An Accidental Passion

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It takes courage to grow a cottage garden. Contrary to its appearance, it takes patience and planning. These free-fom beauties are natural and comforting, taking you back to childhood.
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I am an accidental cottage gardener. Several years ago, when economic reality set in and I knew I would not be taking a vacation anytime soon, I decided to have a “small” getaway in our backyard – the one that looked like a golf course – just grass. I discussed this with my family, who never really responded, and in seven days, I created a little plot of loveliness. With the help of a neighbor, a small fence went up on three sides, and contained my little paradise. In this area were seven daylilies, a bellflower, one black-eyed Susan and butterfly bush, two obedient plants (mine are), and one Laura phlox. At the end of the summer, my mother bought me three dying plants that were about to be discarded from a big-box-store; a red twig dogwood, peegee hydrangea and a Rose of Sharon. These were all about three to six inches tall; no leaves and no signs of life. The dogwood is now about eight feet tall; and just as wide; the rose of Sharon is a proud six feet, and my hydrangea is close to four feet tall. Over the past five years my tiny plot has mushroomed; the fence falls on a regular basis;
there are over 25 daylilies, four rose of Sharon bushes, numerous heirloom roses, tons of lilies, wildflowers, masses of perennials and three small trees; all lush and obscene, as my “Mum Harriett” would say.gardentoday1.jpg

I have two grandmothers to thank for my passion for (non-conforming) gardening. Nana had a rose garden in Queens that could bring the White House Rose Garden to its knees. I’m talking about big, blousy hybrid tea roses, musk roses, huge ramblers and rugosa under our windows (to keep burglars out) and a monstrous grape arbor coveted by the entire neighborhood. All blooming non-stop from Easter Sunday until late October it was fabulous. The prize-winning hybrid teas that she and my godfather scouted in catalogs and nurseries along the Eastern Seaboard were the stars. It was also not beneath her to have my grandfather stop the car on a lonely Long Island back road where a wild rugosa rose was growing; harvest the seeds from the hips; and grow a rose bush. To my amazement, I too have mastered this little skill. Rose hips also make awesome tea. I don’t know how many starts and seedlings made their way to our backyard wrapped in a linen hanky in her purse.

In this rose garden, strange cohabitations took place. Tomatoes, okra, peppers, spearmint, squash and beans were planted in between stately Queen Elizabeth, Tropicana and Peace roses. You had to know how to walk through this botanical maze, smell the roses, smell the mint, Concord grapes and the heady tomatoes all at the same time. This was my introduction to the cottage garden.

“… It is the image of the quaint English thatched cottage with a riot of colorful flowers just outside the front door that is most often associated with the term Cottage Gardening … A small spot of land near the house or cottage was often the only land available. Fresh fruits and vegetables were often miles and miles away. Thus, these little postage stamp gardens were originally planted with fruit trees, and vegetables … Sometimes the lowly herb was included, almost as an afterthought. These herbs were often more of a medical necessity than the seasoning to make a grand meal.” Mountain Valley Growers.

A cottage garden is a mix of beauty and utility. They started out as a practical solution to limited space and money. In France, they were called Un Jardin Potager; in pioneer America, kitchen gardens; during World War II, we knew them as Victory Gardens. Over time, as we gained more access to fresh produce and modern medicine, gardens included more and more flowers, both wild and cultivated. Today, most people think of a cottage garden as bounteous amounts of flowers billowing around the garden gate and tumbling over an arbor. Years ago, space was at a premium, and with newer homes built on smaller lots, the same holds true. So, I, like millions of others, grow flowers and herbs close together attracting wildlife.954933-R1-25-6A_026.jpg
Speaking of wildlife, our Red Heeler, Maggie, had a strong affinity to pinks. She loved dianthus and would sniff them and sleep in the sun among them for hours. She died suddenly three years ago, and two days later, so did my pinks. They’ve never grown back. Now, our Blue Heeler, Rudy, has a strong affinity to peeing on the new pinks and stealing tomatoes, peppers and little watermelon (grown in pots and a kiddy pool to protect them from “wildlife.”) I don’t know the colors of my clematis or lupine, because the rabbits have their way with them first. We do get visits from hundreds of goldfinch, blue jays, cardinals, chickadees and titmouse. From my grandmother, Harriett, I’ve learned to identify these beautiful birds, and what flowers attract them. From her, I also learned a thing or two about edible flowers, such as nasturtium, beautiful orange and red flowers that taste peppery in salads. Just ask Rudy!

My favorites are hollyhock, English lavender, catmint, feverfew, veronica, phlox, and of course my roses, night blooming tobacco (nicotiana) and, ah, datura. Lilies rule and morning glories are welcomed; a bold little beauty few gardeners dare allow past their gates. These flowers have no real purpose but to delight me with eye candy. Neighborhood children walk by the 15 foot Russian sunflowers that hang out at the end of the summer, and yes, I still give out free sunflower seeds to anyone who asks, nicely.

About *&^#%* weeds. Do you allow certain weeds in your garden? I do. After years of fighting a losing battle against creeping Charlie, I’ve learned to accept and live with it; and so have the roses and hardy hibiscus. It runs amuck, and it really doesn’t hurt anything. There’s a huge burdock named “Thing” growing under a patio peach tree. Thing is about four feet wide, two feet tall – bigger than my so-called giant hosta, and currently shading and smothering several of my Sumatra lilies, and will be pruned soon. His bottom leaves are about two to three feet long. I grow silver beacon (dead nettle), but don’t really like the wild nettle, and there’s clover, garlic and chives.

Surprisingly, I love ragweed at the end of the summer mixed in with my scarlet roses — and no, it’s a myth, it does not bother my allergies – it does not give off pollen. My brutal battle with thistle is never-ending, but, you guessed it, I never use pesticides or chemicals.

My methods are totally unorthodox, and I scatter sow so many seeds that I’m afraid to pull up unidentified things; and sometimes it’s too late to know if it’s a weed or not. Queen Anne’s lace recently moved in from the corn field behind us, and a beautiful visitor two years ago — a wild verbascum in shades of cream and fuscia; over seven feet tall!

I also have Chinese foxglove, honeysuckle and Dame’s Rocket, which is a biennial, but it comes back every year as it re-seeds. It’s supposed to be spring blooming, but I’ve had it stay as late as July. It’s my favorite thing in the garden.

My neighbors are in a state of shock from April until November. This is not your typical manicured lawn with a few geraniums huddled against the house. It’s wild, earthy and appears out of control. That’s because I grow them as nature intended. What survives, survives; what perishes, perishes. I don’t recall God thinning out seedlings on the side of the road when a wild crop of ditch lilies pop up. So, what about the golf course out back? Well, most of it’s still there. I hate grass and lawns, preferring groundcover any day. But groundcovers seem to look and perform best in shade, which I don’t have yet, and may not live long enough to sit under the shade of the little seedlings acquired from the Department of Natural Resources. Cottage gardening is not for everyone, but for now, I’m content to vacation in my little Jungle of Eden.

Published in The Courier-Times, June 4, 2008

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