Cottage gardens have a long history stretching back to Medieval Europe and were originally the humble gardens of the peasants and commoners. Since these people usually had very little land to call their own, the gardens were usually a combination of everything the peasants needed to survive:vegetables, herbs, and a few flowers.
The gardens usually started right outside the door and meandered along the lane from the door to the road. Often they were enclosed by a fence or a stone wall to protect the garden from marauding wildlife.
Even today, a fence (split rail, picket, stone or brick) not only add to the charm of your cottage garden, it also protects the garden from children, pets and deer if they’re a problem in your area.
Gates, trellises, and flower covered arbors are also special touches. These too, serve more purpose than just being decorative. They add an air of mystery to your garden and turn your garden into a private oasis or even a secret garden.
It was common to see all kinds of plants growing together in happy profusion and abundance. Now, what once was created purely out of necessity has become a style of gardening. Cottage gardens are not just considered country gardens any more, though. They are also becoming the new urban gardens.
Many city dwellers have very little garden space, but still are interested in growing some fresh herbs, or a few flowers or their own vegetables. Cottage gardens can fill all these modern needs.
Typically, a cottage garden has a more haphazard look to it than more formal gardens and the look of it changes from year to year due to the fact that many of the plants are self sowing and may not come up in the same spot every year. Because of this your mulching habits have to be a little different too.
In a more orderly garden, I would mulch early in the growing season. This cuts down on weeds and provides a neat appearance to your garden, but in a cottage garden you need to wait for self sowing seeds to germinate before you mulch or you’ll suffocate the tiny seedlings that are just emerging in the early spring.
Although cottage gardens are not as manicured as more formal gardens, there is still planning involved. Spring is the perfect time to improve this garden. While your perennials are still small, do some serious weeding. This is the time to move some seedlings, too, that have chosen a less than favorable place to sprout.
If you’re sowing fresh seeds, scatter them between the clumps of your perennials. Dig in some manure around the crowns of your existing plants and dig up and divide plants that have gotten too large.
If you took notes last year, now is the time to move the plant that was too far back in the garden or overpowering its neighbor or you just want somewhere else.
If you know the habits of your plants, it’s a good idea to put your stakes or cages in the garden now. It’s a lot easier than trying to cage a huge peony when it’s already 18 inches tall.
Does your garden have a focal point-a bench, a fountain, or statuary? If it’s new or if you remove it in the winter, now is the time to set it in place.
What are the paths like? Depending on your choice of materials, paths can be casual and country looking or more stately and traditional. Choose something that matches your vision and will give you the most enjoyment. Gardens are personal and should match the style of the gardener. There are no wrong choices, but spring is the perfect time to create or change a path in your garden.
Many of the same flowers that make good cutting flowers are also perfectly at home in a cottage garden and the beauty of this is that no one notices if you cut a few blossoms for the vase in your kitchen.
A well planned cottage garden should have something in bloom all season, but don’t try to achieve this in the first year of creating your garden. It will take a few years for the garden to mature and since some of the plants are self sowing or biennials, they might not bloom in the first year. A biennial is a short lived perennial. It usually lives for two to three years and does not bloom in the first year. With a little planning though you can have biennials blooming every year.
When my hollyhocks, rose Campion and foxglove bloom, I always make sure that some of the seed heads mature and dry out on the plant. Then I take these seeds and sow them into the soil near the mother plant. Eventually, you should get to a point when you have both juvenile plants and blooming plants in the garden at the same time.
Watch your garden carefully. When you notice that nothing is blooming, it is time to make a trip to your local nursery. Since most perennials are sold when they’re blooming, you’ll quickly find something to fill in the gaps in your garden and although spring and fall are the ideal times to plant new perennials, they really can be planted most any time if you’re careful to water them frequently until they are well established.
Another way to keep some kind of control over your cottage garden is with deadheading. Should I or shouldn’t I? Well it depends on your purpose. If you want certain plants to multiply, don’t dead head, but if they’re starting to take over than be a little tough on them for a while and dead head frequently. Every few years, I have to be tough on my coreopsis, my love in a mist and my red pincushions. If I wasn’t, they’d soon take over the whole garden.
My milkweeds have to be kept in check also. That’s right, I allow milkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and occasionally even a mullein to have a place in my garden. I do this to encourage birds and butterflies to make my garden their home.
Many flowers that thrive in a cottage garden are favorites of small song birds; black eyed Susan and sunflowers being two of their favorites. Some other good choices that bloom during summer are garden phlox, bee balm, cone flowers, daisies, daylilies, larkspur, delphiniums, foxglove, cosmos, and zinnias. These are all basically sun lovers so make sure if you’re designing a new garden that you take into account the sun light your garden will receive.
Remember also that your fences can throw a shadow. If you plant something that doesn’t thrive ask yourself if its needs are being met. If you give a plant the right amount of light and water, it will thank you with abundant flowers. If not something needs adjusting.
In the spring, your bulbs, the flowering trees and bushes, peonies, bleeding heart, columbines and then roses will bloom. In the fall, you can depend on sedums and late blooming annuals for color in the garden.
Since cottage gardens are by nature more casual, they also are more apt to reflect the quirkiness of the gardener, which is fine. If you’re madly in love with that homely gnome, you can put him in your garden and he’ll find a welcome place to live-perhaps around a hidden corner to add an element of surprise to your garden.
In fact cottage gardens are full of surprises thanks to Mother Nature. She has a way of creating pleasing vistas that would be very hard for us to deliberately create or repeat.
After a few years, your garden should have filled in enough that weeding is no longer a major problem. Around the middle of the season you may want to top dress it with a thin layer of wood chips. These will gradually decompose and enrich the soil, but they will not prevent seedlings from germinating.
At the end of the season, shake some of your dried annuals before removing them from the garden. You may also want to dig in a little manure or other organic material (some of your fall leaves or compost perhaps) around your perennials and biennials. Now that you have spaces again, you can also add a new batch of bulbs to flower next spring.
Don’t remove all of your dried annuals though. Many have interesting seed pods and they provide both decorative interest and a source of seeds for the birds that winter in your garden. So now that the garden has been put to bed for the winter, it’s time to start dreaming about next year’s garden.
Perennial Garden Ideas
Sharons Cottage Garden
Cutting Flower Garden
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