How to create a beautiful, budget-friendly garden at the cottage

A wood path through a cottage garden Photo by Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

If gardening is something you like to do to relax, it makes sense that you’re going to want to do it at the cottage. Creating a garden can be tough in cottage country—you may not be there regularly to tend it, there may be soil issues (especially if your cottage is close to a beach or on bedrock), and supplies and labour can be hard to come by. All these challenges can add up to making cottage gardening an expensive proposition—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Use our tips to create a gorgeous garden at the cottage without breaking the bank.

Consider containers

Container gardening can be more convenient and potentially less expensive than traditional garden beds—done on a smaller scale, using containers means you end up shelling out less money for plants and, potentially, material to plant in. Plus it’s super easy to recycle containers you’ve already got into imaginative planters—try coffee cans mounted to a pallet for some rustic charm, or plant annuals in weathered aluminum buckets. Consider other upcycled planters like half-barrels, worn-out wheelbarrows, old bathtubs, or even colourful rubber boots.

Stick to perennials

Perennials come back year after year, so after an initial investment, you can just sit back and let your garden seed itself. Plus, once your garden is established, you’ll have to divide your perennials to keep them healthy—giving you a virtually endless supply of plants. To start, ask friends who have gardens whether they can share with you the next time they’re splitting up that enormous hosta or group of peonies. Coneflowers (also known as echinacea), columbine, hostas and bleeding heart are good, hardy options.

Keep an eye out for invasive species

Stick with plants that are indigenous to your cottage’s ecosystem, to avoid introducing harmful plants that can grow out of control and choke out native species. Some common (and perhaps unexpected) invasive species include lily-of-the-valley, crown vetch (often used as a ground cover), yellow flag iris, and orange daylilies. Although some invasives take hold easily—a little too easily—native plants are sometimes hardier and can require less maintenance than introduced species.

Look for free stuff

Whether it’s compost or water, there are lots of ways to avoid paying for what you do in the garden. Some municipalities provide free compost to anyone who can haul it away. Installing a rain barrel means you won’t have to use local water to keep your plants hydrated. (That obviously isn’t a concern if your water comes directly from the lake!) Check a local tree cutting company for wood chips, which can be used for mulch. You can also make your own mulch by running your lawnmower over fallen leaves in the fall, or with grass clippings. For decorative items, salvage what you can—shabby chic looks great in a cottage garden.

Buy at the right time—and in the right place

You don’t have to join the hordes at the local garden centre on the May long weekend. Plants and other garden materials go on sale at the end of the season, so stock up then—just protect them during the winter, since they won’t have had a season to establish themselves. Lumber is cheaper in the winter, and straw—which you might want to use as mulch—is cheaper at a livestock feed store than it will be at the garden centre.

Tool-wise, buy only what you really need

It’s worth it to buy good-quality tools, but if you’re just starting out, you don’t need everything in the catalogue (no matter how tempting they are). Think of these as the basics for a gardening toolkit that you’ll add to throughout the years:

  • Gloves. They’ll keep your hands clean and reasonably free of scratches. Don’t worry about long gauntlets or expensive leather work gloves—a pair that fits snugly to your hands and has a durable coating on the palm should be enough.
  • Hand trowel. A hand trowel is perfect for planting and digging in small areas.
  • Knee pads. You’re going to be down on your knees—and life is a lot more comfortable when you don’t have rocks poking into your skin.
  • Spade/shovel. Pick one with a square head and a sturdy handle. You’ll use a spade for all sorts of jobs, so spend more and get a good one. If you’re going to be doing a lot of heavy digging, find a spade that has a place on the top of the blade to rest your foot for extra pushing power.
  • Secateurs. Also called pruners, these are small cutting tools perfect for pruning plants and small branches. You’ll use them for flowers, you’ll use them for herbs, you’ll use them to tame the raspberry canes. A good pair is invaluable.
  • Loppers. If you’ve got bigger branches to trim, loppers—long-handled cutters—will give you the strength and leverage you need.
  • Rake. This goes without saying. See if you can find one with a padded handle, especially if you have a lot of trees whose leaves you plan to clear in the fall.
  • Long hose. Hoses are also worth spending a little extra money on. You may be able to get away with a watering can if you have a small garden of drought-hardy plants, or if you’re sticking to container gardening—but a hose is definitely convenient.

What are your tips for creating a budget-friendly garden?

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