A mass of purple clematis cover a lamppost, swaths of daisies wave in the wind and roses drape over a picket fence. It’s summer, and after months of neglect, cottage gardens are finally getting the attention they deserve.
Whether it’s on a lake, pond or other rural setting, cottage gardens vary widely, but all seem to emanate an unfussy attitude, evoking an informal harmony with nature. They tend to be populated with hardy perennials, interspersed with splashes of annuals and biennials for steady color. I recently surveyed a dozen cottages on Conesus Lake, part of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. Here are few ideas when you go about planning your cottage garden.
Trellises, arbors and pergolas beautifully accent many cottage gardens. One the most popular climbers are clematis, which depending on the region, bloom at different times from June through September. Depending on the type, they either grow on new growth, old growth or a mix of the two. So, consult your specific variety before trimming. All like “cold feet” or roots, and sun or partial shade. Some varieties need more help then others to make that climb. One small arbor I came across used clear fishing line, in a criss-crossed pattern, to support a pink-and-white striped Nellie Moser clematis. Another arbor constructed from grapevines, was draped a profusion of self-supported purple clematis.
Blend in natural and found objects: Along one road, I spied an old wheel barrel and then a small rowboat, both filled with container plantings. Nearby were two rain boots containing flowers. Roses covered a twig arbor made of locally sourced wood, leading guests from the driveway into the path down to the lake.
Take charge: Even if you’re aiming for that carefree, classic cottage look, it takes vigilance to achieve that balance. Original English cottage gardens got their look from self-seeding perennials, which spread easily. It was only later that gardeners exerted more control. A little too much neglect, and voila, vigorous plants and weeds can quickly overtake more delicate varieties, and ruin the look. I recently freed a bleeding heart and astilbe being crowded out by more aggressive neighbors.
Variety rules: Map out your garden by seasons, staggering bloom times. Also use different colors to accent each other. Take into consideration varying textures, forms and heights. My Mom uses plants such as hydrangeas, lilacs, Japanese Maples and a tree peony at her lake house to generate long-lasting visual interest.
Definition: Even if you’re going for that bushy look, your garden needs some kind of definition, like a picture needs a frame. It could be a walkway, a house or picket fence. And with the cottage look, often the more beat up the better. A rusty fence makes a perfect support for sweet peas.
Sure, cottage gardens require work, but if you find yourself slaving over it constantly, then rethink what you’re growing, and consider something that requires less care. The whole point of a summer retreat is to relax and a garden can be part of that.