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

A garden twenty years in the making.

| June/July 1995

  • Roses, foxgloves, pinks, pansies, and other old-fashioned flowers surround Carolyn Ulrich’s front porch, flanked by fragrant mock oranges.
  • Against a white picket fence, a bountiful border curves around this lot on Chicago’s South Side.
  • In this lush section of the border garden, yellow coreopsis flowers sparkle against the soft blue of Six Hills Giant catmint, with valerian in the rear and lavender just coming into bloom in the foreground.
  • Lady lavender in a clay pot nestles among the lettuces and other herbs planted along the side of the lot.
  • A fragrant white peony from the neighbor’s yard leans into Carolyn’s garden.
  • A viola lifts its bright face.
  • Roses, foxgloves, pinks, pansies, and other old-fashioned flowers surround Carolyn Ulrich’s front porch, flanked by fragrant mock oranges.
    Illustration by Susan Strawn

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.



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