A little lesson in how to get an English Cottage style garden.
Skip right to the English Cottage Garden Tips.
I was walking down my street the other day on one of the rare May afternoons that didn't require wearing a wind protection helmet, and it started all kinds of awkward feelings inside of me. Not the walking around without my wind protection helmet, I was O.K. with that. I was jealous and inspired and motivated and shamed by everyone else's front lawn. Every time I turned a corner I saw another house with something my house needed. A new driveway. A coat of paint. A front yard that looked tidy. One house had a pine tree in their driveway but I don't think that was a gardening choice so much as a byproduct of the stupid wind. See? This is why we should all wear wind helmets when venturing outside on windy days.
So these yards around the neighbourhood look much better than mine. At the moment, you'd only see a yard like mine from the perspective of a news helicopter. "Yes, that's right Dan, just under our chopper is a home that looks like it's owned by a whackjob cult leader who is holding 22 hostages and 4 amputated turtles in their basement. Neighbours say they've never met the owner but are pretty sure it's a troubled person. I mean, the lawn says it all. Back to you Dan ..."
I can't be blamed for all of the mess. Well, actually I can, but let's not lay blame. 5 years ago I ripped out all of the overgrown shrubs, resodded my yard and filled the entire front yard with vegetables. You can see the disaster of ripping everything out to get it ready to make a vegetable garden yard here. You can see how nice it turned out in this post. The problem is I liked my front yard vegetable garden so much I decided to rent a 20'x20' gardening plot. Then the next year I liked THAT so much that I rented a 40'x20' gardening plot. The year after that I liked it even MORE and rented a 40'X40' plot. That's 1,600 square feet of garden space.
I didn't need my front yard vegetable garden anymore. So I planted fewer and fewer vegetables in it but didn't replace those bare spots with any plants. So in the span of 5 years my yard evolved from perfectly designed edible garden yard to kidnapper lair. Another part of the problem was pests. At my big garden I can cover everything in row cover or throw old milk crates over my melons to keep raccoons away, but when you do that in the context of a front lawn ... well ... kidnapper lair.
Get ready to call the authorities, lock your children up, avert eye contact ... this ... is my front yard today.
The black squirrel has been in that position for the past 3 months, paralyzed with fear. His squirrel sense is telling him whoever maintains this horror of a yard would surely catch, kill and stuff him if he shows any signs of life. He's right on the money.
This year I'm getting it back on track, even if it's just a quickish fix. I'll be putting in only 2 or 3 vegetables: a couple of tomato plants (one big, one cherry) and green onions. The rest of my available space will be filled with a riot of perennial and annual flowers.
Behold the side yard. Equally impressive. The rhubarb patch right beside the air conditioner is the Queen of the yard. NOTHING could kill it and every year it comes back stronger.
That air conditioner used to be hidden by a tree I had removed last fall. So I'll have to figure out something to disguise it a bit.
I'll do the yard in a Gertrude Jekyll style. If you don't happen to be up on your historic garden designers, Gertrude Jekyll pretty much invented the English cottage style garden. A casual balance to the highly structured and formal Victorian gardens. She was considered a bit of a madwoman at the time, which of course means she was a genius pioneer. Not unlike whoever invented salted caramel cookies I imagine.
I'm not starting with completely nothing. I do have a few good established perennials like Lupins, Phlox, Climbing Hydrangea, Lillies, Delphiniums and a few other things. Which are all perfect for an English Cottage garden. An English cottage garden looks a little bit wild in that it isn't perfectly symmetrical with everything lined up in a row, but really it's quite structured and well thought out according to size of plants, colour and textures. An English cottage garden for instance wouldn't have a border row of marigolds around it with a row of other flowers behind it. It's more fluid than that and more chaotic. Typically, English cottage gardens have a colour theme, a LOT of different plants and virtually no news helicopters hovering overhead.
(source unknown) For me this is too much colour but you can tell it's been boosted a bit in Photoshop by someone so in real life it might not be so riotous.
In order to get it done I've made a task list. THIS is what needs to get done.
