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Shabby to Chic

by Reid Pierce Armstrong

Old ladders, chairs and household items add intrigue to this cottage garden in Heathsville.

You don’t have to spend a ton of money to have a garden your friends will crow about.

One of the hottest trends in landscaping is the cottage garden, an informal style that features a mixture of edible and ornamental plants. With a cottage garden, pathways, sheds and eclectic points of interest accentuate dense, low-maintenance beds.

While this probably isn’t the right look for somebody with a colonial house where a formal garden would be more appropriate, it’s suited for many of the cottages found at the river, said Kathy Brooks, a landscape designer from Richmond who has brought to life many yards in the Northern Neck.

A “double duty” gardening idea is to mix annuals and vegetables, especially if they are around your terrace or seating area, Brooks said.

“The veggies will be close at hand for picking and caring for, and the annuals will give a boost of color all summer,” she said.

Consider annuals such as nasturtium, marigolds and zinnias, Brooks said. Their seeds can be gathered in the fall and stored for planting the following year.

Nasturtiums are colorful edging plants with the added benefit of having edible leaves (great with pork) and flowers, she said.

Vegetables grown in flower gardens do not need to be grown in rows. “They can be tucked here and there,” said Brooks.

She suggests using squash and zucchini with their large green tropical-like leaves and huge yellow flowers mixed in a border area. 

Bush green beans make a nice border along a path and get about 15 inches high, she said.

Tomatoes on a copper trellis lend an element of height to a garden and have bright red fruit, she said. And, cherry tomatoes perform very well in hanging baskets.

“Bush cucumbers can do their creeping thing in small empty places,” she said. 

“Don’t forget about herbs,” Brooks added. Rosemary does extremely well on the Northern Neck and is an evergreen fragrant shrub growing to about 3 feet tall., Brooks said.

Parsley, with its bright green leaf, mixes well in containers with coleus as the colors complement one another, she said.

Bonnie Williams of Greenpoint Nursery in Lively said the best part of using herbs in landscaping is that they are useful in other ways:

  • African blue basil, which is pretty mixed with flowers, can mildly flavor foods.
  • Thyme, which grows nicely between rocks and along pathways, is another seasoning.
  • Mint, which is a hardy ground cover (and great in iced tea and lemonade), can take over an entire region of a yard.
  • Stevia can be a natural sweetener if the leaves are dried and pulverized.
  • Tansy is a great bug and spider repellent if the green foliage is picked and dispersed in places such as garages and basements.

Getting Started

If you don’t own a rototiller you can rent one or borrow one from a friend.

If that seems like too much effort, consider building a raised bed, suggests Williams.

Start by putting down some filter cloth to keep out the weeds. Build up the walls of your bed using rocks, wood, cinderblocks, bricks or whatever else you may have and fill the bed with a healthy mixture of soil.

If garden beds seem like too much work, or if you are looking to add another dimension to a garden, consider growing some plants in a container.

Plants can be grown in almost anything, Williams noted. An old wagon, or wheelbarrow can create a fun place to grow things and will add another dimension to a garden. Even a chair with a broken seat can become a place to grow flowers. A broken umbrella stand can be a trellis for climbing vines.

“Look for things sitting outside the antique shops because they are damaged,” Williams said.

“Be sure to line the bottom with rocks or broken clay pots or oyster shells for drainage, and put holes in the bottom if the container doesn’t already have them,” Williams said.

Whether you use a traditional plot, a raised bed or a container, be sure to get the right start, Williams said: “Fill it with a good soil mixture that has compost, manure and topsoil.”

posted 03.27.2009

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