A Cottage Garden: The Ups and Downs of Creating a Garden

A garden twenty years in the making.

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Roses, foxgloves, pinks, pansies, and other old-fashioned flowers surround Carolyn Ulrich’s front porch, flanked by fragrant mock oranges.

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The Gods must be laughing as they see me sitting down today to write the story of my garden. I know now that successful gardening has more to do with interest, information, and plain old-fashioned willpower than with green thumbs, but twenty years ago I was a rank beginner.

My husband and I had just moved into a three-story, wood-frame Victorian house built in 1887 on the South Side of Chicago. The backyard clearly needed work. Sloping, shady, and muddy, it was hardly the place for our two small children to play. We hired a fellow who insisted that all our yard needed was improved drainage. In our innocence, we accepted his assessment unquestioningly and then watched, awestruck, as truck after truck hauled in tons of “topsoil”, which I recognized only years later as the hardest of prairie clays. Finally, with a new lawn in place and our “drainage problem” solved, the landscaper moved on, bequeathing me a flat of pansies as he left.

For at least a week, I puzzled over those pansies, their leaves wilting and beginning to yellow. Watering seemed to stop the wilt, but the yellowing continued. I knew that I should get these plants into the ground, but I procrastinated until they reached their crisis point before I went to find a trowel. I can still remember wondering, How do you plant a plant?

Today, the property stands transformed, the front yard a colorful jumble that I characterize as a cottage garden minus the cottage. About ninety genera of flowering plants—mostly perennials—intermingle with vegetables, herbs, raspberries, and rhubarb right out by the front sidewalk (because that’s where the sun is). In the back, the predominant shade and that accursed imported clay have demanded a lot of experimentation to see what works. There have been some surprising successes.

A Border of Flowers

1. Siberian iris
2. Phlox
3. Constance Spry rose
4. Veronica
5. Culver's root
6. Shrub rose
7. Jackman clematis
8. Joe-Pyeweed
9. Six Hills Giant catmint
10. Valerian
11. Purple loosestrife
12. Heritage rose
13. Dwarf purple iris
14. Japanese anemone
15. Harison’s Yellow rose
16. Foxglove beardtongue
17. Bluestar
18. Hidcote lavender
19. Jean Davis lavender
20. Yarrow
21. Lamb's-ear
22. Purple coneflower
23. Autumn Joy sedum
24. Russian sage

Annuals and biennials that are interspersed in this border include larkspur, mallow, evening primrose, lavatera, and hibiscus.

Not for the Timid

My city lot measures 50 feet wide and stretches 125 feet from front to back. A three-story condominium shades the north side of the property but also gives shelter from arctic blasts during winter. To the south, a single-family frame house and a fifteen-story high-rise define the world where I garden. The house faces east, and the front yard receives full sun for only half the day, but it’s enough light that I can raise enough tomatoes to keep myself in spaghetti sauce all winter long. Living only a few blocks from Lake Michigan, I enjoy the “lake effect”, which moderates the temperatures as much as 10° compared to areas farther inland. Still, when the thermometer at my house plunges to –25°F, I take small comfort in knowing that it’s even colder in the western suburbs, and summer temperatures can soar to 100°F. Gardening in the Midwest is not for the faint of heart.

When I started out, I knew little of such things. The first year, I bought some red and pink petunias, figuring that if I was going to have a garden, I wanted folks to notice it. (They did.) A couple of years later, I planted a packet of zinnia seeds, and the realization that I could get seeds to germinate gave me a surge of confidence and the urge to be a little more daring. My neighbor across the street opened a little neighborhood garden center and suggested many perennials for me to try, such as the English lavender Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ and purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria ‘Robert’ that I still have today.

Several years of beginner’s frenzy followed, marked by an ever-expanding repertoire of plants and an ever-shrinking lawn. I discovered that I couldn’t ask for better germination pads than my 1940s-era radiators. In my 60°F basement with plenty of pipes from which to hang banks of fluorescent lights, the seedlings in their 21/2-inch peat pots and soilless mix prospered. My gardening year began in early March, although snow would sometimes continue well into April. My life was filled with marigolds, dianthus, nicotiana, lava­te­ra, pelargoniums, lisianthus, basil, parsley, tomatoes—and I was happy.

In those years, I gave little thought to color except to know that I wanted lots of it. Form, texture, and foliage could have been words in a foreign language. I simply wanted to grow things and see what they looked like. But then, in one of our chats over the white front fence, my neighbor would gently note how that pink foxglove and those Canterbury bells looked so nice next to the blue larkspurs and how they fit so well with the period of the house. The period of the house? Suddenly, the Nova Zembla rhododendron that I was struggling so hard to grow—piling on the leaves and wrapping with burlap each winter—started looking incongruous against its wood-frame Victorian backdrop. It soon found its proper place in the compost pile. And that pair of super-hardy orange-bronze chrysanthemums? They formed the loveliest symmetrical mounds just covered with bloom, but they didn’t complement the pink phlox nearby—or anything else. By now, I was dimly moving toward a color scheme of blues, pinks, and white accented with cool reds and occasional yellows. Soon, the bronze mums, too, were history.

