New here! Some basic questions!

oberciFebruary 6, 2014

Hello all! I'm a pretty novice gardener and I'm excited to really start adding some more plants to the backyard garden. I realized cottage gardening is right up my alley style-wise although we shall see how well I can achieve the look!

Any tips on how to get started designing an area are much appreciated. What I find most daunting is leaving areas open for annuals/bulbs and those come and go sorts of plants. Whenever I see cottage gardens they always seem to be overflowing and I'm wondering how that effect is maintained once certain seasonal bloomers fade?

Watering: I have a drip irrigation ready to go...Do I just place a hose at the base of each and every plant?

Fertilizing: Does adding a layer of compost at the base of plants and continually replenishing often offer the plants enough food? Or is an application of fertilizer recommended as well? How is this achieved in a cottage garden where plants are often overlapping?

I so look forward to your comments! Thanks in avance :)

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Welcome to Cottage Gardening, both the forum and the style!

As you've probably seen from pics no two cottage gardens are alike. So there is a lot of leeway in planning one.

First thing to think about is infrastructure which is pathways, hardscape, fencing, shape of beds, etc.

Second, I always recommend looking at your soil because that is the life-blood of your plants and there is no point paying good money for plants and expecting them to grow in less than good soil.

Whether compost will be enough for your soil and plants depends on the quality of soil you are starting with, the type of plants, as well as the quality of your compost. Is anything growing there now? What is the history of your garden?

What you use for fertilizer will depend on the type of plants you choose - some are heavy feeders and some are not, others will do better with certain nutrients, others require a more acid or alkaline soil. However, it's not really necessary to get too hung up on that as long as your soil is reasonably fertile. You will be able to tell if your plants are demanding more nutrients. I only use compost, mulch, and alfalfa pellets for my perennials. Some of the annuals get a bit of well diluted fertilizer.

I often do trench composting by burying kitchen scraps between my perennials which is a very easy way to improve the soil. I call it “feeding the worms” as it encourages a healthy earthworm population which create a lot of castings which are the best fertilizer there is. I also have a compost pile but in this climate it's not easy to finish it quickly so I don't depend on that. There is always some space between the plants where one can place compost or bury kitchen scraps. Mulch is very important for several reasons and I prefer one that will eventually break down and enrich the soil. I use shredded bark.

As far as planning the actual beds, start with watching to see the patterns of sun and shade and map this on your garden plan. Unless you have a great memory it's well to use a plan, even a rough one. Most garden plans use tallest plants at the back and shortest ones at the front of a bed altho it works well to stagger these so it's not too symmetrical. Cottage style is informal so it's more about balance than symmetry.

I won't advise you on plants as I garden in zone 3 so plants that grow here might succumb to the heat in your zone and you can grow plants that won't tolerate the winters here. Example, I can grow delphiniums here, which are a wonderful cottage flower, but I understand they don't like hot climates so gardeners in the south use larkspur which looks similar. Don't forget to include trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials, and annuals in your initial plan depending what you like, your need for shade, the amount of work you wish to do, and other factors. Check the google link below for lots of sites with ideas for plants.

It's a common error I've made to plant perennials too close together and later have to move them. I'm trying to do better but hate empty spaces! One thing that can be done is to have some potted plants (usually annuals, altho I've used perennials and bulbs too) to place between young perennials. These can sit on top of the soil or the pot can be buried. It's a temporary way to have a full garden.

How you place your drip irrigation depends on whether there is a slope to your garden and the type of plants. IMO not every plant needs a dripper as water will flow so the plants that require less water can be placed further from a dripper. While I haven't used a system for many years I think your garden plan comes first, then your drippers placed where needed. Hopefully someone who uses this type of system will give you better info.

Here is a link that might be useful: cottage garden plants

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 6:35PM
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Thanks Lucky Gal for the response! The garden is pretty flat, and had nothing but 3 huge oak trees near the back fence and about 20 roses bordering the patio forming a sort of hedge, and everything in the middle was a huge lot of weeds.

Last year, we did a bit of rushed cleaning up and at the moment the landscaping is very basic: lawn in the middle, with about a 6 foot wide wavy border left around the outer edges to allow for some plants. Later we also built a round planter, put in an arch, sitting area... but as far as plants go, we didnt put any in for a few reasons. First, soil needed attention, second it was mid summer and they probably all would have died, and most importantly, we welcomed our first little one into the family and frankly Ive been a bit busy until now! :) So I used the past few months to improve the soil with a lasagna type method and the results are pretty good so far!

Also hoping to put in a compost bin soon as we had one at our last place and loved it.

