INTERPRETING THE COTTAGE GARDEN

If you live in a cottage, particularly if you live in a cottage in the English countryside, by all means pull on your Wellies, sow a classic cottage garden and ignore this article. The rest of you, the ranch dwellers and the split-levelers and the colonials and the Neo-Georgians and the Greek moderns, listen up: cottage gardens are for cottages. They are adorable, and appropriate, and resonate a gentler, more tranquil time, a time of picket fences and front porch swings and strolling arm in arm at twilight. It’s an image, an idyll, a poem; it’s a bit of pastoral music. Altogether charming in its place, but is it you?

You don’t even need to look at the architectural style of your house to answer that question, all you need is a tour through the interior of the home itself. Take a look at the artwork on your walls, and take a look inside your closet. If you find impeccably tailored suits or the perfect little black dress, you are not the cottage garden type. If the artwork is anything other than Audubon birds and vintage botanicals, you are not the cottage type. Take a look at the kind of jewelry you have; not the whole collection, just the stuff you really wear. If it’s all filigreed and fancy with clusters of multi-colored stones, you pass. Simple diamond studs and a few good pieces of gold? No way. So how do we reconcile the sweetly idealized concept with your reality?

Does it help to know that cottage gardens are an enormous amount of work? That if you have neither the time nor the energy to fuss over the traditional plants, to stake and deadhead and tend, this garden is not for you regardless of your personal style? That the classic double hollyhock is biennial, which means it blooms only in its second year of life and then promptly dies? That both single and double hollyhocks are subject to a disease called rust which is highly infectious and capable of ruining your roses? That delphinium is fragile and, even though it’s a perennial, tends to die off in a few years despite your best efforts? Feel better now? Let’s figure out what you really want.

The image of the cottage garden is happy, abundant, carefree. You already know the image is a lie, but the longing behind the image is the truth, and it is that longing we need to speak to. Let’s tackle the abundance component first.

To have a profusion of anything, of actual wealth or of those ingredients we associate with bounty, strikes a deep and satisfying chord. When we have abundance we are prosperous, we are fortunate. A person blessed with long life is said to have a richness of days; blessed with many friends, one is said to have riches untold. A full library is the hallmark of a civilized society, and a full pantry makes even those of us who have never known hunger strangely content.

I keep a large, white earthenware bowl full of fresh fruit on the kitchen counter, and there are always limes and mangos in the mix. I don’t know why, maybe I just like that luscious green against the blush red. I don’t know why they need to be out in plain view and not in the fridge, maybe I just like seeing them. I don’t know why the bowl is white; maybe I just like the contrast. What does this have to do with gardening? I know that.

That’s abundance, in my terms, and if I replicate it outside I will have a landscape that evokes the same response. I am drawn to those colors, in that combination. I am drawn to having it clearly, visibly there; I don’t want to have to go looking for it. So now I know that if I have that shade of green at every turn, if I have that red, with hints of orangy flesh, in every flower form I can conceive, I am happy.

If I translate the shapes found in the plants of cottage gardens to indigenous materials that express those same profiles, not only am I happy, I am as close to carefree as a garden gets. The shape of the hollyhock, the beautiful, difficult hollyhock, is found in several more reliable plants. The single hollyhock, for example, has a fat, open blossom that is duplicated by several varieties of Rose-o-Sharon. This is a wholly underused shrub related to hibiscus and just as gorgeous, but can tolerate winters as far north as Zone 5 and come back the following summer like nothing happened. It can be allowed to grow large, as a specimen, or can be clipped to fit within the body of the garden. Along with the hollyhock it has a double, rose-like form, but the single is so magnificent I’m seldom tempted. There are perennial hibiscus hardy to Zone 4, with flowers the size of dinner plates and colors that will knock your socks off; and hollyhock mallow, equally robust and evocative of — you guessed it — hollyhock.

None of these materials truly is native to Maine, by the way, but they have been here so long we associate them with the image of the seaside garden and so they seem appropriate. Then again, rosa rugosa, what we know as beach rose, is actually from Persia; it has adapted so brilliantly to life here our coastline would be unrecognizable without it. That scent, mixed with the salt air on a summer evening, makes every brutal day of winter worthwhile. That flower shape, mimicked in apple blossoms and single peonies and primrose and buttercup and cranesbill, can appear throughout the landscape and throughout the season with little or no effort.

This relaxed response to the land, akin to cottage style but articulated in a broader spectrum of materials, gives me all the elements without the limitations. If I am designing for a more formal house, I can choose more elegant versions of those materials without losing the garden’s carefree attitude. If I use a double-flowering white rugosa, Blanc Double de Coubert, in place of the common beach rose I have something equally hardy, with a fragrance to die for and a bloom that is deeply, exquisitely rose. If I mate that to peonies and iris and hydrangea and topiaried Rose-o-Sharon and miscanthus, I have happy, carefree abundance.

Wander through that garden, and I guarantee you won’t miss the picket fence for a second.
c.2004

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