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Another Take on the English Cottage Garden

Another Take on the English Cottage Garden

The British have a reputation for being keen gardeners. That may be a bit of a stereotype, but it's understandable. The climate in Great Britain does seem to encourage lush plant growth in the proverbial English cottage garden. Maybe that's why what we call a yard in the U.S. is referred to as a garden in the U.K. It may also be the reason why allotments (community garden plots) are extremely popular in the U.K.

Rekindling My Love of Gardening

Last summer, I wrote about my efforts to create an English cottage garden (The Reluctant Cottage Gardener). In it, I bemoaned my lack of a green thumb, but earlier this year I began to rethink that assessment.

It started in March, when I visited the Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville, Wisconsin. I was on my way home from a trip to Whitewater after seeing the American Shakespeare Center's touring production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. I decided to stop in Janesville even though I knew the gardens wouldn't be at their best. A lot of planning had obviously gone into the grounds, especially the English, French, Japanese, Italian, and Scottish-themed gardens. The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland actually helped with the development of the Scottish garden. Despite the lack of blooms and the patches of snow on the ground, I thought the gardens were beautiful.

That visit, followed by the appearance of spring flowers at the local garden center, rekindled a long-dormant urge to get out and work in the yard. I realized that although I'm not an expert horticulturist, I'm actually a pretty good gardener -- when I have time. In recent years I've mainly indulged my love of gardening through magazines and visits to public gardens, but there was a time when I really enjoyed working in the yard. I especially enjoyed the calm and contemplation I felt when I was pulling weeds and deadheading flowers.

That's when I realized the hectic pace of life had hampered my efforts, not the lack of a green thumb. It just got harder and harder to make time for gardening as parenting and work responsibilities expanded. Eventually I came to see it as a chore rather than a pleasure. Now my nest is empty and I'm no longer spending two hours a day commuting, so I decided it was time to see if I could rediscover the joy of getting my hands dirty. I started by attacking the flower bed near the front door. After turning over and amending the soil, I planted a host of annuals among the scraggly perennials. Then I hauled all the pots out of the shed so I could surround our screened-in patio with colorful blooms.

To my delight, these efforts have really paid off. Both the annuals and the perennials look great, and even the clematis by the front door looks perkier. (It had been looking decidedly peaky for the last few years.) I've also been making an effort to enjoy the fruits of my labor by spending more time outdoors. I've enjoyed working and reading on the patio while appreciating the flowers in shaded comfort.

Brightening up the Back Yard
Brightening up the Back Yard

More Ways to Enjoy Cottage Gardens and the British Countryside

I continue to enjoy reading about English gardens in the British edition of Country Living magazine. I've also discovered a wonderful magazine called LandLove, which is a celebration of the British countryside. It features gorgeous pictures of gardens and wildlife, stories about rural artisans, and articles about country traditions and attractions.

If you're a garden lover like me, I also highly recommend the ITV television series Rosemary and Thyme. It follows the adventures of Laura Thyme and Rosemary Boxer, two itinerant gardeners who travel around England restoring gardens and finding dead bodies. In between solving murders, they work in beautiful gardens and discuss flowers with lovely, old-fashioned sounding names. The show will have you running for a gardening catalog.

The Smallholding Phenomenon

Felicity Kendal, who plays Laura Thyme, also starred in the BBC television series The Good Life. (The series aired as Good Neighbors in the U.S.) Kendal played Barbara, the cheerful, tolerant wife of Tom Good (Richard Briers), who decides to quit his job designing toys for cereal boxes in order to build a self-sufficient lifestyle on a smallholding (a small farm). The only problem is that he decides to pursue this new lifestyle at their home in an upscale London suburb, much to the dismay of their neighbors, the snobbish Margo (Penelope Keith of To the Manor Born) and her genial husband Jerry (Paul Eddington of the hilarious Yes, Minister). Tom and Barbara plant crops in their front and back gardens; raise chickens, pigs, and goats; create electricity with a methane-powered generator; and barter extra fruit and veg for anything they can't make themselves.

Tom's ambition might seem a bit unusual, but I've seen numerous references to the "good life" in British magazines and newspapers as a direct allusion to the kind of lifestyle Tom is trying to lead. Granted, most people aren't attempting to do it in suburban London! Country Living magazine has a regular column called The Good Life, Practical Ideas and Advice for Would-be Smallholders. LandLove recently started a series called Your Beginner's Guide to the Good Life. It provides advice on running a successful smallholding, including articles on planting trees for food and fuel and keeping poultry and sheep.

Is There a Cottage Garden in my Future?

Even if you're not interested in having your own smallholding, I highly recommend checking out the pleasures of British gardening at Countryliving.co.uk and LandLove.com. You can also check out my Pinterest page for inspiring pictures of cottage gardens and the great British countryside. Who knows - I may even be posting pictures of my own cottage garden next year!

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