Eventually, I'd like to remove some of the grass in the center and make a more unique setup, but, well...I figured that it would not be wise to jump into everything at once.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 9:41PM
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runswithscissors(MT 4/5)

I started with a blank slate (so to speak) about 5 years ago when we bought our new house. It was lawn, lawn, lawn in perfect rectangles with a few trees. I'm like you...I like the cottage garden look. It takes alot of money though and so hard-scaping with alot of stepping stones and raised walls and such was not an option for me. Instead I used a 150' outdoor cord and "mapped" out curves of flower-beds, then used a can of spay-paint to mark them. I began killing off the grass, slowly but surely and adding perennials to the areas as I could afford them. Perennials takes several years to grow though, so in the meantime I scatter wildflower seeds.

Yes, watering is a big deciding factor. Sprinklers with hoses that you drag around are an unfortunate bane of gardeners if you cannot afford an in-ground system. Drip irrigation is great, but in my experience it has to be used underneath mulch for it to be effective. The mulch acts as a sponge, sort of, to spread the moisture to a larger area than just where the line is. Compost is a good mulch, but it isn't enough for me. I use shredded bark or straw.

Maintenance is a pain in the patootee! Especially for the first few years before all your perennials reach maximum size. If there is a square inch of bare ground, mother-nature wants to plant a weed in it. It's just the nature of the beast. But it gets easier every year, and soon you'll find that you're doing less work and more enjoying. Just keep plugging along. Everything in cottage gardening is a work in progress.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2014 at 6:24PM
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I have a couple of suggestions based on many years of experience, and trials and errors. First, go the the public library if you can and check out several books on cottage gardening and organic gardening, becoz it seems you like that too. Good for you! I love composting and such, too! Along with cottage gardening goes growing edibles including herbs, mixed in with shrubs and flowers. So try to find a couple or 3 books that interest you. Or even a couple good magazines at a bookstore, but they are pricey. If you like to own garden books, go to a bookstore and try to find the one that seems to fit your needs. My second suggestion is to plant shrubs that have year-round interest. Shrubs are so easy, to me, and they give me a lot of pleasure for little work. And they instantly fill a spot, even when small. I like bulbs too, becoz they are soooo easy to plant and they multiply. Just remember they will have brown foliage at some point and need another plant or shrub to be filling in or greening up to camoflauge the bulb foliage. Organic mulch, which can be unfinished or finished compost or some sort of bark or straw (here in Mississippi we use a lot of pine straw), is essential for so many reasons and also makes the garden more tidy and fills in between the plants in new garden which is not full yet. Enjoy! and welcome!

    Bookmark   February 10, 2014 at 7:47PM
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memo(Zone 4B Nebraska)

Ah! Runswithscissors!! Stunning, gorgeous, beautiful! This is the first time I've seen a picture of your beautiful gardens. You make me want to go out in the snow and get started putting my beds together. Truly inspirational, thank you for sharing!

DandyLioness, Welcome to the Cottage! Zone 9! A far cry from my zone 3/4 lol. You have been given very good advice so far. I'll skip the soil part since the others have covered that so well and talk a little bit about the plants. First I would look for sources that give lists of "cottage garden" plants. Some books that are maybe specifically for your CA area. Then research the plants in them to find out what the zone and sun requirements are for them to see if they will work in your area. Try to divide your list into bloom times so that you can mix them in various areas so that you will have something blooming throughout the bed during all of your growing season. You don't want to have a great deal of bloom in May but nothing in late August you know? You have to plan for all of the seasons including winter so your beds aren't just looking dead during winter with nothing interesting going on at that time of year. This is where shrubs and grasses can really help out. Knowing already what your sun and shade patterns are as discussed above you should now be able to work on your plan and start to fill in the blanks as to where you want to put things. This is good activity for when your baby is napping hahaha! Don't bite off more than you can chew. Just dig and amend enough space that you can put together this first year, you'll have more time each year as your child grows. Having a great cottage garden is to have the attitude that it is never really finished and there is never enough room to plant just one more thing. You just have to let it grow naturally with your time available and your own energy level. Make your beds curvy so that as you extend them you can add by adding arcs where needed that way they will always look like they were planned that way not as if you abruptly stopped when you ran out of plants. Always try to plant in odd number multiples to get the flowy feeling. Be sure to mix textures of leaves and stems along with mixing of colors. You don't want to have several different strappy plants of different types together for instance, you will want to have strappy, large leaved, and small or medium leaved groupings together. Same goes for foliage color. Dark green, medium green, silver, chartreuse etc. Mix them up. Then think of the bloom colors too. Remember that after 3-5 years many perennials will need to be divided giving you more plants so try to plan some spacing where you'll be able to plunk those in over time. Plant what you love and don't worry about whether your style of cottage garden is the same as everyone else's. Just use the list you create as a guideline. When I did my first garden I chose five bloom colors and added only plants in those colors. It helped to narrow down the choices some and gave the garden some cohesion. In latter years I was able to add in one or more new colors at a time until I had the mix I wanted. I hope this is helpful. Above all, enjoy the journey!!


