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All About Cottage Gardens  
First a little cottage garden history. Cottage gardens got their start in England. The cottage garden of medieval England was a poor man's garden, where beauty was incidental to the plot's real purpose: to feed the cottager's family, while providing medicine, fabric dye, and scent to hide musty odors. The small yard was enclosed to contain animals. In the back yard a beehive sat under an apple or pear tree, next to the family privy. Chickens and a pig fattening in its sty shared table scraps, while contributing manure to the garden.

No space was wasted along the cottage walls climbing roses and berry vines rambled. Herbs and flowers spilled over the straight path leading to the front door. Here a bench allowed the cottager to rest amid the fragrant rose blossoms.

The vegetables that made up cottagers' staple diet--carrots, onions, leeks, parsnips--might be grown in neat rows, and cooking herbs, as in today's gardens, were clustered by the kitchen door. Otherwise flowers, fruits and herbs were a jumble of shapes and colors, most likely plunked into any available spot as the cottager obtained cuttings from neighbors or from the nearby woods.

Many of our favorite flowers found their way into the kettle: marigold leaves in stew, peony seeds as a condiment, primrose and Sweet William in wine and flavored drinks. Lavender freshened linens and was scattered on the floor with wormwood, to repel fleas.

Over the centuries, plants from exotic locales have been welcomed into the cottage garden. One of the most beloved flowers, the hollyhock, may have been carried from the Middle East by returning Crusaders. Far-flung trading in the seventeenth century brought tulips from Turkey and a host of hardy flowers from North America, like fall-blooming Rudbeckia and Helenium. Many cottage garden favorites like dame's rocket made the reverse journey to the New World, where colonial settlers eased feelings of homesickness by mixing old and new plants in their own gardens.

Our romanticized view of the cottage garden actually dates to Victorian times, when artists and poets idealized humble country life in reaction to the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution.

What is a Cottage Garden?
What do you envision when you hear the term cottage garden? If you're like most American gardeners, you probably conjure up images of thatched-roof stone cottages, hedgerows and quaint English village life. If you live in a suburban split-level bounded by chain-link fence, this fantasy may seem too remote to attempt.

It can be liberating to consider what really makes up a cottage garden. Actually, cottage gardens are mostly small, personal, individual, eccentric, spontaneous gardens created by amateurs.

Resourceful gardeners look first to native plants, which are hardy and appropriate to the region's style. Does this mean that a cottage garden in Georgia can contain native azaleas (rhododendron canescens) and a pine tree or two? Sure, with the addition of foxgloves, liatris, gaillardias, , butterfly weed, and a host of other cottage garden beauties suitable for the area.

If you've been growing flowers and vegetables among the fruit trees and vines, choosing plants because they're interesting to you, listen to this: You are already a cottage gardener! Following basic guidelines of seasonal bloom and size placement, you can fill your garden with colorful flowers and shrubs to please butterflies, bees, birds, and people. And remember, no garden is ever truly finished; experiment, learn from mistakes, and have fun all along the way.

Designing the Cottage Garden
Basic garden design principles apply to cottage gardens, but in a more condensed space. Give your attention to some major considerations:

Layout. Start with the bones of the garden: the trees and shrubs. If you have a sprawling old apple tree or red bud, make it the focal point of your cottage garden. Ring it with spring-flowering bulbs and place a comfortable bench under it.

To disguise an expanse of chain link, put in a boxwood hedge, flowering vines like honeysuckle or clematis, or a background planting of butterfly bush, Reeves spirea, Viburnum, holly - all perfect cottage garden choices. Indica azaleas and camellias work well, too, provided you use softer shades of flower color. Avoid planting your shrubs in staright lines. Stagger everything in the garden as if they bblew in with the wind and just landed.

Topiary is great for the cottage garden. Plant your clipped pom-pom at near an entryway. Run a climbing rose over an arbor at the back door or at the steps to a patio or deck.

Traditional cottage gardens feature a straight path leading to the front door - or back door. Along this path, the jumble of flowers and herbs progresses from low creepers along the path's edge to medium-sized plants in mid-range to tall shrubs and flowers along the sides. Truly spectacular flowers like ten-foot hollyhocks and Confederate Rose hibiscus are planted against the house or in recessed corners.

