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English Cottage Gardening

Father of Impressionism, transcriber of light, shadow, wind, water and flowers, Claude Monet valued his paint brushes as much as his secateurs. Monet did not approach art for arts sake only; his tools fueled a powerful addiction— to gardening. When asked which painting he liked best– Monet made no secret of the compulsion “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece” he would boast. And beginning in 1883, every penny from painting went into the gardens he designed surrounding his home outside Paris. The landscape as canvas, this Frenchman is credited as one of most famous English cottage garden designers of all time.

Monet left snapshots or impressions of his English cottage garden for the world to emulate, capturing not only the look and the feel of this landscape style. And fortunately, this garden style, in full bloom right now, is perfectly suited to Oregon’s climate and horticultural abundance.

Much like the mounds of primary colors in Monet’s paintings, blocks of monochromatic flowers supply the charm, playfulness and sentimentality of the cottage garden. Annuals and perennials, planted in clumps—sporting romantic names —-Forget-Me-Not, Love in a Mist and passion flower— vie for attention as they mingle and sway in the wind. Stripping the land down to a bare canvas is not necessary; the method relies on working with nature, not against it. Yes, the cottage garden is full of verbs to describe it, but the mechanics behind “the look” are quite a bit less flowery.

The philosophy of cottage gardening is long on imagination and short on rules—hence the style was borne of rebellion against classical symmetry and discipline. The framework is more forgiving and inviting—full of emotion, whimsy and delight. But even a billowy, free flowing English cottage garden needs definition and that begins with its borders. The border separates the bare soil of your flower planting beds from the grass. Borders can be straight or curved, but usually line the perimeter of a yard, fence or stand alone as an island in the middle of the lawn. Planting beds can be a minimum of four feet wide but space for flowers take precedence over lawn. Outline your beds by laying out a garden hose in different designs– then take pictures, ruminate a while and show friends your ideas. Once you’ve decided on a shape and size, mark the outline with flour or landscape paint before cutting sod.

Then, you’ll need some walkways to mosey between the beds, luring people in. Walking a garden single file makes people uncomfortable, so make paths wide enough for two people to walk side by side to share the experience. The paths can be straight or winding, but always lead somewhere—either to a bench, door or a different vista, toward garden art, through a trellis or under an arbor. Construct the paths with organic materials— grass, gravel, hazelnut shells, mulch or slate to mimic the spontaneity of the style. A concrete walkway destroys the illusion of a “natural” landscape and brick becomes slimy and slippery in the Northwest climate.

Now, although this garden style professes to be au natural, it does employ tricks to fool the eye. Gardening always embraces success and failure, sometimes simultaneously—some plants die, some don’t show up at all or perform as expected. Fortunately, cottage gardening allows cheating to hide mishaps. Terra cotta pots full of flowers are placed —pot and all —directly on bare soil to provide fullness in the empty spots. A gazing ball moves in where the Shasta daisy petered out. Conversely, pathways, art work and fountains are used to pull your gaze toward a desired “focal point” while drawing your eye away from trouble spots like that behemoth air conditioner along side the house.



Planting flowers in a cottage-style garden doesn’t rely so much on landscaping as “cram-scaping”. Every inch of bare soil is covered with plants. This not only prevents weeds, the sheer diversity of plants bloom all season. In Monet’s garden, tulips, pansies and crab apple trees bloom in April. May brings flowering peony, rhododendron and delphinium, while roses, poppies and clematis vines debut in June. And so it goes until fall’s first frost.

The real key to cottage gardening is adding plants of differing heights to create volume.    Flowers are planted in layers to give a sense of depth—shortest plants in the front, tallest in back —plant tags on every nursery pot provide details on how tall and wide each plant will become. Go for groups of plants—perhaps in three’s—because individual soldiers lined up in precision appear out of place. Blocks of one plant interspersed around the garden provide uniformity, but similar colors planted together can give the same repetitive feel. This trick allows the eye a place to rest while flitting across a landscape chocked full of more frills than a hooped skirt.

Shorter ground covers such as nasturtiums, lady’s mantle and cat nip are planted toward the front of the garden bed followed by drifts of Penstemon, phlox, cosmos, Geum and daylilies. So, with shorter plants in front, mid-size mounding plants in the middle, taller spires such as delphinium, larkspur, verbascum, foxglove and shrub roses take up the rear. This effect makes a small space appear larger and makes a big garden more inviting.

Perhaps the greatest strengths of cottage gardening are individual experimentation and imagination. If something doesn’t suit your fancy move it, plants love shovel rides to sunnier or shadier destinations. All gardens take time to hit their stride—- this style and your style, need time to evolve. While waiting for the landscape to fulfill its potential, gardeners often console each other with the reminder that “First year sleeps, second year creeps and third year leaps” in the life of a cottage garden. The excitement comes in phases, watching tiny masterpieces bloom and take center stage month by month, year by year. As it unfolds, you tap into the power Monet understood — in the ambiance of a cottage garden your “thoughts” become visible and spread inspiration on the wind.


Plant June Plans

[1] Plant corn. OSU experts suggest “Butterfruit” for early ripening and “Kandy King” for a late summer crop.

[2] Fertilize lawns- look for fertilizers with 6-1-4 on the label. This tells the N-P-K levels of nitrogen as compared to phosphorus and potassium necessary for plant growth

[3] Prune lilac and rhododendron now to control height. You can safely cut 1/3 of existing growth without hurting the shrub.

[4] Show tomatoes some support. Loosely tie stems to trellis or garden stakes to hold fruit off the ground.

[5] Last chance to get dahlia tubers planted for summer bloom. When planting use bone meal instead of fertilizer.







*Classic Garden Plans (David Stuart)

*Armitage’s Garden Annuals (Allan Armitage)

*The Well Tended Perennial Garden (Tracy DeSabato-Aust)