An introduction to cottage gardening

Tips for planting native species, and why you should avoid exotic ones

By Lorraine JohnsonLorraine Johnson

Cottage gardening

Photo by Randy Craig

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If there is one thing that draws us to cottage country, it is the landscape – the forests and shorelines and plants and rocks, and on and on. We carve our pockets of pleasure out of these places that are so different from our cities and towns. The unique landscape that grounds – literally and metaphorically – the cottage experience calls for an equally special style of gardening, one that honours and enhances the qualities that draw us there in the first place.

Although we head to the cottage to relax, those of us with green thumbs know that the urge to garden demands expression wherever we are – there’s only so much dock-sitting we can do before the trowel calls. Besides, gardening is relaxation for many people, and the cottage is the perfect place for puttering – for trying out new plant combinations or spending lazy afternoons deadheading spent flowers. The challenge is to do it in a way that fits with the natural surroundings and doesn’t command a lot of attention and resources. That challenge is taken up in this four-part, hands-on series of articles: how to achieve high-beauty, low-impact cottage gardens.

The trick is to look at what it is you love about the wild landscape and build those qualities into your garden design.

All gardening is negotiation, finding a balance between our desires and the landscape’s demands. In cottage country, these demands might seem particularly insistent; the wild is, after all, at your door, and that is the point. The trick is to look at what it is you love about the wild landscape and build those qualities into your garden design. Whether it’s the rugged rocky outcrops of Georgian Bay, dense forests of Haliburton, sparsely vegetated sandy spits of Lake Huron, or flowering meadows of Prince Edward County, the features of the wild places around your cottage can be mimicked, enhanced, and highlighted in your garden design. In other words, your garden guide is all around you. The rocky outcrops become the inspiration and design basis for a rock garden, the forest for a woodland garden, the sandy spit for a dryland garden, and the meadow for an arrangement of sun-loving wildflowers. The native plants of the natural landscape – the ruby-red berries of false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), for example, or the woolly leaves and prolific white flowers of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), or the dazzling orange of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – are gorgeous candidates in the cultivated landscape. The garden thus becomes something not imposed but that blends right in.

“In some of the gardens I’ve designed, everything is so tied together, with the understory groundcovers in effect bringing the forest down to the cottage, that it doesn’t look like anyone did anything, basically,” says Robert Allen with a chuckle. Allen is a landscaper who has been promoting the use of native plants in Muskoka for 15 years through his company, Northway Gardeners, and his design philosophy is based on the idea of the “right fit,” finding a way to connect the surrounding wild landscape to the cottage garden. He’s particularly pleased when the guiding hand of his work is so seamless as to be almost invisible. Rick Wright of Brackenrig Landscaping in Port Carling, Ont., has an equally succinct way of describing this fit: “Living with nature, not opposed to it.”


This article was originally published on May 14, 2003

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Lorraine Johnson