I wear all black, favor French existentialists, hate “The Notebook.” But I’m a sucker for English cottage gardens. That’s right-- the frilly, romantic countryside concoctions that stand in stark contrast to formal hedges at British estates.
Having moved from the rainy Midwest where I tended hollyhocks to desert-dry L.A., I promise you I tried embracing cactus.
Then in June I caught myself ogling cosmos—the Manolo Blahniks of the cottage garden. “Stop it!” I told myself in the aisle at Armstrong. I went home with a more sensible flat of bacopa.
Last week, walking the dog, I passed the garden on Viewcrest.
To paraphrase Pacino in Godfather III (okay it’s Italian, I mixed my metaphors...see why I like cottage gardening!): just when I thought I was out, the cottage garden keeps pulling me back in.
Informal, modest, willy nilly, the cottage garden is auteur gardening. More than any other style, it represents an intimate POV. One can tuck bunny statuary under a hedge of hawthorn, paint a mailbox blue and train David Austin yellow roses over it, let fennel grow alongside larkspur, fill a galvanized bucket with daisies—all in the same garden. Add spring bulbs, geraniums, strawberries, an old gate and a corgi and you’re almost in England!
NOW FOR THE BLAME
Traditionally thought of as the domain of the English working class—those without manors and caretakers--cottage gardens were a democracy of shrubs, bowers, old roses, tall stalks, vines, vegetables, orchards and beehives. Perennials thrived in rainy old England with its mild winters, not deadly-hot summers. Space was limited so the gardens became chock-full of plants with a nod to the practical—paths, gravel walks, and hedges or fences to mark off boundaries.
In the end, the English cottage gardens assert, “we may not be rich, but we still like pretty.”
Jane Austen swooned not only over eligible suitors but also family visits to country gardens filled with pinks and Sweet Williams, Columbines, pots of marigolds, peonies, lupins (sic) and mignonettes.
Gertrude Jekyll was the uncrowned queen of the English cottage look and many of her garden designs are still tended to in Kent, Sussex and Surrey counties. It is said Jekyll used this method to plant: she stood with her back to a border and chucked a handful of mixed seeds over her shoulder. Who can argue with that?
Of course we Yanks have found a workaround to the thirsty Brit icon and have installed more drought tolerant, natives and plants that thrive on Valley dryness and sunshine but still mimic cottage vibes.
Borders should be packed with plants that thrive in hot sunny conditions such as blue salvia bush, African daisies, saffron-colored spikes of Aloe marlothii, pink-flowering kalanchoe and red or purple pentsemon.
Movement is also key and heat lovers that will sway in the breeze include willowy white butterfly bush, pink sun-loving ornamental Persicaria, and native deer grass or festuca.
The must-have mix of colors might include the heat beaters lupine in luscious pastels, unfussy rosa rugosa in candy pink or yellow which can be looped over fences, and hardy bergenia with its loose spikes of bright magenta-purple flowers toward the back of a path inviting visitors to walk through.
WHAT TO DO:
Plant right up to your house. Make garden beds as wide as possible. Diminish front lawns.
Roses are a must. Modern roses developed by David Austin have been chosen for cottage gardens because of their old-fashioned multi-petaled look. Tie them to trellises or arbors at the gate.
Plant climbers such as honeysuckle, morning glory and sweetpeas.
Let plants die back and remain on the grounds.
Make a path that meanders so garden unfolds as you walk through it.
STEAL THIS IDEA: If your lot is too small for trees, espalier Crape myrtle or apple trees on fences or against a wall.