Bartlett on Gardening: Grandma’s Garden

May 12, 2018


Wish you could have a garden like Grandma’s? Let’s take a closer look at her yard.


I grew up next door to a gardening grandmother whose Eden-like cottage garden has been lovingly restored by her granddaughter, my childhood friend, Lynne. As we toured the renewed garden, many of the plants were the very ones we’d played among decades ago.


Grandma’s garden, overgrown from years of benign neglect, still had its basic design intact. The first step in the restoration project was to reduce the beds to a manageable size. Her roses, growing on their own roots, had not needed spray, fertilizer or pruning to survive. Enormous clumps of dahlias looked exactly as I’d remembered them. The bloom-encrusted camellias had been planted when the house was built in the late 1930s. Incredibly, fish still lived at the bottom of the overgrown, algae-choked pond. Her perennials, hardy, well-adapted plants, just needed some thinning and pruning to get back in business.


I know that Grandma had never had the luxury of choosing annuals from the latest offerings in a garden center. She grew them from seed or cuttings. These were more often than not obtained from gardening friends She allowed them to self-sow and weave among the perennials. This random jumble of plants is the essence of cottage garden charm.


(Center photos: Top-old garden rose Archduke Charles; right-heirloom peony Festiva Maxima)


The effect is difficult to duplicate by bedding out alone. As a foundation, this garden needs shrubs and even carefully selected trees to anchor the arrangement. Bedding plants will work well in the front row, but the addition of medium and tall plants is essential. Sowing taller annuals can give an instant random effect in the back row. Perennials, as they mature, add to the picture.


The cottage garden does not segregate vegetables and herbs. The tomato tower and bean tepee will look great surrounded by marigolds. Basil and dill can fill the air with perfume as well as any flower,


Recreating this garden can be more interesting if you incorporate some of the cultivars Grandma would have used. These are referred to as “heirloom” plants. There is a great deal of information available about these plants and where to buy them. Many catalogs highlight heirloom selections because they are frequently more fragrant or flavorful than recent hybrids.


Certainly the nostalgia of cottage gardens is enchanting, but their vitality may also make them easier to maintain than more formal plans.


Master gardener Ann Bartlett took the above photos in her own gardens at a former home in Nebraska. 

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