There is a saying in Italian, Dolce far niente—“How sweet to do nothing.” A cottage is a retreat from the hubbub of city life, a place of rest and refreshment in a setting of woods and water, and cottagers may not want to spend their precious time tending a complicated garden. The secret to a pleasant and pleasurable cottage garden is in choosing plants that combine durability, ease of maintenance and summer flowering to match the site. Here are some things to consider.
Avoid rampant spreaders Fast-growing groundcovers are tempting, but you may be distressed to see them overtaking the natural ecosystem. Instead, concentrate on plants that sit tight in their own space.
Mix it up Native plants are a start, but other easygoing perennials such as black-eyed Susans, hardy geraniums, lady’s mantle and ornamental grasses can appear quite at home beside them. Under a tree, for example, a circle of brightly coloured (and thirsty) tuberous begonias may look artificial and out of place, but an informally shaped bed filled with ferns, Solomon’s seal, hostas and lungworts, with daylilies, grasses and coneflowers in the sunnier parts, will be in keeping with the natural surroundings.
Aim for self-sufficiency Cottage perennials may go untended and unwatered for weeks on end, so plants that look after themselves are obvious choices. The best specimens are self-supporting, easygoing, drought tolerant, not fussy about soil and relatively immune to insects and ailments—and if they don’t need dividing for years, so much the better.
Plant more of less A greater number of fewer varieties makes for a natural-looking garden; it’s also easier on the eyes and easier to tend. Close planting crowds out weeds, while a mulch of newspapers topped with compost or leaves finishes the job.
Push the zone Many cottages are out in the snowbelt, so plants that routinely perish during bare-ground, freeze-and-thaw cycles in town may well survive under an insulating blanket of snow in the country.