A little lesson in how to get an English Cottage style garden.
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.
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.
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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