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Cottage Garden Charm

By: Kristin Beane SullivanKristin Beane Sullivan
Old-fashioned flowers, a custom white picket fence, and colorful containers make this charming cottage garden a spot you never want to leave!

Organized cottage garden style

A little more than 10 years ago this charming cottage-inspired garden in Maine was a blank slate. Erin and Dan Clark had just added the 29×35-foot paver patio to their existing deck, but then Erin started dreaming of a garden. What inspired her? “I knew I wanted cottage flowers, but I’m also kind of a neat freak,” she says. “And my mum, Linda, has always had really sweet gardens and great style.”

Even though she had a sense of what she wanted, she mulled it over for years before landing on the horseshoe-shaped border anchored by a picket fence and arbor you see below.

Clark Cottage Garden view from porch: The borders inside the fence are roughly 5 feet wide (and much deeper in the corners), which leaves room for perennials to be planted two or three plants deep.

Secret to a quick start

In late summer 2019 the couple built the fence and arbor and installed the plantings. It’s hard to believe that the perennials in these photos are only a couple of years old. The fast growth is a testament to how important starting with great soil can be.

Before they planted anything, Dan tilled up the planting area and spread 4 or 5 inches of biosolid compost purchased from a nearby municipality. Erin dug the compost in as she planted the catmint (Nepeta racemosa) and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), divided and moved from the front yard, and the other small end-of-season perennials picked up at a local garden center.

The quick start has been this garden’s biggest surprise. Erin kept the plants’ mature sizes in mind when she planted and spread them out rather than giving in to the temptation to pack them in: “It hurt me. I had to keep telling myself, it’s going to look fine.” Now she’s glad she did.

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Cottage garden border with catmint and lady's mantle: Blue catmint, chartreuse lady's mantle and pink bloody cranesbill.

Flower progression

In this zone 4 garden, you can’t count on frost-free nights until the end of May and can expect a frost by the end of September. Erin packs a lot into her short summers!

The flowers start in May with bulbs, such as tulips and alliums. Then the garden transitions into the blue, pink and chartreuse June palette you see above. By July, pinks take over, with coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), and pink-flowering annuals like zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), which Erin starts from seed in her portable greenhouse. Late summer brings Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida) and the annuals in all their glory.

Change of plans

No project comes off totally as expected, especially when the design calls for symmetry. Here, the ‘John Davis’ climbing roses on the south side of the patio are less vigorous than those on the north. Erin suspects the fence is shading them so she plans to move the smaller roses to the outside of the fence to solve this problem.

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Erin & Dan Clark of Clark Cottage Garden: Dan and Erin Clark of Clark Cottage Gardens.

Sweet pea cottage

Once the planting was done, Dan and Erin turned their attention to building Sweet Pea Cottage at the back of the yard as a studio space for Erin’s painting and other creative endeavors. Next up on their project list? A path to the cottage and, of course, a flower bed. They started it late last year, and you can follow the progress as well as see the garden throughout the year on Erin’s blog, or on Instagram @Clark.Cottage.Gardens.

Clark cottage garden plant palette: Mounding perennials like catmint fill the front of the borders. Keep it reblooming all summer by shearing it back after each flush of blooms fade.

Erin’s cottage garden plant palette

Here are a few of the plants that bloom in June in this Maine garden.

A) ‘John Davis’ Climbing rose Rosa

Shrub; climber with lightly fragrant double pink flowers from late spring through fall; full sun; 6 to 8 ft. tall, spreading; cold hardy in USDA zones 2 to 9

B) ‘Thai Pink Jade’ Garden phlox Phlox paniculata

Perennial; soft pink flowers on mildew-resistant foliage in summer; full sun; 30 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8

C) ‘Walker’s Low’ Catmint Nepeta racemosa

Perennial; lavender-blue flowers rebloom from late spring through fall; full sun; 18 to 36 in. tall and wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

D) ‘Silver Mound’ Artemisia Artemisia schmidtiana

Perennial; soft, silvery mounds of foliage; full sun; 8 to 10 in. tall, 10 to 15 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7

E) ‘Vision Light Pink’ Bloody cranesbill Geranium sanguineum

Perennial; pale pink flowers start in midspring and repeat through fall, red autumn foliage; full sun to part shade; 9 to 12 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

F) ‘Thriller’ Lady’s mantle Alchemilla mollis

Perennial; clouds of tiny chartreuse flowers top plants in late spring and early summer; full sun to part shade; 18 to 24 in. tall and wide; cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Clark cottage gardens patio seating: The view of this charming cottage-inspired garden from the gazebo.

Spots to relax

Of course the garden borders are beautiful, but the more time you spend in this backyard, the more thoughtful details you notice. There are plenty of places to sit and enjoy the space in different ways.

One of Erin and Dan’s favorite spots to sit (when they actually do so) is under an octagonal gazebo on the deck just outside their back door. With comfortable furniture and lighting, it’s the perfect place to sit down with late afternoon coffee or duck into when rain moves in. And the view isn’t bad, either; you can see that above.

Add sparkle with outdoor lights

The circle of wicker rocking chairs in the center of the patio surrounds a portable firepit that beckons in the evening or even on a warm winter afternoon. Dan’s added enough lighting throughout the garden that it twinkles at night. The bistro lights that zigzag across the deck, the finial lights on tall posts in the fence and the chandelier in the arbor in the photo below are all on an automatic timer that comes on at dusk and turns off at 10 p.m.

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Clark Cottage Garden picket fence detail and arbor: This 8½ x 5½-foot arbor's two built-in benches are just the size to sit with a friend.

