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  • Lizzie

The Beginnings of a Dream…

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Many of us will remember images of brightly coloured cottage gardens from story books from when we were children, which, no doubt, often sows a seed. I grew up in semi-rural Somerset, I remember long hot summers where the ground began to crack and the sun enveloped and warmed you through to your bones. There was an old apple orchard that would produce beautiful apples, some eating, some cooking. The orchard was surrounded by thick bramble hedges that would produce delicious blackberries at the end of Summer. I fondly remember swinging back and forth on the five-bar gate (I was only light so the hinges survived!), climbing my favourite apple tree – the only one I could climb as it leaned! I fondly recall wandering into the greenhouse to enjoy the warmth and the heady smell of the of the hot dusty earth combined with the spicy sweet smell of the tomatoes growing on their vines. Soft fruit – black, red and white currants, raspberries and gooseberries – grew in a fruit cage. There were some mounds and furrows where potatoes grew, alongside carrots, green beans and peas, and, one year, very excitingly, I was allowed to plant pumpkins. There was a large old plum tree that grew up against a wall. I climbed it once, but an earwig pincered me as my fingers slid behind the trunk next to the wall to grasp on tightly. Shocked, I leapt from the tree suddenly into my somewhat surprised mother’s arms, dropping all the plums I had collected. We gathered the plums back up and headed back indoors, all was well.

Wild beauty, Devon
Beautiful Devon

I often think back to such idyllic times. You often don't realise, until much later in life, how cherished these memories will become. We moved to the edge of North Devon, to a much more rural place, when I was 9. The air was cooler, damper, rhododendrons flourished, even wild, cascading down a steep hill like an incredible waterfall of pink in Spring. It was beautiful, but a much harsher, wilder place compared to the cosy Somerset years. It was colder too. Up on an exposed hill, the sun could no longer warm you through.

A first taste of cottage life

In Summer, people would hang huge beautiful brightly coloured hanging baskets outside their cottages…

As a teenager I got my driving licence as soon as I was old enough and moved away to various towns. By 19, future husband and I were renting a beautiful historic cottage in a little village near Exeter. I adored it! It had no front or rear garden and it would shake as the lorries thundered by, mere feet from the front door! But I loved the cottage dearly! It had a wood-burning stove we would use to heat the radiators and water with, and it was lovely and warm and cosy in Winter. In Summer, people would hang huge beautiful brightly coloured hanging baskets outside their cottages, I would watch our neighbour drenching hers every evening, the water pouring down onto the sun-warmed pavement. I longed to be able to create a hanging basket. There were beautiful stretching fields to the back of the village that I often think back to and wish I had explored more – long sweeping fields: the sort you could imagine a medieval battle taking place in, each side rushing down the slopes to meet in furious battle in the middle.

David Austin Desdemona Shrub Rose
Quite a beauty or a quiet beauty! – David Austin’s Desdemona Shrub Rose

Could an unloved bungalow become a cherished cottage?

In my twenties, my husband and I had moved to a 1960s bungalow in a suburban road of a quiet market town in Devon, quite frankly because it gave the best value for money and a generous amount of outdoor space, where I was excited to park my accumulated old bangers (another hobby!). For many years, I had never really felt like I could consider ‘the bungalow’ home. For a long time, I’d longed to move back to the countryside, longed for a secluded house or cottage, sitting in a small field. Fast forward into my early 30s and I had a failed marriage under my belt and a saddle of emotional hurt, disillusion and confusion by the modern world. I was just going through the motions at first, but slowly, without even noticing it, I started to heal a little at a time. It began to dawn on me that, although I was far away from my dream of a rural cottage with a garden, far from returning to the childhood home in Somerset I still often miss, perhaps my bungalow would one day become a cottage…? All cottages had to start somewhere so perhaps I could somehow fashion it into a modern cottage? (#moderncottage #dream #summer) People back in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds were likely living in the beautiful old cottages we see today when they were freshly built, they would have been modern homes. My bungalow is now closer to 100 years old than it is to 0… so I figured I had better start trying to incorporate into my life and my home and my garden those aspects I love about history and cottages and cottage gardens. (#cottage #garden #cottagecore)

Old-world romantic notions

Operation modern cottage had begun!

It was in 2019, in my mid-thirties, that I began to feel that the place to put some of my romantic notions of old-world charm might be into transforming my neglected garden into as beautiful and romantic a cottage rose garden as I could manage to create. For the impatient part of my nature, and how I learn best, I would need to begin and learn as I went. It had long been overgrown as it used to be a painful place of memories for me. I love to escape by spending hours researching ideas on the internet, so after much deliberation over colour, variety, flower shape, position, height, thorn count, scent, and all manner of further over-analysing, I purchased two climbing roses that would hopefully grow and one day gracefully envelope the front door. Operation modern cottage had begun! I purchased two large planters in the form of oak half-whiskey barrels that had been refurbished with some oil, and black paint on the retightened metal bands, with new rivets to hold the bands in place. I found some compost at a reasonable enough price to fill each barrel – about 120 litres per barrel. I painted the old white trellises either side of the front door while I waited for the roses to arrive. From my reading and research, I was now aware that dormant bare roots would be best, but I was so excited by that point and couldn’t wait to make a start, I went for potted ones this first time.

Dianthus Garden Pinks in Whiskey Barrel Planter
Pretty in Pink – Dianthus

Pretty pinks

I underplanted them with pretty Dianthus in shades of pinks, whites and reds, and some lavender.

The roses I had eventually chosen and purchased to grow around the front door were David Austin’s James Galway climbing roses, with beautiful mid-pink cupped flowers, their centres being a darker pink, then mid pink through to light, almost white, petals on the outer edges. I underplanted them with pretty Dianthus in shades of pinks, whites and reds, and some lavender. The lavender certainly did not enjoy the conditions there, or I planted it out too young. It did not take well, but is still there and puts out a beautiful purple stem now and again, reminding me they are not best please with the damper conditions I chose for them! The beautiful and cheerful Dianthus have continued to flower underneath each year, although I wonder if they grow tired there, also not liking the damper conditions. However, for now my doorway is much more enticing and welcoming, a little more wild, pink and feminine, and it welcomes me home with the romantic display and intoxicating scent of the roses. To me, the roses give me a sense they are “keeping watch” over the doorway, sometimes gently catching on to those who wish to enter, almost as if it amuses them to carefully detain each passerby until they have stopped to enjoy their graceful flowers and sweet scent.

Romantic Cottage Doorway
My attempt at a romantic cottage doorway – with the help of David Austin’s James Galway Roses (one each side)

What is it you like about cottage-style gardens? Have you started your own? Are you thinking of starting one?

Text and Images Copyright © Modern Cottage Garden



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