    Bookmark   February 13, 2014 at 4:35AM
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midnightsmum (Z4, ON)

Well, you have been given excellent ideas above. A plan is essential, especially for those "Did I plant this" dilemmas. And take lots of photos - I try to take lots, and always wish I'd taken more. It's great to record your progress, and also to see the plantings in different seasons. Find out if there is a local horticultural society - that will be a great source of local info and plants, as most have sales a couple of times a year. And the bonus is you will meet like-minded people!!

Good luck with your garden, and we'd like to see pictures of your progress!!


    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 9:14AM
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Cottage gardening works for me also. I like my plants all
close and overlapping sometimes. Cottage is some of any
and everything that you like in your garden. If something
color, height, width,etc. doesn't work in a certain area, you
can always take it out. Start out with your most favorites
and interplant within that.
Personally, my favorites are flowering shrubs of low
maintenance....including shrub roses.

pics of my cottage style
Have a good time with it! Good luck.


    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 12:11PM
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cottage mx

    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 12:14PM
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roses and annabelle hydrangea

    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 12:17PM
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mock orange and ballerinas

    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 12:21PM
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sweet autumn and brugs on the deck

    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 12:27PM
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crepes....not to bore you!!!

    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 12:34PM
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midnightsmum (Z4, ON)

sorry, double post

This post was edited by midnightsmum on Thu, Feb 27, 14 at 18:38

    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 6:35PM
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freezengirl(3aMN and 5AK)

Your pictures sure dig brighten up another frigid evening in Minnesota Pearlgirl!

    Bookmark   February 27, 2014 at 7:28PM
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So Gorgeous !!! Pearlgirl

    Bookmark   March 4, 2014 at 1:49PM
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Thanks! I take lots of pics and I just recently learned to
post on the forum LOL....can't you tell?
Glad that you've enjoyed. Eventhough winter is somewhat
short in this helps to get me through.
The robins are long now. SPRING!!!

ballerina on a support

    Bookmark   March 5, 2014 at 11:41AM
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white hibiscus ...grew from seeds winter sown

    Bookmark   March 5, 2014 at 11:47AM
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had to keep these from the bunnies. They like daisies
and even ate marigolds last year

    Bookmark   March 5, 2014 at 11:55AM
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Pearlgirl- is that pink geum?!! I didn't know it came in pink!

DandyLioness- I hope I'm not too late to put in my two cents. I'm also in Ca 9 and wanted to mention a couple of things- first, the oaks are picky about what can be planted underneath them. My other bit is about starting out a new garden from scratch- this summer is going to be rough. I think it's going to be a long hot slog and the water restrictions might hamper your plans. Don't get discouraged! Put together a container garden or a small bed of annuals or a houseplant you love- something, ANYTHING that makes you happy every time you look at it. That way you can turn to that beautiful something whenever the rest of it doesn't look the way you'd like it to.

Good luck!

Here is a link that might be useful: A source of some local plant info and suggestions.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2014 at 5:47PM
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DandyLioness (cute name, by the way),

I don't know how close you are to Richmond, CA (outside of SanFran) but there is a wonderful nursery there called Annie's Annuals. They have tutorials online as well as at the nursery and have lots of suggestions for native plants and cottage gardening.

Here is a link that might be useful: Annie's Annuals

    Bookmark   April 1, 2014 at 10:54AM
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Pearl girl what state do you live in ? Your garden is absolutely gorgeous!!!!
Have all those recently bloomed?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2014 at 7:08PM
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Oh my Goodness !!!! I LOVE cottage gardens & I LOVE cottage gardeners & their pics !!!!!!!

    Bookmark   April 2, 2014 at 11:58PM
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Thanks, ladies.

Newgirl, no, there isn't any geum in the pics.....which are
you referring to?
Gardnmunche...I live in Virginia. Those pics were taken in
2012 an 2013. I do garden tours/walks annually, therefore,
I always take lot of pics Spring thru Fall

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 10:00PM
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peachymomo(Ca 8)

I have to second the warning about planting under oaks, they will die eventually if you water too much. The central theme of my backyard plan was protecting my oaks, because I love them. I like having my cottage area near the house and then a naturalistic area under the trees, it gives me the best of both worlds and there is the added benefit of a healthy predator bug population supported by all the native plants and weeds.

As for cottage gardening advice, I've found it helpful to make a flower chart that cross references bloom seasons with other traits like attracting hummingbirds or butterflies. I always want a little bit of everything, so I make charts and lists to help ensure I'm not forgetting anything.