Table of Contents
Weed control - holy crap - get rid of the weeds. I'll be using the weed rod from Lee Valley.
Edge the lawn.
Reseed and fertilize lawn.
Get rid of dead, overgrown or otherwise ugly plants (I'm talking to you sage bush)
Plant perennials and annuals of varying heights.
Mulch, mulch, mulch.
Sounds easy right? Yeah. That's what I think too. Which means it'll probably end up taking me half the summer.
Elements of an English Cottage Garden
- Structures are needed to evoke the feeling of an English cottage garden. Trellises, picket fences, stone fences, pathways and benches.
- Lows and Highs. An English cottage garden gives the impression of rolling hills with high and low points to plantings. Make sure you have climbers too for a real English Cottage garden feel.
- Close plantings. There isn't a lot of room between plantings in an English cottage garden but that doesn't mean overgrown. You have to maintain and trim plants to keep within their boundaries so the look doesn't go from controlled chaos to unattended.
- Blooms. Pay attention to the bloom time. You don't want a garden that's in complete bloom for 3 weeks and then nothing for the rest of the summer.
Flowers in the English Cottage Garden
- Roses ( I will not do roses again. I used to have an entire yard filled with roses and one by one they died due to whatever. The ones that insisted on living only did so for the first month of summer at which point they promptly lost all their leaves to black spot leaving a thorny ball of anger for the remaining 4 months of the season)
- Lady's Mantle
- Sweet Peas
- Morning Glory
- Scarlet Runner Beans
In truth, my plan is to have this done in 2 weekends, which providing the winds allow me to venture outside, should be doable. In fact, even if it is windy I'll just put on my wind helmet and march onward. It'll make gardening a little less pleasant (it's quite unpleasant being whacked in the face by garbage cans and air borne toddlers who have lost the grip of their mother's hand), but this is gardening where you have to be strong if you want to survive. I'm no delicate rose.
I'm a rhubarb patch.
Have a good weekend!
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Delurking to point you to "Buck" roses - they were developed to survive Iowa winters by ISU professor Griffith Buck. I had all kinds of roses die in my Illinois garden (damn you, David Austen!), but I've had a Buck climbing rose on my fence for the past 4 years and we are going to have to give it a severe lopping this year, as its taking over the yard/rest of the English garden.
I ADORE your grass covered with dandylions! I didn't even see the squirrel as my eyes were devouring the lush green grass with those amazing yellow balls of wonder. Had to go back and see what commenters were talking about and think that the real magic would happen when the tiny parasols were released to the wind in magical white streams of happiness. Yeah I did see some dead plants but that grass! and those great free vegetable greens just waiting for munching. Now that my shock is over at getting rid of all that - I simply adore English gardens - the best of all gardens - and since my own back/front door is being uprooted in a driveway concrete enhancement, I can concentrate a new tiny area to that very thing - my dream garden in just a few feet of space and you are here to help. HURRAY! for concrete enhancement. Now how to hide the family garbage cans at my front/back door. I have a mother-in-law suite at the back of my daughters home and share the cement walkway attached to the driveway with their back door into the garage AND the garbage cans. Lovely welcome site. I don't care but a pretty English garden would certainly divert attention. Can't wait for your update with lots of pictures and steps. Appreciate all that considering the garden plots you are caring for.
This is a random question, but I have observed that you can generally provide the answer to many plant related questions (or possibly your readers can). Years ago, I planted allium. For a few years it was great and then pretty much quit blooming. But, it didn't die but instead has reproduced beyond reason. I try every year to dig out those darned white onions but it isn't working. Does anyone have a solution?
Done in 2 weekends? Are you on crack? Did you forget that next weekend is Christie???
Haha! You really are great Karen! Thanks for being you!
It's the one thing I'm especially good at. ~ karen!
