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Master Gardeners:Grow A California-Style English Cottage Garden

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Do you drool over pictures of exuberant English cottage gardens but think it can´t be done in the sizzling Mother Lode? Without rain from April to November, It´s impossible to take a border out of England and duplicate it here. We can however plant an English-style garden with a rich tapestry of California-friendly plants. Silver and gray plants always look cool even when the thermometer soars to 100o and expanses of thirsty lawn can be replaced with paths of gravel or bark. Plant for multiseason color and you can enjoy your garden for nine months of the year or more.

PICK YOUR SPOT–BUT THINK SMALL! It´s easy to get overly enthused, and cottage gardens do require regular care. Choose perhaps a lackluster driveway corner, a bit of old lawn, or a tired border. Try to keep the lines gently curving for a soft effect. Stay away from the drip line of native oaks; summer water can be fatal!

Any green thumber worth his weight in compost knows great gardens start with groundwork. Remove any weeds, grass, or old ground cover. Your soil will benefit from a goodly addition of organics like well-rotted home compost or animal manure. Work the compost in and water to germinate any weed or grass seed. Pull, till or, if necessary, spray the weeds as they come up. Repeat.

CONSIDER YOUR CONDITIONS. Is your site sunny, shady, or a combination? How cold? How hot? Can you protect your plantings from Bambi? What about water? Each of these factors helps determine the microclimate of your particular planting area; this will be somewhat different from your neighbor´s yard or someone´s yard down the street.

Hand watering is time consuming and sprinklers tend to be wasteful. Because cottage gardens are densely planted and usually evolve with time, I like the “Drip-Along” irrigation hoses with pre-installed emitters every 18 inches or so. Wind the hose throughout your planting area, anchoring it as you go. If you use an automatic timer, be sure it can be adjusted to less frequent waterings as your plantings mature. Turn the water off during the rainy season.

WHEN AUTUMN ARRIVES, IT´S TIME TO PLANT. For long-term success, plant for the conditions you identified above. Browse garden books, magazines and nurseries and see what is doing well in your neighborhood.

Choose plants that inspire you; your plants are not unlike an artist´s paint. For a tapestry effect, combine an assortment of floral colors, leaf textures, and plant forms. Plant in drifts or clusters, for Mother Nature does not plant in straight rows. Generally place taller plants to the center or rear. Plant closely to shade the soil and discourage weeds.

Choose perennials for the backbone of your garden as they come back year after year like old friends. Include a rose or two if conditions are right. Many native plants like California fuchsia (Zauschneria) are at home in the dry cottage garden. Aromatic herbs including the many sages, oreganos, rosemaries, lavender cotton (Santolina) and true lavender make good bedfellows and are deer and drought resistant.

Keep in mind that next spring you can add annuals and biennials like old-fashioned hollyhocks, spider flowers and larkspur as background filler in sunny beds. Use shorter plants including zinnias, California poppies and sweet alyssum to fill in the front. Foxgloves, columbine, and popcorn impatiens lush up shadier gardens. These plants often self-sow, coming up again each spring. Add vegetables for an eclectic mix of edibles and ornamentals.

ADD THE FINISHING TOUCHES. Top off with mulch—lots of mulch, to conserve water and keep weeds down. Place decorative stones, art, or flea market whimsy to suit your fancy. Prolong bloom by removing old flowers (deadheading); let trimmings lie to add mulch and enrich the soil. Eliminate or reduce pesticides, and birds and pollinators of all sorts will ornament your garden.

There are bound to be those plants that thrive, even spread and bully their neighbors. Colors will clash (to your eye at least), and other plants will keel over and croak. Consider all of these situations as opportunities to learn, to fine tune and, best of all, to add new garden finds.

To contact Master Gardeners, call 533-5696. See you in the garden.

Vera Strader is a Sonora Master Gardener whose eclectic cottage garden attracts a variety of birds, bees, and many other pollinators. She tries to use no pesticides.