Choices and Voices

Gardeners may start out in a touchy-feely mode, gushing with wonder at the marvels of nature, but at some point, a certain ruthlessness sets in, as when I chucked my otherwise admirable White Admiral phlox after seeing it covered with mildew one too many times. In a world of limits, we have to make choices. The Queen Elizabeth rose that barely made it through the brutal winter of 1994 might have come back with a lot of cosseting, but I was eager to try some of David Austin’s new English roses. I replaced it with Heritage, a lovely ­creature that lived up to the hype by blooming throughout the summer with wonderfully fragrant, tightly cupped blossoms. It sits in a prominent spot at the north end of the 50-foot-long front border along the street. Echoes of its soft pink hues appear nearby in the asterlike Boltonia ‘Pink Beauty’, a pale pink yarrow from the Summer Pastels mix, and in fall, Japanese anemone.

Facing Heritage at the south end of this fence border stands the towering rose Harison’s Yellow, believed to be a spontaneous hybrid that first appeared in New York City in the 1830s. This came to be known as the Yellow Rose of Texas (ironically, as it grows poorly in southern heat), and it accompanied many pioneers on their trek westward. Growing readily from suckers, it turned out to be an easy traveler with remarkable winterhardiness. In my garden, its semidouble blossoms appear in late May in such numbers and with such heavenly fragrance that I can forgive its extra-thorny canes and one-time bloom.

Other tall plants that I’ve planted along the 3 1/2-foot-high fence include a medley of prairie natives: 4-foot-tall Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Joe-Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), and at the front of the border, the elegant foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Every other July, the biennial evening primrose Oenothera biennis wows passersby in the evenings when, promptly at 8:30, its yellow buds unfurl with a quiver and a shake, and the flowers open right before their eyes.

No less spectacular is Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, which I first sighted five years ago during a visit to Oxford University’s New College. As I stepped through a gate into the garden, I truly stopped in my tracks and gasped, for there, spread out before me, was a 300-foot-long herbaceous border fronted by dozens of frothing, billowing waves of purple, spilling out onto the gravel path in a knock-your-socks-off display the likes of which I had never seen. I flew home determined to have one of these plants.

Instead I bought three, which may be too much of a good thing, as each plant stands 3 feet tall and spreads up to 4 feet wide, but they bloom all summer long, are adored by the bees, and laugh at winter. Pull away the winter mulch and a handsome rosette of gray-green foliage looks up as if to ask what all the fuss was about.

Equally winter-hardy is the English lavender Lavandula angustifolia ‘Jean Davis’. Whereas Hidcote looks in April like a bedraggled bunch of sticks, Jean Davis comes through with the foliage intact; it is a handsome plant all year, even though its pale pink blooms appear only once. Last year, I tried the All-America Selections winner Lady lavender and found it to be a strong performer.

Although familiar herb-garden species such as lavender, lady’s-mantle, and foxglove are sprinkled throughout my larger beds, the north and south sides of my front yard are reserved for herbs and vegetables. Here, regular and garlic chives race with tarragon to send up the first shoots in March, and my Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum) has proved its hardiness. Parsley self-seeds, gratifying me as well as the swallowtail butterflies. Of course, there’s always room for basil.

In the shade of the two-story-tall mock oranges on the south side of the house, I’ve planted some woodland natives—bloodroot, Dutchman’s-breeches, hepatica, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wild sweet William (Phlox divaricata), and herb Robert, along with a few exotics such as cowslips (Primula veris, easy to grow from seed) and yellow corydalis (Co­ryd­a­lis lutea), which self-seeds and is covered with dainty tubular blooms all summer long. Lungwort grows here but doesn’t thrive because the soil is nearly pure sand 15 inches below the surface—all the more reason that the alien hardpan in the backyard seems like some malicious cosmic joke.

In dealing with that clay, I have learned the value of compost. As I continue to incorporate organic matter into the soil, even importing leaves each fall from the town houses down the street, I can see its gradual improvement. A few plants performed well even before I began adding compost. Each May, the 15-inch mounds of the native wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) are covered with pretty, single pink blossoms. The bellflower Campanula poscharskyana is a low-growing, nearly evergreen plant with masses of star-shaped blue flowers in June. Complementing them are the buttercup yellow flowers of sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), an 18-inch-tall, day-blooming relative of evening primrose. Toughest of all is another woodland native, the yellow-flowering celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), which blooms early and often (the way some Chicagoans used to vote) if I keep it deadheaded. Hosta lancifolia, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), and the old-fashioned tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) also have done well with little attention.

As I reflect on how much I have learned over the years, I wonder about the choices and influences that brought me down this garden path. Although I grew up on a farm in Kansas and have early memories of both vegetable and flower gardens, I had little to do with either, preferring to help out by driving the tractor, plowing the wheat fields, or cultivating the corn and milo. I do have a strong memory of going on Sunday afternoon drives around the countryside to look at crops. One day, as we made our rounds, my parents in the front seat chatting about the fields we passed and comparing neighbors’ techniques of plowing, planting, and cultivating, we turned down the path to one of our own wheat fields. My father stopped the car, and we sat in silence for a while, each of us lost in thought. Then my father spoke. “I like to see things grow,” he said. It seemed like a benediction.

Today, I think about those words and how they direct my life in an urban world of noise, pollution, high-rises, and crime. Somehow, gardening keeps me connected to the basic things of life and, in ways I can’t fully articulate, makes me happy.

I like to see things grow.

Carolyn Ulrich is a freelance writer, garden columnist, and managing editor of Chicagoland Gardening, a regional magazine published in Chicago.