Two big obstacles to keeping a cottage garden alive are managing hungry wildlife and watering between visits. But it can be done. Here’s how.
How to keep ’em watered
Regular watering is critical when the seedlings are tiny, says Master Gardener Sara Drawehn, who aims for a couple of times a week. “Established plants can handle more time between watering, especially if you mulch well.”
Trick No. 1: Mulching cools the ground, reduces evaporation, and suppresses weeds; eventually it decomposes, enriching the soil. Most gardeners spread plant material, such as straw or shredded leaves, as mulch after the seedlings are up.
Trick No. 2: Watering systems—high-tech or home-made—can buy time if you’re away for more than a week or so. Lee Valley, for example, sells a solar-powered pump that connects a rain barrel to plastic tubes that drip water on the soil. Or, repurpose plastic pop bottles: poke a small vent hole in the bottom and several holes in the cap, fill with water and up-end in the garden. Water will slowly seep into the soil.
Trick No. 3: Drawehn has an even better idea. “‘I’ve got to water,’” she says, “is a great excuse to go to the cottage.”
How to keep ’em safe from critters
Minden gardener Rob Kelly’s list of rude garden guests is long: Beavers, groundhogs, and snowshoe hares snack too, along with deer. “Deer are everyone’s problem,” he says, laughing. “Geese will decimate your carrots. Voles eat kale. Skunks rototill the garden, looking for grubs.” So how do cottage gardeners discourage the gluttons at the all-you-can-eat buffet?
Change the menu: Deer usually avoid rhubarb (the leaves are toxic), cucumber (which are prickly), and squash (the leaves are hairy), as well as strong-smelling plants like marigolds, and members of the onion family.
Surprise the guests: Rob’s motion-activated sprinkler sprays deer with a harmless burst of water when they trip the sensor. “It makes a racket and freaks them out,” he says.
Get a bouncer: Although white-tailed deer can jump about 2.5 metres, a shorter fence can work when paired with higher visual barriers, such as rope or old hose. The Harpurs string fishing line, tied with lengths of old videotape, to flutter and flash in the breeze. It flummoxes wild turkeys too. “It doesn’t hurt them,” Robert Harpur says, “but when they bounce off it once or twice, they get leery.”
Write off the loss: Chipmunks take single bites out of Rob’s tomatoes, eat the seeds, and drop the rest. Not cute, but “there’s really nothing I can do about it,” he says. “I just plant a little extra for the critters.”
This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine as part of the story “Make friends with Salad.”