Don't let your spirits wilt along with your garden


There is a picket fence around my cozy two-story house, and just inside its borders is my version of an English cottage garden.

My crispy, wilting, gasping version of an English cottage garden.

It is only June, but summer has hit Maryland like a brick in the nose after a very dry spring, and my plans for a lush and riotous perennial border are fading in the heat.

"When are you going to realize that we don't live in England?" asked Bob, my neighbor and gardening mentor, as he looked over my foxgloves. The only thing perennial about this species is my attempt to grow it.

"We live in Maryland," said Bob, with some exasperation. In hot, humid, frequently drought-stricken Maryland. Not in the moist, cool English countryside.

Cottage gardens are characterized by their eclectic collection of colors, textures and bloom times, by their lack of formality, by the climbing roses, the trellises, the arbors and the odd antique watering can tucked in a shady corner.

Cottage gardens have both a pragmatic and a romantic history.

English peasants, who probably had the first such gardens around their tiny huts, would pack them with fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. But their gardens produced food and medicine, not ambience.

It was up to the Romantics of the 1800s to do that. In a rebellion against the order and formality of Classicism, and with the help of impressionist painters like Claude Monet, the Europeans traded their boxwoods for a riot of flowers that were supposed to evoke human emotions.

Cottage gardens are known for their curvy borders and the way they are narrower in some places and deeper in others.

They are asymmetrical. They flop over into the grass or the driveway. They have little paths and the occasional bench.

Mostly, they are a collection of this and that. My own is filled with plants I bought at flower sales for $1 each and the odd bit of garden art or whimsical bric-a-brac that I find in second-hand shops.

And my garden is full of challenges as well.

My climbing roses suffer from black spot. My asters and phlox, from powdery mildew. My astilbe and my ferns can't get enough water. My hydrangeas droop in the afternoon sun. I have given up on delphiniums. I might as well just plant waves of indestructible daylilies and be done with it.

"You want something you don't have," said David Vismara, director of Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County. "You want it because it is special and beautiful and faraway."

I made the mistake of using plants that like England more than they like Maryland.

"You can still have the same wonderful effect if you are smart and use plants that thrive," said Vismara.

Like my plants, I was fooled by Maryland's faux English spring. It was cool and sunny and though there was little rain, there was enough residual moisture in the soil.

"And we were off and running," said Vismara. "Just wait a week."

Instead of creating a garden out of a magazine or a daydream, he said, gardeners need to do their homework and find out what thrives here.

Visit formal gardens, talk to master gardeners, talk to landscape architects, read books, visit nurseries.

Then test the soil. Amend it if you need to - but you might not. There are plenty of native plants that don't mind Maryland's heavy clay soil.

Then consider the exposure to sun. Gardens on the eastern side of the house are going to have an easier time of it than gardens on the south, especially during the deadly heat of August.

Ellen Hartranft, library horticulturist at Brookside, offered a list of heat-tolerant, humidity-tolerant perennials that can give Maryland gardeners the cottage garden look they want.

"Roses are the backbone of the cottage garden," she said, "but you need to include the disease-resistant varieties."

She recommends climbers, such as 'America,' 'New Dawn' and 'Golden Showers,' shrub roses such as 'Simplicity,' 'The Fairy' or 'Carefree Beauty' or the new ground-cover roses. All are low maintenance and repeat bloomers, she said.

Hartranft also likes the perennial geranium 'Rozanne,' a long-bloomer; salvias such as 'May Night' and 'Caradona' for the spiky effect that you see in cottage gardens, and daisy varieties 'Becky' or 'Switzerland,' which have studier stems and don't require stacking.

Japanese painted fern can take hot, dry shade, she said. Joe-Pye Weed and its smaller cultivar, 'Little Joe,' catmint, gayfeather, columbine, Russian sage, balloon flower and dianthus 'Bath's Pink,' 'Tiny Rubies' or 'Zing Rose' - all, said Hartranft, will give gardeners the look they want without succumbing to Maryland's climate.

But, cautioned Vismara, "there is a lot of trial and error. A garden just doesn't happen."

Cottage gardens are a lot of work, but it is the kind of work gardeners love: pruning, dead-heading, transplanting, dividing, filling in.

Keeping the garden alive doesn't have to be one of those tasks.

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