The Return of the Cottage Garden

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance and Other Essays

All I’d wanted for years was my own garden. Young and living in apartments, I’d gardened on the balcony in pots. In duplexes I’d plant a small garden only to have the neighbor’s hurricane-of-a-dog rip it up regularly. I just wanted something that I wouldn’t have to give up when I moved, something I could truly invest my time, money and energy into. I finally got my wish when I found myself back on the farm.

But this was not the garden I’d envisioned. This was a dry patch of weeds that no amount of water could rescue. I’d wanted an old-fashioned country garden, with gates and trellis features and lovely shaded pathways lined with flowers and low-hanging trees. Instead I found myself overrun with foxtail grass, fiddleneck tarweed, dry alkaline soil, and a few gnarled locust trees scattered about.

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They say every perennial garden takes two years to get established. Mine took at least that long, accounting for trial and error.

The cottage garden is best known in Great Britain and parts of Europe. More than just a kitchen garden or a vegetable patch, a cottage garden is often a work of art. A mix of herbs and wildflowers, vegetables and berry patches, no two cottage gardens look exactly alike.

Traditional vegetable gardens are square, practical, uniform. In a cottage garden, you can let plants go to seed, spread, and do what they want to do. Your edible flowers grow alongside grasses and vegetables, herbs alongside berries and trees. You find that cottage gardens employ the techniques of permaculture without even trying.

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In the old days, the cottage garden would feed you, would keep your house and clothes clean, and it would attract pollinators for your crops, too. You’d enjoy fresh salads and aromatic herbs and cut flowers and so much more.

The key to the cottage garden is to work with what you have, and focus on your native plants. While I still beat back the foxtail year by year, I embrace the yarrow, the rabbit brush, the lush green alfalfa with its purple flowers, even the sagebrush.

I found wild blue cornflower, best known as bachelor buttons, growing along the road. I took this as a sign that it would grow anywhere I let it seed, and I was right. With good water, those cornflowers turns into large bushes that bloom well into the fall.

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Once I defined my wild ares and landscaped areas, I choose small sites for new garden beds. This is where I dump piles of wood chips, add compost and manure, and I mulch with straw, year after year. The mulch and compost help the soil retain moisture, otherwise the plants in these beds would wither and die in the summer heat. Even with regular water, without a good groundcover the soil will bake in the sun.

These beds are where we plant lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, mint and more. Other beds are planted with yarrow, lavender, chamomile, calendula, salvias and russian sage. We’ve planted onions and garlic, and let them flower and seed. We’ve done it all in wild borders up against the house and along the fences. And, we have a traditional fenced vegetable garden that keeps the critters out.

The cottage garden is never complete. It is an everchanging tapestry from season to season. If you choose your plants just right, some will start to flower in spring, and as one bloom ends another will begin, changing your display straight through summer and fall.

Maintaining a cottage garden is time consuming, but not difficult. You’ll spend most of your time harvesting greens, cutting back perennials and pulling weeds as they crowd out your plants. To sculpt wild garden paths, you might find a weedwacker or simple lawnmower to be your new best friend.

Simply cut a path through a wild area. Let the grasses and flowers here grow tall, like a meadow. Mow so that you cut right to the soil in a nice clean line. Leave the grasses next to the path uncut and they will hang over the trail in a very natural way. Keep mowing this path, hacking up the grass roots, walk it regularly, and maybe lay some wood chips. Anything you don’t want to grow wild can be mowed in this manner for a neat and tidy look. Any self-seeding weeds or grasses you don’t want to return, mow them out of existence before they go to seed, and let some better plants take over.

Our front yard is a mix of yarrow and rabbit brush and looks like a wild desert meadow. The back yard is foxtail, and is mowed to the ground all summer long. In five years we’ve managed to keep a lot of foxtail grass from seeding thanks to frequent mowing and encouraging the spread of certain wildflowers.

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One of the best things about letting parts of your cottage garden grow naturally, letting your grasses get tall and your wildflowers go to seed, is birds will live on this all winter long. Even with two feet on snow on the ground, if the meadow grasses are tall they will poke through the snow.

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We see a lot of birds in winter, no need to buy birdseed. If you have a place in your garden for a natural wildflower meadow, cut a path through it. Look for native wildflower seed and spread generously in uneven clumps, follow tips on the seed packet. Collect new seeds and plant starts on your evening walks, and expand the everchanging landscape of your garden year by year.

Flowers, fruits, herbs, shrubs – the landscaping options are endless. But the reward is immeasurable. And flowers make your house look and smell so much nicer, too.

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