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The Cottage Garden — Spring 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Informal plantings make the most of every bit of space

By Jodi Torpey

For nearly as long as cottage gardens have been growing, artists from Claude Monet to Thomas Kinkade have tried to capture the beauty of these charming landscapes. Their paintings depict rambling gardens framed by vine-covered wooden arbors and overflowing with roses, colorful perennials, and flowering shrubs. A cobblestone path typically winds its way through the garden to the door of a thatched cottage.

Such gardens are more than just a pretty place. In Victorian England, cottage dwellers planted simple gardens that were as beautiful as they were functional. These tightly packed gardens were planted to grow food and herbal remedies on small plots of land and included vegetables, herbs, hardy flowers, fruit trees, and small shrubs.

Even if you don't live in a cozy cottage, it's easy to cultivate the look of a cottage garden, whether it's a small bed in the corner of the yard or a long sweeping border. Just select a generous amount of plants and place them close together. Because a cottage garden is meant to look like a natural landscape, there are no set design rules. However, there are a few guidelines that can help you create that quaint old-fashioned look.

Before selecting plants for the garden, consider what will be the focal point or the area of design that will draw the eye, such as a tree or shrub, a birdbath, or unusual garden ornament.

Traditional elements of an informal garden are those that form the garden's structure such as arches, arbors, trellises, and pergolas. These architectural accents add vertical interest to the garden and should be made of materials that complement your "cottage."

A gated picket fence can be used for the garden's backdrop or as a boundary to protect plants from foraging animals, as was originally intended. A path made of stepping stones or weathered brick invites visitors to step inside for a closer view.

In selecting plants for your garden, all of the experts agree: plant what you like and include plants in a variety of colors and foliage. To get the look of a traditional cottage garden, place taller plants, such as shrub roses and hollyhocks, in the back of the garden and shorter plants, such as lavender, along the front border.

Just like in the cottager's garden, make the most of every inch of space to give the garden its untamed look. For the most visual impact, plant in groups of three, five, or seven and plant in flowing waves throughout the garden. Use a sequence of colors to tie the plantings together.

For authenticity, choose flowers found in traditional cottage gardens: old-garden roses, peony, geranium, delphinium, foxglove, cornflower, black-eyed Susan, poppy, daisy, cosmos, butterflyweed, hydrangea, lily, nasturtium and morning glory.

Gardeners can also add annuals, herbs, and vegetables with interesting foliage such as squash, rhubarb, chard, and ornamental cabbage.

Choosing plants that self-sow their seeds is one way to fill in garden gaps; another is to trade cuttings with family and friends — just as cottage gardeners have done for generations.

Jodi Torpey writes and gardens in Denver where her dryland cottage garden is filled with agastache, perovskia, salvia, potentilla, and hardy ornamental grasses.