My battle with weeds got nipped in the bud last month. I have a back yard veg garden and a 3 yr birthing of a cottage garden in the front. This yr I put all my perennial herbs in the front so I can use one of the back beds as a nursery
Back to THE WEEDS. In a 2 gal sprayer I pour white vinegar. Spray directly onto the weed, even those tiny spreading one, being careful not to spray anything but the weeds. Choose a sunny day with no chance of rain. By the next day the weeds will be mushy, black and dead.
I carefully spray the top of the wood surrounds (very low pressure from the sprayer) of the beds. That keeps the squirrels from digging up my young herbs. Watch and respray the wood every few days til the herbs are established or the squirrels have given up.
A friend grew stupendously floriferous roses..any kind...She all but spit at them. How did they thrive? Of course she fertilized and watered in dry times, BUT she cut those suckers down to about 18" about June..every yr! Without fail. I did that to one of my knockout roses last yr. It worked!
This year I'm going to do that to my little re-claimed fairy rose.
Good luck, Karen. I know you'll meet the challenges. Looking forward to the results.
Vinegar is a great weed killer! I'm afraid to use it in the middle of my lawn. I'm not a great shot. ;) There's also a recipe with vinegar, epson salts and dish soap. I've never tried that one but I have used vinegar to good results. Sometimes takes a couple of applications for really big dandelions. ~ karen!
Your pending reality is, alas, only my dream. We live close to a conservation area from where 5 deer come to our lawns to lie down and relax after a feast of our entire supply of Hosta, followed by a good poop. Canadian deer obviously are not as appreciative of a beautiful garden as British deer. Sigh...........
I was just talking with relatives last night about all the plants they've lost to deer. I think I'm the only one who doesn't have a problem with deer using their front yard as a salad bar. ~ karen!
It's going to be lovely, and I'm sitting here feeling jealous in thirsty California, where it's all sage this and yarrow that. One thing I noticed in the gardens I visited this winter in the UK was that the really nice ones had some sort of winter interest -- branches in pretty shapes or colors, evergreen plants, and I imagine in your part of the world that would include plants that look pretty covered in snow. Have fun.
Absolutely. I should definitely have some sort of evergreen but I don't want to give up the space, lol. Maybe a few boxwood. ;) ~ karen!
Well, well, well. I thought I recognized that huge rhubarb and remember your tease about a Cottage Garden. Let's roll back the tape to August 2015.
I have been a reader for many, many years and follow with bated breath; anxious from the title of your post, through til the last comment. Amazed at 98% of the escapades you tackle with such aplomb, style, enthusiasm and always, success.
It was after reading your "front yard garden 2015" column about Beyoncifying your garden, that I finally accomplished a MiniKaren! My life was changed.
Whereas, I not only purchased the tools and necessary items for a project ala Karen, I USED them. Correctly. Yet with some trepidation. These plants weren't going to just sit there mocking me, as some purchases have previously. I assume that you are not like that. You never suffer from a purchase that emboldens you to make a change, yet the fear of failure of said project prohibits you from ever getting started. You do your research, eat some chips, arm yourself with what you need, pull up your boots, fluff your hair, aim your camera, then dive in, headfirst, cocksure, bold, confident and hilariously successful. I have long marveled at what you have tackled, and always wish I had some of the strength and courage that you possess. Ok, this is getting sappy. The point is, I would never be as hilarious, charming or gregarious as you, but if I attempted something you had accomplished, I'd be a little closer to being a confident DIYer. So, I jumped in with my attempt at cottage gardening. You sowed the seeds of a monster. Gardening is ADDICTIVE. I have to hide my seed stash from my husband, it's embarrassing. I keep on adding more and more curvy beds and clumpy gardens. We have a rule, I don't mess with HIS square veggie garden. Period. That's his rule. I also have an older, experienced gardening neighbor who constantly tells me my tomatoes and cucumbers do not belong in a flower bed, should be in rows, and my plants are wayyyyyyy to close together to be able to enjoy each one separately. I just nod my head, tell her I'm still learning, and think of you, my Ninja Garden Master.
I would love to seea step by step post. Been wanting to plan(t) it for ages but it terrifies me.
