“HOW On Earth” – Published in Pink Magazine – June 2011

Cottage Garden on the Beach

The Cottage Garden

My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.  ~H. Fred Dale (Thanks, Anne)

I am often asked what brought me to Hilton Head Island. I am originally from the Philadelphia area. A client of mine bought an oceanfront bungalow at North Forest Beach and asked me to design and install a cottage garden. I was thrilled at the prospect and went to work researching what flowers could withstand this windswept, salt spray, full sun and humid environment. I shipped the plants, filling all twenty boxes with packing peanuts. Opening up the cartons on a dune turned out to be my first lesson in gardening oceanfront. The wind took the peanuts everywhere. I don’t think I have ever used that particular packing material again.

The garden itself turned out lovely. Cottage style gardening is simply charming. Contrary to its appearance, careful planning is required to achieve the wild effect. The same design principles can be applied to borders or more formal color beds. This month let’s look at the methods behind creating various flower arrangements.

The goal in a well designed flower border is to achieve balance year round. This is a little tricky and where knowledge of plant heights, color, season of bloom, texture and form all come into play.

The first place I start is to determine the site requirements. This is the key to any successful garden and the most common mistake. I like to ask people to stand where their garden is and look up. Full sun is when all you see is blue sky.  Part sun is some blue sky with a few trees that block the sun at various times of the day. Part shade is a very high tree canopy with glimpses of the sky. Full shade is when you look up and all you see is trees. Generally, full sun is required for those dramatic flower displays. Drainage and soil type are next on the importance list. I recommend taking a soil test which will give you a break down of exactly what is needed to be amended based on what you will be growing. I am a strong advocate of adding organic material to our soil. A rich, well drained soil makes all the difference in supporting optimal healthy plants.  Other factors to consider are salt spray, proximity to the marsh and wildlife.

Figuring out what types of conditions are in your garden is half the battle. Next is analyzing what your plant wants. Unfortunately trusting the supplied label is often misleading. Many times the information is written for other parts of the country and what works in the Northeast, West Coast or even England, does not work here in the South East. I suggest talking with local gardeners and reading material written specifically for your area. Touring gardens and making notes of plants you like is a great and fun way to learn what plants are successful here.

Now comes the fun part. To me, designing is like putting a puzzle together. I begin with making lists. I write down every plant that would fit within my site requirements. This is my wish list. I then create a sketch of my space. This helps to visualize the overall concept and determines the quantity of plants needed. I begin with a few of my favorites. These are the plants that are dependable, easy to grow, and have a long bloom season.

Cottage Garden Example Layout Sketch

Balance: Symmetry is a key component to a pleasing design, and there are many ways to achieve harmony in a garden. Repetition and simplicity are the main tools that fulfill this goal. Repeating a color, a form, a texture, or simply the same plant throughout your design, are methods of unifying the theme. Resist the temptation to put one of every favorite plant in your yard. Massing groups of the same plant is more aesthetic and pleasing to the eye.

Season of bloom: The large majority of perennials will be blooming in the summer. They will also be going dormant for several months of the year leaving holes in your border. This is where annuals and evergreen plant material comes into play. I like to color code my areas based on season of bloom so I can see what the garden will look like year round.

Texture: The foliage of a plant is very important and often overlooked. There are many perennials that will only be in bloom for a month or so, yet their foliage is persistent. Mixing textures together such as a broad leaf with a ferny one, or a tropical look with a grass, lends drama to your garden.

Form: In nature, shapes of flowers differ. There are daisy shapes, spikes, clusters, tubular or trumpet, and round forms. Combining various forms together creates interest.

Habit: Understanding ultimate height and spread and then adhering to these guidelines I personally find challenging. I like instant gratification and tend to plant my gardens heavy. That said, properly spaced material is preferred for the most favorable growth and health of our plants.

Color: In small spaces, I like to pick one color and then build on that, using differing shades of the same hue. I will then mix varying shades of green to complement.