How to choose the best garden for your cottage

By Lorraine JohnsonLorraine Johnson

You’ve got four broad choices of naturalistic cottage garden: woodland for shade, woodland edge for part shade/part sun, meadow for sun, and rocky pockets in sun or shade. Within these broad categories, of course, there are endless variations: deep-shade woodland gardens under dense evergreens, for example; dry, sandy woodland-edge gardens under sparsely scattered white pines; wet meadow gardens in moist sunny areas; and dry meadow gardens in very sandy soil. To give you a taste of the glorious variety of colour, height, foliage, and bloom you can combine in a native-species cottage garden, we’ve provided starter lists of plants for meadow, woodland, and rock gardens, though many can cope in more than one set of conditions (for example, trout lily and showy tick trefoil can grow in loam, clay, or sand). Whatever garden type your cottage environment ultimately dictates, remember to start small. “Just take a little corner of your property and see what you can do with that comfortably,” says Bill Dickinson, chair of the Natural Heritage Committee of the Muskoka Heritage Foundation. “If you have a lawn, for example, create little island beds of naturalized plants in it, and let them spread.”

Preparing and planting the bed

If you’re leery of setting up a compost bin at the cottage for fear of attracting more wildlife than you’d like, bring in compost from your city bin or a nursery.

It’s an uphill, and ultimately futile, battle to try to alter soil dramatically at the cottage. You can add horticultural lime to a bed of acidic soil to turn it alkaline but, inevitably, the acid pH of the surrounding environment will work its way back in. You’ll have much more success, and less frustration, if you accept your conditions and plant the species suited to them. That said, even a garden based on the naturalistic, “go with the flow” philosophy can benefit from a bit of preparation, such as building up and enriching the soil base. Landscaper Robert Allen, of Northway Gardeners in Utterson, Ont., thinks it’s fine to import a purchased soil blend such as Triple Mix, which is manure, peat, and topsoil, but not to use it in large quantities, as it often has weed seeds. “It’s good for helping plants get established, but there will be a rush of germinating weeds that you’ll have to deal with in the first year.”

He recommends building up your soil with compost, which will improve its water-retention capability and boost its organic matter content. If you’re leery of setting up a compost bin at the cottage for fear of attracting more wildlife than you’d like, bring in compost from your city bin or a nursery. For rock gardens in particular, it’s a good idea to build up the soil layer in fissures and cracks between the rocks with a mix of compost, sterilized composted manure, and sand. This will help shallow-rooted plants, such as barren strawberry and pearly everlasting, slug it out in next-to-no soil.

Planting your natural garden

Once the bed is prepared, you’re ready for the most satisfying part – planting. Although you can use seeds (if the chipmunks don’t get them), potted transplants make more sense for cottage gardeners who aren’t constantly on the premises to coddle seedlings. And they provide virtually instant gratification and quick visual impact, also a must when your garden time is limited to a short season of scattered weekends.

Transplants are best put in the ground in the cooler, rainier conditions of May or early June but, ideally, you should try to get to the cottage several weekends in a row to ensure they are getting enough water during this critical phase. Fall is also a good time to plant because you don’t need to be as vigilant about watering. Even summer planting is an option, as long as you’re at the cottage for an extended period of at least three weeks to water daily and protect the transplants from drought.

As for the best way to settle young plants into the ground, Jacki Kennedy-Ciphery, of Water’s Edge Landscaping in Port Carling, Ont., advises digging “a hole three or four times the width of the pot and twice as deep, and blend lots of compost into this large planting zone.” She then submerges the plant pot in air-temperature water until bubbles stop appearing to give the roots a good soaking, and adds water to the bottom of the hole before planting – “otherwise, the ground can steal moisture from the plant if conditions are very dry.” As a further measure, Miriam Goldberger suggests creating a saucer-like depression in the surface soil around the plant, “so water will collect at its base, bringing moisture to the root system more easily.”

With summers tending now to long dry spells, mulching transplants is essential for holding moisture in the soil, as well as discouraging weeds.

But watering concerns don’t end with the early days of planting. It’s crucial to keep transplants moist throughout their inaugural growing season. “Even if you’re planting drought-tolerant species, the first year is absolutely critical,” warns Kennedy-Ciphery. “You need to make sure the plants aren’t drought stressed, so if you’re not at the cottage during a dry period, ask a neighbour to water.” The hitch is that your cottaging neighbours are likely to be coming and going as much as you. In that case, she says, “buy a reliable timer and attach it to a soaker hose, which is better than a sprinkler because water isn’t lost to the air.” Obviously, if your pump breaks down or there’s a power outage, the plants will go thirsty, but timed watering is a good option if your visits to the cottage are fairly frequent.

With summers tending now to long dry spells, mulching transplants is essential for holding moisture in the soil, as well as discouraging weeds. Kennedy-Ciphery recommends spreading an inch of shredded dead leaves, pine needles, or bagged cedar or pine mulch in the woodland garden. For a meadow garden, Goldberger suggests clean, non-weed-infested straw, available from nurseries or horse farms.

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