Color Without the Cost

Choose a wide variety of flowers and foliage to get the most bang for your buck.
Steve Bender

If you ask Felder Rushing of Jackson, Mississippi, to define the term "cottage garden," he'll tell you it's a place that "has every kind of plant and thing, including the kitchen sink." But if he sees Cathy Umphrey's garden in Annapolis, he'll have to cut her some slack. Hers doesn't have a sink. But it does have vegetables, flower borders, fruit trees, a fishpond, a flagstone patio, a lawn, benches, and painted chairs--all in a 40- x 85-foot backyard. She and her husband, Stewart, did the work themselves.

Color and Texture
For her part, Cathy defines a cottage garden as "one that moves with the seasons. There's something happening all the time." Indeed, that's the case here. Her garden emphasizes leaf textures, foliage colors, and plant combinations. "It's important to keep it ever changing and varied without a lot of expense and labor," she explains. "But to avoid gaps, you need good foliage plants." She suggests combining different leaf shapes and sizes--lacy with coarse, big with little, or strappy with round. An excellent example is Cathy's quintet of 'Francee' hosta, 'Brilliant' sedum, yellow corydalis (Corydalis lutea), Sedum cauticolum, and bluestar (Amsonia sp.).

Once you master texture, it's time to tackle color. "I like a diversity of plants with a unifying tone," she says. "If one plant is in a strong hue, another can pick up on that in a subtle way." Garden designers call this technique "color echo." You'll find it here in a shady corner where a dwarf pink hydrangea, Japanese painted ferns, and nodding bellflowers (Campanula sp.) display various hues of pink.

Cathy's zest for color extends beyond flowers and foliage to gaudily painted chairs. And that's not all. "I read about how artist Robert Dash painted outdoor woodwork to keep pace with the seasonal color in his garden, and I loved the idea," she recalls. "Then one day, our clothes dryer broke down, and as I hung our laundry in the garden, I started arranging the brightly colored T-shirts on the line to coordinate with the flowers."

Choosing the shirts to match the flowers…sink or no sink, that's got to be a cottage garden.

Pounding the Pavement
Cathy's resourcefulness extends well beyond flowers and T-shirts. Early in her garden's development, she wanted to build raised beds for her plants to give them better soil and drainage. She could have bordered the beds with brick, cut stone, or even slate, but these materials would have run up a tidy bill. So instead, she and Stewart got their edging free. 

How was that? When the couple moved into their home, a concrete-strip driveway connected their house to a detached garage. They decided to use the garage for storage, so then the driveway became expendable. Stewart promptly took a sledgehammer and broke the expanse of concrete into big chunks.

Then Cathy and Stewart fashioned the concrete pieces into curving, low, stacked retaining walls. ("We were a lot younger then," she notes with a chuckle.) Because the concrete chunks aren't mortared, they can be rearranged at any time. Plus, according to Cathy, an unbelievable number of plants sprout in the cracks between the concrete, including yellow corydalis, Japanese painted fern, and all sorts of sedums. The recycled edging looks great, and all it cost was a little sweat.

Got a Weekend? Get a Pond.
For most folks, adding a water feature means calling a contractor and shelling out cash. Once again, the Umphreys did neither. Instead, they did the work themselves, putting a small, formal pond, measuring 3 feet wide, 5 feet long, and 18 inches deep, in a corner of the patio.

Cathy and Stewart dug most of it out over the course of a weekend. In subsequent weekends, they installed a black plastic liner, edged the pond with handsome Belgian blocks mortared together to hold and hide the liner, and filled the pond. Then they added plants, such as water lilies, water hyacinths, and Japanese iris, which help to keep the water clear.

Cathy believes that small, formal ponds like hers are a good fit for most folks. They're easy to build and maintain, and they often seem less out of place within a garden. "Natural" ponds, on the other hand, are harder to do because they don't always look very natural where people put them.

Veggies and Flowers
As noted before, cottage gardening means lots of plants in a little space. So it comes as no surprise that Cathy gives her larkspurs, poppies, and purple coneflowers nearly as much room as the Swiss chard and onions. "The vegetable garden is my favorite," she says. "It's where I can really experiment. Every year I try different tulips; they are really fun in a vegetable garden because there's not a lot going on there when they come up. I like using yellow and burgundy tulips to play off the bronze and chartreuse of the lettuce." 

Asked to sum up her garden in a few words, Cathy replies, "It's a place of wild experimentation where I am free to play."