Margaret Lauterbach

Cottage gardens can include edibles as well as ornamentals

Cottage gardens often involve a picket fence.
Cottage gardens often involve a picket fence. MCT

When you think of a cottage garden, you picture a medley of colors, blossom shapes, foliage shapes and colors, butterflies flitting, hummingbirds visiting and bees buzzing. Plants are all squeezed in, no spaces between them to allow a weed to take hold.

Mixed with the growing plants are usually some hardscape features such as pergolas, arches of wrought iron or woven willow, benches, tuteurs or obelisks for climbing plants. How would you create a cottage garden?

They’re usually sited on a sunny side of a house, behind a tidy fence. The original purpose was to keep livestock and other animals out, although none of the fences I’ve seen pictured near cottage gardens were sufficiently high to keep deer out (those fences have to be at least 7 feet high). Most cottage gardens have a carefully-chosen mixture of annuals and perennials. The plants may even be a mixture of edible and ornamental plants. Many edible plants are ornamental themselves, such as peppers, eggplants, fennel, dill, cardoon and kale.

If you do plant edibles among ornamental plants, be sure you don’t use toxic pesticides in that bed, especially those that work systemically. Those toxins cannot be washed off, as they’re absorbed into the plant’s circulatory system. Many cottage gardens are planted around a fruit tree, so if you have edible plants among the lower level plants, you shouldn’t use toxic insecticide sprays to protect fruit unless it’s a sort that can be washed off.

Background planting commonly includes delphiniums, hollyhocks, phlox and other tall plants. If your planned cottage garden will include a hybrid tea rose, you’d better put it where you can easily get to it to do necessary pruning and maintenance. Similarly, put tomatoes, peppers or other fruiting plants where you can harvest without stepping on other plants. Some of the early cottage gardens included culinary and medicinal herbs such as dill, calendulas, nasturtiums, borage, basils (green and purple), etc.

Medium-height plants may include calendulas, peonies, gladiolus, lilies, standing cypress, echinacea, daisies, gaillardia, Swiss chard, zinnias or any annual or perennial that loves full sun exposure. Shorter plants may be Lady’s Mantle, borage (with their startling blue flowers), nepeta (cat’s mint, not as enticing as catnip), woolly lamb’s ear or even moss roses. Be sure to include some fragrant plants such as a fragrant rose, Four o’clocks, mignonette or petunias.

Is it spring yet?

How do you know when spring is here? Taking the temperature of the soil is the surest way, but attending to natural occurrences (called phenological indicators) such as forsythia blooming, tree buds swelling, daffodils blooming and others also works. Forsythia blossoming is influenced by soil temperature, day length, air temperature, chill hours and sun exposure. In the Treasure Valley it means that is the time for spring pruning of roses and application of pre-emergent crabgrass matter on lawns.

I think it’s a bit early this year, but it’s also the time when we could plant peas and Irish potatoes, as well as lettuce, spinach, radishes, turnips, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli and similar hardy frost-tolerant plants. I know we may still receive frost that will blacken parts of potato leaves, but they’ll recover. The tricky crops now are leeks and onions that may interpret a frosty night as a winter, and since they’re biennial, they go to flower and seed, ruining their bulbs for culinary use.

Early planting may have had a similar effect on the carrots in my garden last year, since many of them went to seed. We could also plant beets, rutabagas, parsnips, scorzonera, salsify, Jerusalem artichokes or shallots.

We wait for the snow to melt on Shafer Butte (nature’s barometer) before planting out frost tender plants such as tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, beans, squash, melons and cucumbers.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening,The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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