Written by Leslie Gregory Haukoos Photos by Michael Coons
There’s something so romantic about a traditional English cottage garden with its mess of flowers crowded together in delightful chaos. Herbs and other edibles are mixed in with the nonedibles as are birdbaths, arbors and, of course, rustic benches to offer a spot to rest or read.
Traditionally, this cacophony of color embraces the home it surrounds, bumping handsomely up to its walls and climbing up to reach the roof, cross over an arbor or grace a windowsill.
The whole picture exudes a sense of reckless spontaneity with a happy result. In truth, it’s usually pretty well planned so that complementary blooms are rubbing shoulders and, even with the ebb and flow of the seasons, the beds offer year-round color. But many English garden lovers admit they will literally toss flower seeds out into the beds and wait until the season warms up to see just where they landed.
The rest of the idyllic picture, of course, has this lovely mass of nature’s best surrounding an old cottage made of stone and set in the countryside where a few sheep graze on mist-covered hills.
That’s the fantasy. But no matter how much we may want it, we can’t import the English cottage garden to our thirsty, high desert suburb—not without adapting it. We can’t simply toss out seeds and let the daily fog provide the moisture they need to thrive. We live in drought country where we are urged to conserve each precious drop of water and where the local clay soil resembles concrete—not a friendly place for the delicate and thirsty blooms in Jane Austen-land.
But still, it’s so tempting to want that sense and sensibility here. To do that, however, one must translate the garden particulars from “English” to “California-ish.”
To do that, begin by isolating the elements that make up a cottage garden’s charm and adapt those elements to local growing conditions:
• Cluster flowering plants close together with no empty space separating them. Create small beds that butt up to the house as well as small island beds that you can plant generously. Then irrigate just those beds and not the surrounding areas. Avoid the formality of separating plants—instead, crowd them together for that happily chaotic result.
• Plug any gaps with colorful annuals, but you shouldn’t need many because you’ve planted abundantly.
• Don’t forget climbers, especially roses. (Roses tend to be thirsty so choose carefully and scatter here and there rather than lining them up like Buckingham Palace guards.)
• Plant herbs and veggies among the flowers.
• Substitute colorful blooming plants that are native to California or better suited to a drier climate yet still present bursting color (see plant list on page 29 for a few ideas). Though we think of hollyhocks and foxgloves as well as other blossoms native to jolly old England, many of the flowers in a traditional cottage garden are, in fact, imports from other places. Sweet peas are native to the Mediterranean as are trumpet serenade and love-in-a-mist. Choose flowering plants that come from areas with climate more like our own as they are already adapted to drier growing conditions.
• Lay down meandering paths with gravel, decomposed granite or pavers, and make sure your irrigation system is not directed on them to avoid wasting water.
• Use gypsum to break up dense clay soil in flower beds and mulch well to conserve water.
• Introduce the other garden elements that bring on the charm—picket fences, freestanding bird houses, arbors and rustic seating.
• Have fun with vintage and repurposed goodies from grandma’s garage that give the garden that been-there-for-ages feel.
It is possible to create a lush English cottage garden here in California with some smarts and a bit of persuasion, and for the result to be a source of delight and great pride—without prejudice.