Picket fence details

Erin is lucky. Anything she can dream up, Dan can build. She wanted a picket fence but thought that traditional pickets seemed rather plain. And she loves round shapes, which she’s repeated throughout the garden with mounded perennials and spherical finials. So inspired by a picket fence in a nearby botanical garden that had silhouetted cat cutouts, she asked Dan to build fence slats with circle cutout details. They cut every picket and drilled every circle with a hole saw themselves and carried the same circle details into the corner pieces of the arbor.

Use repetition

Repetition is an easy way to create unity in your garden. If you’re feeling like yours is a little hodgepodge, look for ways to repeat a shape, a color, or even a specific plant here and there. It’ll start to tie the space together.

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Old bicycle with baskets planted up with flowers: Erin brings rustic charm to her garden with old finds that she upcycles into interesting containers.

Vintage style

As you wander this garden, you’ll find vintage chairs, old watering cans and copper tubs tucked in here and there, some turned into containers, and even an old rusty bicycle with flowers planted in the basket and the cargo box.

Charming cottage garden containers

Add a touch of whimsy with upcycled containers. If you’d like to use an old tub, watering can or basket as a container, it’s best if you can drill some holes in the bottom of the vessel for drainage. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, you might have to move it under the eaves of the house every time it rains so it doesn’t get waterlogged! Erin feeds her containers every week with water-soluble fertilizer to keep them blooming. Learn a few more tips and meet the plants below. These charming containers are just the cherry on top of this garden’s organized cottage garden style.

Bicycle basket planter

Bicycle basket planter

Nothing says charming like an old bicycle with a basket full of flowers! After a year or two, Erin spray paints the basket and, when it’s too tattered, she replaces it. In the heat of summer, the nemesia and sweet alyssum may stop blooming. Cut plants back and keep watering and they will perk up again by late summer.

Container tip

Replace the nemesia and alyssum once they start to go down with heat-tolerant flowers, such as geraniums (Pelargonium hybrids) or lantana (Lantana camara) to brighten the planting back up.

A) Nemesia Nemesia Escential Pinkberry
B) Sweet alyssum Lobularia Clear Crystal® Purple Shades
C) Calibrachoa Calibrachoa Surfinia® Summer Double White

Watering can

Watering can

If your watering can is already leaky, you may not need to drill any holes! Erin also puts a couple inches of rocks in the bottom to weigh the pots down. One trailer and one more upright plant is about all that will usually fit in a small watering can opening.

A) Petunia Petunia Headliner Yellow
B) Lobelia Lobelia erinus Laguna® Sky Blue

Basket Beauty

Basket Beauty

To extend their life, line baskets with garbage bags with holes poked in them or slip plastic containers inside the baskets so the potting mix doesn’t come into contact with the woven material. Even with these precautions, Erin’s baskets often rot out in a couple of years.

A) Petunia Petunia Supertunia Vista® Bubblegum®
B) Calibrachoa Calibrachoa Callie® Yellow
C) Lobelia Lobelia erinus Laguna® Sky Blue

Fragrant Flowers

Fragrant Flowers

The sweet combo in this concrete planter echoes the colors in the rest of the garden and includes fragrant honey-scented sweet alyssum. The perennial gaura in the center will continue to produce pink blooms from spring through frost, even without deadheading.

Container tip

Perennial gaura can be planted in the garden in zones 5 and warmer when you’ve finished with it in the pot.

A) Gaura Gaura lindheimeri Belleza® White
B) Snapdragon Antirrhinum Snapshot Pink
C) Calibrachoa Calibrachoa Surfinia® Summer Double White
D) Sweet alyssum Lobularia Clear Crystal® Purple Shades

Bicycle basket planter

Bicycle basket planter

Nothing says charming like an old bicycle with a basket full of flowers! After a year or two, Erin spray paints the basket and, when it’s too tattered, she replaces it. In the heat of summer, the nemesia and sweet alyssum may stop blooming. Cut plants back and keep watering and they will perk up again by late summer.

Container tip

Replace the nemesia and alyssum once they start to go down with heat-tolerant flowers, such as geraniums (Pelargonium hybrids) or lantana (Lantana camara) to brighten the planting back up.

A) Nemesia Nemesia Escential Pinkberry
B) Sweet alyssum Lobularia Clear Crystal® Purple Shades
C) Calibrachoa Calibrachoa Surfinia® Summer Double White

Basket Beauty

Basket Beauty

To extend their life, line baskets with garbage bags with holes poked in them or slip plastic containers inside the baskets so the potting mix doesn’t come into contact with the woven material. Even with these precautions, Erin’s baskets often rot out in a couple of years.

A) Petunia Petunia Supertunia Vista® Bubblegum®
B) Calibrachoa Calibrachoa Callie® Yellow
C) Lobelia Lobelia erinus Laguna® Sky Blue

Watering can

Watering can

If your watering can is already leaky, you may not need to drill any holes! Erin also puts a couple inches of rocks in the bottom to weigh the pots down. One trailer and one more upright plant is about all that will usually fit in a small watering can opening.

A) Petunia Petunia Headliner Yellow
B) Lobelia Lobelia erinus Laguna® Sky Blue

Fragrant Flowers

Fragrant Flowers

The sweet combo in this concrete planter echoes the colors in the rest of the garden and includes fragrant honey-scented sweet alyssum. The perennial gaura in the center will continue to produce pink blooms from spring through frost, even without deadheading.

Container tip

Perennial gaura can be planted in the garden in zones 5 and warmer when you’ve finished with it in the pot.

A) Gaura Gaura lindheimeri Belleza® White
B) Snapdragon Antirrhinum Snapshot Pink
C) Calibrachoa Calibrachoa Surfinia® Summer Double White
D) Sweet alyssum Lobularia Clear Crystal® Purple Shades

Published: April 5, 2022
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