shrubs and small trees and poke them in the ground in the early spring around the plants that will need the support later. The branches will support the plant and look much more natural than lumber or plastic stakes.

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