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The Mystique of An English Garden

Anne Jaeger

Portland Monthly: Dig Deep

English Garden Mystique

Forget-Me-Not, Love-In-a-Mist and

Passion flower – these flower names evoke the ethereal mood of an English Cottage garden. Romantic and sentimental by nature, this style of garden is billowy and free flowing– an idealistic wild child rebelling against the order and discipline of its formal landscape parents. English cottage gardening stirs emotion, happily throwing caution, like seeds, to the wind. It flies in the face of Classicisms strict symmetry and stoic nature.

Both worlds changed during this 18th century movement. And Claude Monet was at the forefront. Monet simultaneously traded brush strokes with secateurs to revolutionize the worlds of art and gardening at Giverny, one of the most famous cottage gardens. The heart aching beauty of his work makes us want the mystery of a clamoring cottage garden at home. And with the threat of winter behind us this month, gardeners here have license to plant with wild abandon.

The breezy tenets of a cottage garden fool the eye with so many flowers bursting like party streamers until the underlying story is hidden from view. So, isolating the creative steps of cottage gardening can take some detective work and who better to unravel the mystery than famous British garden lover: Mrs. Mallowan. Don’t know her? Why, such gardens were always a source of inspiration personally and professionally for Agatha Christie (Mrs. Mallowan’s nom de plume). For inspiration, let’s look at the evidence of cottage gardening alive in Christie’s Greenway garden on the English Riviera outside Devon.

Mystery #1: Know where the bones are buried.

Every good garden must have “Good Bones.” Good bones create good garden beds. To discover yours–stand back and read the current landscape allowing shrubs, fences and neighboring trees to define your space. Existing shrubs show off the flowers, trees give height, structure and stability to an overflowing garden.

Pathways are straight or winding, but always lead somewhere; either a bench, another garden view, toward garden art, through a trellis or under an arbor. Line paths with grass, gravel, hazelnut shells, mulch, slate, but keep in mind, brick becomes too slippery with NW moss to be practical. And make paths wide enough for two. After all, this is a romance mystery….

Mystery #2: The Plot

Cottage garden plots edge the perimeter or the garden bed can sit smack dab in the center of a lawn— circular, square or rectangular. Borders can be straight or curved, but the garden beds themselves, should be at least four feet wide to delineate flowers from grass. To decide what looks best, lay out a garden hose in different designs. Take pictures, show friends, line the design with flour (mistakes erase with water) then mark that line with landscape paint before cutting sod.

Mystery #3: The Characters.

The cottage garden rounds up the usual suspects—century old favorites, a busy mixture of flowers to distract us and provide character to the space. Flower planting doesn’t rely so much on landscaping as “cram-scaping”— covering every inch of soil with plants flowing together. This not only prevents weeds, it also provides sweeps of plants with different flowering times. Plant flowers in layers—tallest plants in back, smallest toward in the front—all plant labels explain height and spread. Use groups of each plant, in clumps, to give the eye something to rest on while flitting across the garden.

Mystery #4: Embellish the truth:

Derive mystery from garden characters allowed to shade or embellish the truth. Resist the urge to start from scratch, use what exists— colorful flowers cover a lot of sins. Hide mistakes in garden beds by setting outdoor pots of flowers directly onto bare soil to provide fullness in empty spots. Conversely, pathways, art work, fountains or containers are used to draw your eye away from trouble spots and pull your gaze toward a desired “focal point.”

Mystery Revealed:

The fun of cottage gardening is watching the mystery unfold differently every season, every year. Whether formal or informal, fussy Victorian, controlled Japanese or passionate French and Italian gardens —all gardens follow the same laws of nature. The cottage garden is no different. Gardens need time to evolve:  “First year sleeps, second year creeps, third year leaps” says the gardeners’ creed. Of all the different types of gardens you might admire—creating your “own garden” is the ultimate goal. A cottage garden is a reflection of you, a masterpiece in the making.



Cottage Garden Plants, from front to back of the garden bed.

Clues #1

Mix perennials with annuals in the Front:

Perennials: (Plants live more than one year)


California poppy

Evergreen Candy Tuft

Lady’s Mantle


Annuals: (Plants live one season until frost)









Clue #2

Mix perennials with annuals, punctuated by shrubs in the Middle:


Bee Balm

Black Eyed Susan

Bulbs: Lilies. Daffodils. Tulips (Plant in groups, not individually)















Oriental Poppy






Shrub and landscape roses


Red Flowering Currant


Witch Hazel


Clue #3

Weave in trees toward the Back:



Apple, cherry, plum, quince.






*Classic Garden Plans (David Stuart)

*Armitage’s Garden Annuals (Allan Armitage)

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