To achieve this progression from short to tall, start with perennials that will give structure and interest year-round. You can't go wrong with herbs; they're tough, attractive and only need occasional trimming. Lavender is in keeping with cottage garden style and looks great spilling over the path. Spanish lavender ithe variety we've found to be long-term hardy in zone 8. Woody shrubs like rosemary can occupy the middle ground, next to blueberry bushes, and perennial flowers like Malva Zebrina. Foxglove, butterfly bush, lantanas and Joe-Pye weed are good background plants that are also attractive to butterflies.

Spiky plants like iris, red-hot poker and mid-sized ornamental grasses such as Maiden grass add interest and structure to the garden. The plumes and seed heads of grasses, herbs and flowers can look spectacular.

Fill in with clumps of annuals like Spiderflower (cleome), zinnia and marigold. If you seed annuals directly in the ground, give them enough space and light to germinate. You may get some delightful surprises from self-seeders of last year's garden.

Structures. An arbor entwined with a climbing rose is a classic cottage garden image. Add a bench, a rustic gate, stone or brick path, birdbath and flower containers like window boxes, clay pots, stone troughs or tubs. Keep it simple, though.

Soil Preparation. It's important to start with healthy, rich soil since your plants, once established, won't be going anywhere. Ammend soil in the garden with a good compost ammendment such as Claycutter or mushroom compost.

Watering. When you water do so by hand with a garden hose, or lay out a soaker hose. Overhead sprinkling is ineffective and fosters disease, like mildew on rose leaves and many other cottage garden plants.

Plant Choice. Judicious choice of plants can give you an almost year-round display without visible gaps or unsightly dead foliage. Early bloomers like loropetalums, Tulip Tree (Japanese magnolia), Yellow Bells (forsythia) and flowering quince, bring color in late winter through early spring.

Spring bulbs (crocus, daffodil, and hyacinths) can be scattered in irregular splashes throughout the garden.

Sun-loving perennials such as Shasta daisy, Rudbeckia daisies (Black-eyed Susan), and Blazing Star (liatris), Pincushion Flower and Coneflowers are wonderful for summer color. Extend the show into with fall flowering perennials such as chrysanthemums, asters, and Toad Lilies. Shade-loving perennials such as the hardy ferns, columbines, heucheras, and hosta lilies are perfect for those shady spots in the garden.

The reigning cottage garden plant has to be the rose. Look for the hardier climbing and shrub roses instead of hybrid tea roses. A new series of rose gaining tremendously in popularity is the Knock Out rose - now available in three colors: cherry red, pink, and a light blush pink. Also available spring '06 are two new introductions: 'Carefree Yellow' and 'Home Run' (dark red with a yellow stamen). Both are similar in growth habit to Knockout (4' H x 4'W) and 'Home Run' is equally as tolerant to leaf spot and more tolerant to powdery mildew!

Here's a list of a few plants that are excellent for planting in your cottage garden:


Centaurea cyanus (cornflower)
Dianthus (pinks)

Hyssopus officianalis (hyssop)
Iberis (candytuft)
Lantana - blooms May to frost.
Scabiosa (pincushion flower) - blooms April to frost.


Achillea (yarrow)
Alcea (hollyhock).
Allium (ornamental onion)
Antirrhinum majus (snapdragon)
Asclepias (butterfly weed)
Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush)
Chrysanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisy)

Foeniculum (bronze fennel)
Gaillardia x grandiflora (blanketflower)
Hemerocallis (daylily)
Lavandula (lavender)
Liatris (Blazing Star)
Lonicera (red honeysuckle)
Monarda spp. (bee balm)

Rudbeckia daisies
Salvias / Sages
Santolina spp. (lavender cotton)



Late summer/fall

Anemone (Japanese anemone)
Chrysanthemum (Fall garden mums)
Echinea purpurea (purple coneflower)
Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan)
Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Keep in mind that this is a short list of mainly perennials.


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