Cottage gardens have a casual, informal look

August 28, 2013
Many spring-flowering bulbs such as crocus, scillas, snowdrops and species tulips bloom before the trees leaf out, so they will get enough sunlight to come back every year.

In the garden as in life, out of bad can come good. With that in mind our friend Kathy is using the installation of a French drain to replant the front of her cozy house snuggled on a woodsy lot. Kathy is much too busy living life to worry about weeding and pruning and all the other chores of a formal garden and is wisely opting for the more informal cottage garden or English country garden look.

Ah, but those trees. They shade and cool, they break the strong winds of the cape, but they also send out masses of feeder roots that suck up soil moisture and nutrients. Rather than fight the shade and tree roots, it is best to go with it and plant things that do well in dappled shade. Start the year with crocus and glory-of-the snow (Chionodoxa). Plant them both in masses for bright spring color. Glory-of-the-snow blooms early with starry, lavender-blue flowers that fade toward white in the center. Left undisturbed, both crocus and glory-of-the-snow often spread into dense flowering carpets.A mixture of daffodils will give up to two months of blooms even in shade.

As long as they get half a day of sun, they may bloom for years. Tuck in a few bleeding hearts for blooms in early to mid-spring. The summer cottage garden can be stunning with the easy and fragrant combination of Oriental lilies and ferns for classic beauty and romance. In full sun or light shade, from early spring to late fall, this combination looks as if it sprouted from the wild and will be a natural garden for years to come, all with little fuss.

The tall, flowing foliage of the ferns provides the perfect backdrop for the massive waxy blooms of the Oriental lilies. The lilies come in the bright white of Casa Blanca, the soft pink of Pink Pearl or the bold crimson of Montezuma. Or better yet, choose a mix of all colors of Oriental lilies. Plant them now right up until frost.

Many spring-flowering bulbs such as crocus, scillas, snowdrops and species tulips bloom before the trees leaf out, so they will get enough sunlight to come back every year. Mix in bleeding hearts, columbine coral bells, forget-me-nots and especially daylilies. Another good shade flower is the astilbe. These are rugged, easy-to-grow plants that shoot up colorful spikes of fluffy flowers during the summer. Plant astilbe in clumps of four or five or mass them in huge drifts almost like a ground cover. You can even cut astilbe for bouquets. Choose spikes that are half open for cutting. Cottage gardens are always associated with roses, whether shrub roses, climbing roses or especially fragrant old garden roses. They avoid the spindly hybrid tea roses. Among the cottage garden roses are the deeply fragrant apothecary's rose (Rosa gallica officinalis), whose wine-red flowers are grown for their lasting fragrance. Mix in a few damask roses, which are still the source of rose oil for perfume. The sprawling, bushy forms of old roses lend an informal look to your garden. For a modern take on old roses, try some of the David Austin hybrids which have that deep old-rose fragrance along with modern disease resistance.

Be sure to scatter a well-balanced organic fertilizer around your flowering plants every spring, and again once or twice throughout the summer. If tree roots compete too much with your flowers, you can try planting flowers in holes filled with soil or in containers above ground.

Most shade-tolerant plants do best in well-drained, fertile soil with lots of compost or organic matter, such as peat moss or well-rotted manure.

For the best effect, arrange plants in your borders with the tallest ones in the back and the shortest plants in the front. Remember that a cottage garden has a casual, informal look, so occasionally let a taller plant or a bushy one spread up and out.  As Kathy knows, sometimes it is the friend or plant that is just slightly out of bounds that makes the boldest statement.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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