We're putting in a patio out front this year and for privacy reasons we decided to do an L-shaped planter to shield from the street. It'll be three beds: a 4'x12' base, 4'x4' corner box, and a 4'x15' to finish it off. I don't want to replant that space every freaking year so I'm going all periennials. This is what I've got:
Irises (because they're amazingly diverse in size and colour)
Heuchera (aka coral bells) because the foliage is interesting even when the flowers are done
Astilbe (I have some shade in one of the boxes)
The corner box is reserved for a climbing rose (off-white) that will hopefully grow over the pergola.
I picked up a spiderwort but I'm having second thoughts since they have a 36" spread but then die back completely after they bloom (spring). That's a lot of dead space to have for the better part of the summer. The colour pallet is white, pink, and purplish. I want hellebores in the worst way but the garden is leaning spring-heavy as it is.
Dear Karen, can you hear the sound of relief from most of your adoring fans (count me in)? After watching the pictures of your front yard (you brave soul!) I have come to the conclusion that you are human after all! One of us!!! 😁 Waiting with great expectation for your front yard reveal, as is with everything you do I know it's going to be spectacular!
This weekend (long weekend in Canada) I got it all weeded, edged, old plants removed, painted my porch, painted my picket fence and bought a few new plants so I'm on my way! ~ karen!
I LOVE English Country gardens!!
Cant wait to see yours - clearly it is taking longer than anticipated as I missed my post from you on Monday! ;-)
Monday was a national holiday in Canada. It was Victoria Day. So no post. :) ~ karen!
I want to buy the water weed whacker, but I don’t see a link on your website. Do you not get kickbacks from Lee Valley for sending people their way? Either way I’m getting it, but I did want them to know that you sent me...otherwise how will they know I’m special? 🤪
I also want you to know that by putting this weed whacker in my head, you have sentenced me to at least 4 weekends of up close and personal time with my dandelions...woohoo...😝
Hi Martina. I don't get any commission from Lee Valley. I just write for them and genuinely use a lot of their products. :) http://www.leevalley.com/en/garden/page.aspx?p=10418&cat=2,2160,40706 ~ karen!
Have you thought about knockout roses? They’re so easy, no deadheading required, I just whacked mine down a couple times a year toKeep them the size I want. You get tons of fragrant flowers, no black spot disease and very winter hardy. They grow like a bush.
I just purchased a heritage rose. :) My house used to be covered in roses. Honestly, they were everywhere. At least 12 varieties. But eventually most of them croaked and I pulled the last couple out a year or so ago swearing I'd never allow them in the garden again because of how disease and pest prone they are. The one that did well until it died from old age/cold was the heritage rose so I got another one. I'll never learn, lol. ~ karen!
I can’t totally understand. I said I wasn’t going to plant so many potted flowers this year.because of the time it takes to water them daily. But here I go again!
I feel Knockout roses are cheating but I did give in and plant a few as a foundation plant some years back, but hung onto the beautiful yet problematic David Austin Roses.
I have struggled with my cottage garden here in north Georgia outside of Atlanta. It always started off nice enough but the heat and humidity made it look ragged pretty quickly. But as the years have gone by I have adapted with enough native and near-native plants that I can keep it looking pretty most of the summer. In Southern cities such as New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston, the cottage garden is impossible, but here in north Georgia, I have adapted a hybrid of those lush tropical gardens and the traditional cottage garden. I try to do as little as possible during the intensely hot time of the year and get all of my planting done by the end of June and then sit back the rest of the summer and enjoy the result.
My greatest Cottage Garden Fail: I planted a trumpet vine near my house and watched it quickly grow up the brick and attract every hummingbird in the area with its large red-orange blooms. I had always read that flowering vines are a key element in any cottage garden ... but what a mistake; a handful of summers later I saw a sprout here and a sprout there but it was too late - the roots had become invasive, so invasive I had to get a neighbor to attach chains to his pickup truck and the foundation shrubs (which I didn't like anyway) and rip them out of the ground so I could get to the trumpet vines root with an herbicide so potent and toxic it makes Round Up look like Pepsi Cola. What a nightmare!