PERFECTLY IMPERFECT : Locals are cultivating the controlled chaos of cottage gardens with native plants as well as traditional annuals and perennials.

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Americans may have overthrown British rule with the Revolution, but we didn’t toss aside our love for English-style gardens.

Creating an authentic English cottage garden--with its dense mass of color and wispy look--isn’t difficult for Eastern gardeners, but if your plot of dirt is in Southern California, be warned: Traditional peonies, heather and clematis struggle to survive the heat and drought here.

Still, local gardeners have discovered ways to create the look of cottage gardens similar to those found in England or neighboring France with alternative plants.


“I call this a ‘California cottage garden.’ The idea is to have something blooming all year,” said Cory Kelso, who gardens in a modest-sized suburban yard in Huntington Beach. “I’ve been gardening here for two years. When I moved in, the yard was grass, shrubs and impatiens.”

Wanting the controlled chaos look of a cottage garden, Kelso sought out drought-tolerant plants that could be mixed with more traditional greenery.

“I’m really into salvias. I love them because they are easy to grow and have a large variety of colors,” she said. “Island snapdragons from Catalina is another plant that goes well in the cottage garden.”

To create the garden, Kelso removed most of the turf and all the shrubs from the front yard, leaving a California pepper tree. Next, the clay soil was amended by adding peat moss and sand. Finding the right mix became a matter of trial and error. “Some things would look good for a while and then just get root rot from poor drainage,” she said.

In creating the front garden, which includes a high stucco wall that hides the front of the house, Kelso planted traditional cottage plants, such as larkspur, Canterbury bells and foxglove. She added native statice, Pacific Coast iris, columbine and penstimon. “I also planted old-fashioned roses because they are more mildew-resistant,” she said.

Kelso found that native plants from other regions in the state often act differently when grown here. For instance, a salvia native to Northern California that was only expected to grow seven feet tall has covered her stucco wall and now tops 12 feet.


Most of the salvias came from a nursery in San Luis Obispo; many of Kelso’s other plants are from Heard’s Country Gardens in Westminster.

Heard’s caters to the cottage gardener, carrying a plethora of annuals and perennials.

“The thing about a cottage garden is that it is not perfect,” said Mary Lou Heard, owner of the garden center. “It is not a sterile place; there is always a lot happening and changing.”

The original cottage gardens in England were formed out of necessity.

The peasantry had very small areas to tend and had to mix growing vegetables for themselves with growing hay for the livestock, along with herbs and flowers. According to “The Cottage Garden” authors, Christopher Lloyd and Richard Bal, the look evolved to be “bountiful, yet regulated, informality.”

“Now it’s a term that refers to any garden that is not perfect,” Heard said. “Anything goes. And if something doesn’t work, you just dig it up and plant something else.”

Heard said the one constant in the cottage gardening is dense plantings, of mostly annuals and perennials.

The popularity of the cottage garden has brought a lot of novices down Heard’s garden path. Her advice to the beginner is start small. “Take a 3-by-3-square-foot plot, which is not as overwhelming a size as trying to plant an entire yard,” she said.


The first step is amending the soil for a rich growing environment. The best way is to dig out about a foot of dirt and replace it with a good, loamy soil by adding peat moss and sand or other material that will keep the soil loose but also water-retentive.

“Once you’ve amended the soil, be sure to plant right away or cover the soil with mulch to keep it loose,” Heard said. “I’ve heard a thousand times people complain that the soil became hard after they left it for a while. That’s why you’ve got to keep it planted or covered.”

Once planted, don’t expect everything to go perfectly, Heard said. Many first-time gardeners are discouraged when a plant fails. But failure is a part of gardening. “Even the most experienced gardener has had major boo-boos. That’s how you become an experienced gardener,” she said.

In the traditional cottage garden in England, there is usually a large variety of plant species to have as much growing in as little a space as possible.

In France, the cottage garden is a bit different.

Large field plantings of lavender found throughout the French countryside, especially in the Dordogne region, were the inspiration for the garden created by artist Jim Palmer in Laguna Beach.

Palmer’s partner, architect John O’Neill, designed a French country house for their property in the hills overlooking the ocean. With the garden, they also went for a French look.


“We wanted [the garden] to look natural rather than planned, like those we saw in France,” Palmer said. “They seem very loose and a bit wild, but we also wanted it to be Californian.”

The extensive use of California poppies in the front yard, mixed with seas of French lavender, have created an entrance garden that has a country feel. The garden is accented with tree roses growing against that garage to soften the separation of the lavender and poppy plantings by the driveway.

“I left some of the low-growing juniper that was already here because it mixed well with the lavender and it has about the same watering requirements,” Palmer added.

Creating the back-yard garden was the real challenge for Palmer and O’Neill. Working with a narrow lot with a steep slope, they wanted to block out the view of the house above them while still keeping with the cottage theme of the garden. The solution was to plant California coast redwood along the top of the property. Cascading down the slope are more lavender and rosemary.

Closer to the house, a waterfall runs in to a shallow pond, both overplanted with lavender for a more natural look.

“When we first put in the waterfall, it was a bit overpowering,” Palmer said. “We needed to soften it and hide it a bit.”


The focus of the garden is a small flagstone patio with an outdoor fireplace covered with English ivy and climbing roses that reach up to the top of the chimney. Large pots of French and English lavender surround the patio and geraniums cascade over a small wall surrounding the patio.

“This is what people always comment on,” Palmer said, standing in front of the brick fireplace. “We’ve such good weather here that you can use this during the winter and be out in the garden at night.”

Because there are few varieties of plants in the garden and most are perennial shrubs, maintenance is low. “I come out and deadhead the plants, and that’s about it,” Palmer said. “I’ll tell you, I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I do, but working in the garden is a kind of therapy for me.”

A traditional oil painter, Palmer said the garden gives him inspiration. “I could be really blocked, and all I have to do is spend some time out here, and it really gets the creativity flowing again.”

Kelso’s garden, with its large variety of plant material, takes more upkeep. “At the moment I’m gardening full time,” Kelso said.

But, she added, most of that time is spent propagating. “I love growing plants, and I don’t have room for everything I grow, so a couple of times a year I have a yard sale.”


Even without yard sales, people driving by often stop to admire the garden, which is very different from the manicured lawns found along Kelso’s street.

“That’s very rewarding, to have people ask about the garden,” she said. “That and the hummingbird family that lives in the garden.”