I was also overwhelmed by the idea of trying to arrange the perfectly imperfect chaos of a cottage garden, so I ended up buying a good looking flower seed mix and I just scattered the seeds and let nature take it's course. After a season of growth I did some transplanting and added some roses, this spring I've been thinning like crazy and I'll be adding bulbs in the fall. I think it's working out pretty well, you can see pics in my 'Spiral Garden' post.

I think the trick is to start with the understanding that you will inevitably need to move, remove, or add things as the seasons and years change. Don't be afraid of planting things in the wrong place, because you can always edit later. Also, annuals make great filler for those empty spaces, I particularly like Sweet Alyssum for that job.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 2:42PM
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Peachymomo: the oaks will die if you water too much ? Asking because I have 3 huge oaks that I've planted spiraea & forsythia & smoke bush & heliobores at the drip lines... They aren't thriving- except for the forsythia I planted this spring- I thought the oaks were soaking all the water & can consume 350 gallons of water a day !!! Please lend me your wisdom ! This is the beginning of my 3 rd year here- I'm 20 miles from Stone Mountain & have notice there is granite rocks EVERYWHERE - under the oaks. Nothing grows under them. I assumed it was their water appetite- but after closer examination - I realized how rocky the soil is over there. I also keep my cottage garden close to the house. The closer you get to the oaks- the weaker the plants. So I started amending the soil more often with compost& manure. Seems to be helping.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 9:31PM
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peachymomo(Ca 8)

It depends on the type of oak, really. Here in California the native oaks evolved to cope with summer drought, so wet ground in the warm months can lead to fungal infections that kill the trees. It's not uncommon to see dying oaks with healthy grass underneath around here.

If your oaks can tolerate summer water raising the plants by putting them in pots or planters can give them a chance to not compete with tree roots. Although determined roots will grow up into planters and pots.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 11:48PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

Yes, you need to ID those oaks ASAP. Summer irrigation will kill a native oak really fast! It's why when we get those terrific windstorms, property and people get hurt by falling oaks: the trees were dying already so the root system was compromised, unable to keep the tree upright under pressure.

We are in a drought year, and fall/winter is a much better time to plant anyway. In the San Francisco Bay Area it will be early summer season when May 1st arrives. My freesias are already done, the roses are finishing their first blooming, the late blooming bearded iris are out and will be done in 2 weeks, the rhodies are finished and the hydrangeas are leafed out with little bud heads already.

I prefer soaker hoses to drip. Quick-connect couplers allow me to water when needed. Soil prep is everything; the soil in CA usually is very poor. Drainage is critical; you should always know exactly how fast your site drains in different seasons and group plants according to their watering requirements.

Gardening in CA isn't like gardening anywhere else. Some plants love our warm dry summers but croak under our chilly wet winters. Plants that do well often grow measurably larger than standard measurements on a sales tag.

Pay attention to developing good bones with evergreen shrubs and foliage. We got rid of our grass and I have 15 separate garden beds totaling over 2000 sq. ft. of cottage-style beds, but the first and foremost requirement is that it look as good in January as it does in July - which takes planning and experimentation.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 5:06PM
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Wow !!! Thank you !!!!!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 11:12PM
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Peachymomo & jkom51: I'm in n ga- east of ATL about 40 miles - won't a dang thang grow under my oaks- they have to be at least 100 years old...I adore them - and their self shedding tendencies ... I read they consume 350 gallons of water from the soil a DAY. would explain why NOTHING will grown under them. I think they are Pin Oaks. Being from the south- I just assumed there was Oak & Pin Oak- had no idea there were multiple varieties ! Hmmmm - will look into that.. I guess - I knew by the S Carolina shore - there was Spanish Oak... With the pretty moss thank you both for your responses !!!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 11:24PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

The OP should check out this UC website ASAP. It discusses the 20 different species of native CA oaks.

Here is a link that might be useful: CA oak species

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 7:38PM
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I checked the link but really haven't a clue how to identify what type of oaks they are. There's also another large tree back there but I'm not sure what it is. Also, my neighbor has a round plant built up around the oak on her property and it's filled with plants and has been for about 10 years, and her oak is fine... Not that I would go to that extent personally.

In general, how far from the trunk can I plant non native plants? I'm assuming native plants are okay at any distance from the trunk, right? Also, if I planted one or two non natives would it be okay ?

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 4:07AM
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koszta_kid(Iowazone 5)

One thing I have learned read and read some more. Some plants can be very invasive .take over. Spread them out to be able to weed. Look for bloom time. Nothing worse having plant up front that is done for year .Add garden art Containers-buy thick walled ones-cost more but do not dry out so fast.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2014 at 8:08AM
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