The Cottage Garden

Part 1

Barb Mrgich
Adams County Master Gardener

(4/13) Cottage gardens are well-loved for their cheery, whimsical, informal beauty. There is no true definition for a cottage garden, except that it is bursting at the seams with an abundance of plants. Typical plants in any cottage garden might be reseeding annuals, along with perennials, herbs, vegetables, and flowering vines. Even small trees and shrubs have a place. Because they ignore most traditional landscape design principles, no two cottage gardens are ever exactly the same. However, if you want a truly appealing garden, think about choosing plants of contrasting heights, textures, and compatible colors.

Cottage gardens trace their roots to Europe. Early colonists brought precious plants and seeds of vegetables, herbs, and flowers with them on their treacherous journey to plant America's very first cottage gardens.

In today's world of super highways, big box stores, housing development and industry, some of nature's best gifts, such as the songbirds, butterflies, lightning bugs, dragonflies, and bees are declining at an alarming rate. Some might think "good riddance" to the bees, forgetting or simply being unaware that at least two-thirds of our food supply relies on them for pollination. Without pollination, the plant cannot flower, set seed, or produce fruit (food). In other words, much of our food supply is in jeopardy when bee populations decline.

So what does this have to do with cottage gardens? A great diversity of plants is the hallmark of a cottage garden, and a great diversity of plants is the basis of a good pollinator garden. When you plant a cottage garden, you are doing your part in providing needed habitat for many struggling species.

Because a typical cottage garden is packed full of plants and has little actual design, you will need something to give it structure and definition. This is where paths, fences, arbors and benches become very important. If you have a front yard filled with nothing but haphazard plants, chances are it may look pretty chaotic and unkempt. However, when you add these hardscape elements, suddenly it will look more inviting. A traditional white picket fence looks charming even before you do much else. Arbors create a welcoming entrance into your garden. A shaded bench invites a visitor to sit down and enjoy the view. Trellises and tall fence sections add height and give support for vines such as Clematis and American Honeysuckle. Garden art and statuary add focal points and interest; and, by all means, don't forget a bird bath or some other type of water feature.

Vegetables can also play a big part in your cottage garden. Instead of the traditional straight rows, try tucking some favorite vegetable plants among the flowers of a cottage garden. The flowers are not only attractive, but they help to deter garden pests that attack the vegetables. For instance, slipping in eggplants here and there among some strongly scented herbs or flowers may make it much more difficult for those pesky flea beetles to find them. Just be sure that vegetables are sited so that they still get full sun. A "teepee" easily made from poles or sticks lashed together at the top and planted with climbing pole beans adds interest to the garden, supplies dinner, and gives the kids a shaded place to play.

If space permits, plan to include some native shrubs such as American viburnums, hollies, chokeberries, and beautyberries. They offer a good supply of berries to attract songbirds. Some, like the hollies, have berries that last through the winter.

The best way to start any garden is to have a hardscape plan. Sketch out the size and shape you want your garden to be. Lay out paths, fences and water features. Even if you don't do everything at once, you need a basic plan to follow when you are ready to add more.

Always consider the soil first. Good soil is the backbone of any garden. Do a soil test and learn what you need to do to improve your soil. It is far better to spend a year improving your soil before you plant than to spend a year planting in inferior soil only to find yourself having to dig out dead plants and replant later on.

Once your plan is in place, consider where you will obtain your plants. Most vegetables, annuals, and even perennials are easily started from seed right in the soil. Planting from seed is far less expensive than buying established plants. Your best bet is to order from seed catalogs. They give you a wide choice of plants as well as valuable information about planting times and conditions. For instance, most perennial seeds need a period of cold weather before they can germinate, while others, like many annual seeds will die in the cold. Good catalogs will tell you these things and much more.

Garden clubs with their plant exchanges are a great resource for getting started with your own cottage garden. Got a neighbor or friend who loves to garden? Ask for some help. Speaking as someone who loves to garden and has done so for years, I love to help others get started by giving away seeds and seedlings. (And advice!)

In my next article, The Cottage Garden Part II, I will talk about specific plants that are easily grown and are attractive not only to you, but to the birds, bees, and butterflies.

Read other articles on ecological gardening & native plants

Read other articles by Barbara Mrgich