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Creating a Florida Cottage Garden
by Teresa Watkins
by Teresa Watkins

Teresa Watkins, University of Florida's Florida Yards & Neighborhoods multi-county program coordinator is a recognized leader on xeriscape principles and creating 'environmentally-friendly' landscapes.

An award-winning radio and TV host of a variety of gardening shows in Central Florida, Teresa recently designed the landscaping of the 'first energy and environmentally efficient' home in the state of Florida to be certified as a 'green home' by the Florida Green Building Coalition and Florida Solar Energy Center. Currently, she hosts a weekly radio show, 'In My Backyard' on WLBE 790 AM, sponsored by the Lake County Water Authority, that features environmental issues and landscaping advice on for backyards.

When not digging in someone else's backyard, you can find Teresa digging in her own garden, looking for slugs and lubber grasshoppers --- creatures, that she adamantly swears, do not have souls --- aided in that effort by Sheila, her loyal Scottish terrier and legendary lubber killer.

August 5, 2007

Whether you are a gardener or not, strolling along a meandering pathway through fragrant rainbow-bannered flowerbeds, dappled with ‘out of the ordinary’ ornamental surprises around various twists and turns, is one of the most delightful experiences anyone can have. Texture, variety, fragrance, color and occasional surprises in English cottage gardens provide a memorable and soulful experience for the neophyte and expert landscaper alike. A beginning gardener can be overwhelmed and only imagine the hard labors that the designer went through while the Master Gardener knows how many hours and years of sweat and preparation it took to eventually produce such an exquisite fantasy-filled garden. Cottage gardens first appeared as necessary areas on farms to grow herbs and vegetables for individual tenants who worked the vast farms and as they began to own or rent their own cottages, the natural extension of planting flowers and adding beauty also extended.

English cottage gardens have an aesthetic appeal to most people of looking like every plant, flower and visiting creature just happened to appear naturally. These gardens seem to just spring up without any apparent design and happen to thrive in certain climates; but with a little research and planning on your own zone and microclimates, you too can have a beautiful, simple, low maintenance cottage garden.

The first step in planning a cottage garden is to understand what they are. Cottage gardens are to landscapes what George Seurat’s pointillistic paintings are to art. Some artists, like Paul Signac, during Seurat’s lifetime considered his paintings ‘messy’ and complicated but their critique of his final completed artwork was that Seurat’s paintings were masterpieces. Paintings that incorporated minute individual dots blending a variety of shades and colors in harmonizing sweeps to create natural compositions and display a scene that when viewed as a whole were stimulating and filled with energy. Cottage gardens too can look messy, weedy, chaotic on your nerves and hard to maintain but if planned correctly from the beginning, can be breathtaking, attractive, low-maintenance, eco-friendly gardens where earth’s creatures can feel invited, relaxed and welcomed.

Cottage gardens need to be well thought out though in the planning stages as to your ultimate purpose in having one in your yard. Whether that is attracting birds and butterflies, having a cutting garden to enjoy flowers indoors, or using your yard to have a colorful xeriscaped lawn with low-maintenance in mind, your cottage garden can have one or all these goals incorporated in one landscape design. Once you have established your goals, you can begin to select the design shape and your palette of plants. Here in Florida, many new residents pine for their Northern gardens and automatically assume t hat they cannot have them with our tropical climate. Au contraire, my gardening enthusiasts — once you know what kind of plant you would like, and then you can select a similar tropical zone shrub or flower to plant in its place! Take any zone landscaping design and their plant list, find those individual plant specifications of mature height, flower color, leaf texture, sun and moisture needs and then imitate those same requirements with a Florida plant. Take for example northern lilacs: Lilacs are beautifully tall, fragrant flowers that herald in springtime up north. Lilacs do not grow in zones 8b through 11b, but if you research Florida gardening books, or ask your favorite Florida Master Gardener, you will find that Butterfly bushes, buddleia spp. resemble lilacs, come in multiple colors, and lend height to your garden beds.

They are also fragrant and attract butterflies, as the name honestly implies.

Another Florida favorite that can substitute for lilacs, are the non-native crape myrtles, with dozens of colors, heights and blooming seasons. Crape myrtles love the sun, are drought tolerant once established, and need very little maintenance, not even yearly heavy pruning. Another cottage springtime favorite is the crocus. Floridians get to enjoy those springtime blooms all summer long in pink, white, or yellow rain lilies, zephyranthes spp. Immediately after a rainstorm, these magically appearing blooms pop up without cajoling to naturalize in your landscape, having no pest problems and needing no maintenance. They truly are a joy in your tropical albeit Northern-looking landscape.

See how easy it is? Now you can go through any gardening book, gardening magazine, gardening website, no matter what zone they are designed for and with the plant list, transplant your own Zone 8 –11 gardening favorites, matching colors, heights, flower and leaf shapes and match your sunlight, soil moisture, growth needs for your own personal landscape design and presto — you will have a Florida cottage garden plan.

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