How to adapt Britain’s gardening style to Colorado
By Lisa Truesdale
Connie Farnbach adored the look of English cottage gardens long before she knew that’s what they were called. During a tour of the Cotswolds in western England several years ago, she was quite taken by the “freewheeling, untamed” gardens she saw at quaint thatched cottages throughout the countryside.
The unruly whimsical look struck a chord with her, she says, much more so than the traditional symmetry of a formal garden that’s more typical to Colorado. After her trip, Farnbach got to work creating a cottage garden at her Craftsman-style Boulder home, substituting native plants for some of the classic varieties in traditional English cottage gardens, and incorporating elements like picket fences, arbors, stacked-stone terraces and sundials.
Her backyard greets guests in true British style with an informal design of densely planted flowers, vegetables and herbs. Peonies, maiden grass, daisies, tiger lilies, lavender, parsley, basil and squash spill from her garden beds, along with many old-fashioned roses. “I have a lot of David Austin roses,” says Farnbach, who likes their big blooms and rich scents.
“A cottage garden gives me permission to pack a wide variety of different plantings into a not-so-large space,” she says, touching on a basic tenet of cottage gardening—dense plantings of herbs, vegetables and flowers mixed in an informal way.
In 1982, the Cottage Gardening Society was established in England to “protect this vanishing planting style,” says founding member Clive Lane, who has authored several books on cottage gardening. CGS, which boasts more than 4,000 amateur and professional members, was concerned that too many people were moving toward easily maintained gardens, and that “hard landscaping was becoming more important than the plants.” So its mission is to encourage and promote this very British style of landscaping.
Lane says the cottage garden style has changed and evolved for at least 600 years, and predicts it will also look different 100 years from now. At first, he says, cottage gardens were very small, planted by English laborers who had little space, limited time and no extra money. The main purpose of their gardens was to provide as much food as possible for little expense, so they planted mostly vegetables, herbs and fruit. Flowers were sometimes included, but only if they offered a practical use, such as pest control, pollination or medicine.
Gradually, as conventional food sources became more accessible to everyone, flowers and flowering shrubs were added for scent and color. Today’s cottage gardens are commonly a mix of ornamentals and edibles, featuring scented, self-seeding and climbing plants with contrasting foliage.
“Cottage gardens are the most wonderful excuses for combining everything from peonies and chives to apple trees and roses,” writes Margaret Hensel in her book, English Cottage Gardening for American Gardens. “It’s about making the most of what you have—space, time and money. The magic is not in having the biggest garden on the block but in making whatever space you do have look intimate and welcoming.”
A cottage garden can be whatever a gardener wishes it to be, as long as it looks fresh and informal. It’s the complete opposite of the formal, manicured gardens found at English estates, Hensel says. “The best cottage gardens give the illusion that they just happened.”
And, Lane adds, you don’t need a cottage to create a cottage garden. “The style can be adapted to just about any space,” he says, “like a small garden on a city terrace, a simple border, or pots brimming with herbs and roses in the backyard. The cottage garden style is essentially England’s gift to gardening.”
Creating a Cottage in Colorado
Do you love the mishmash style of an English cottage garden, but don’t know how to create one here? Start with these tips.
As with any new garden project, begin with a manageable size. If your plans are too ambitious, you might end up creating a space that you don’t have the time or energy to maintain.
Use traditional elements
Picket fencing, latticework, trellises and archways are found in many cottage-style gardens, enlisted for their quaintness as well as their practical use of supporting floppy perennials and providing a decorative base for climbers. Boulder cottage gardener Connie Farnbach used Cotswold-style stacked-stone terraces to create garden beds in her sloped backyard.
Plant close together
Traditional cottage gardens were densely packed to make the most of limited space. This method still works well for gardens, Farnbach says, especially in semiarid Colorado, because when you plant close together, the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly—and you get the added bonus of fewer weeds. A cottage garden also keeps lawn space to a minimum.
Incorporate meandering pathways
Soft, curving paths of flagstone, dirt or pea gravel invite visitors to explore the garden. Farnbach prefers pea gravel: “The delightful crunching sound seems so British to me.”
Add fun touches
Garden art popping up here and there is a nice surprise, and Farnbach’s garden features birdbaths and sundials. A gate often helps to establish a garden’s character, says Margaret Hensel, author of English Cottage Gardening for American Gardens—even if it’s not connected to a fence. Hensel suggests painting the gate in a color that “pops,” but doesn’t contrast too sharply with the plants.
Don’t follow the rules
When planning your cottage garden, remember, there are no real “musts.” The only consistent hallmark of a cottage garden, says British cottage gardener Clive Lane, is its “natural informality.”