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By Elaine Vida

          I’ll begin by clarifying that ‘cottage garden’ means a traditional English-style cottage garden.  Just hearing the words English and garden together may send some of us into daydreams of lush growth and Monet-like colours.  This ideal garden vision seems so unattainable in our limited weather zone. 
There’s one thing that I have noticed about gardeners in the north, no challenge is left untried.  It’s true that you will have to use plant material that is appropriate to Muskoka but an English cottage garden is definitely attainable. 
Just hearing the description of what a cottage garden really is will be a good indication of how easy this is going to be.    According to Stephen Westcott-Gratton in Creating a Cottage Garden in Canada, “the cottage garden is a profusion of flowering plants and produce, all growing together in a glorious jumble.”  What could be simpler than that?
The earliest cottage gardens were not ‘designed’ or arranged to look neat and tidy.  Originally these gardens were exclusively for food, and then herbs were introduced mostly for medicinal value.  In Elizabethan times the peasants experienced some prosperity and flowers began to appear in the gardens.  There was still a need for produce so to make room for the flowers every square inch of the garden was used.  The result was a mass of plants struggling for attention.
For your cottage garden you can go as big or as small as you want.   To get the look you have to plant everything close together.  The good news here is that the closely growing plants will not allow space for weeds.  The plants will support each other, eliminating the need for staking, and water evaporation will be reduced.  All pluses in my book. 
There is the danger of fungus when things are planted closely together so try to select disease resistant varieties.  You may lose some of the weaker plants in the crowd but the ones that survive will be real fighters.
Woody and perennial plant material form the basic outline of the cottage garden but leave spaces here and there to allow for a succession of vegetables or annuals.  Don’t spend a lot of time planning where everything should go.  The early peasants didn’t have the time to think about planning, they just put them in the ground and let them grow with amazing results.
Another piece of advice is to keep it simple and use mostly native species since they look more natural and have good survival instincts.   Heirloom species are also hardy candidates for your cottage garden.  Use several plants of each variety to create drifts of colour.  Don’t plant in straight lines and keep ornaments to a minimum. 
Fruit and nut trees are usually the only types of trees used but who’s to argue if you want a tree or two for shade?
The beauty of this type of garden is that you shouldn’t strive for perfection; in fact the little imperfections are part of the charm.  Instead spend time enjoying your flowers, and cooking with your fresh herbs and veggies. 
I’ll give a few plant selections to get you started; you’ll get the idea when you recognize many of your old favourites.
Perennials: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), gayfeather (Liatris spicata), Black-eyed-Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldstrum’), blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), delphinium (Delphinium spp.), lupin (Lupinus).
Herbs: Borage (Borago officinalis), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), bergamot (Monarda), basil (Ocimum basilicum), lavender (Lavendula angustifolia), chives (Allium cerefolium), rosemary (Rosemary officinalis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Annuals: cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), spider flower (Cleome hasselariana), painted tongue (Salpiglosis sinuata), poppy (papaver somniferum).
Biennials: Canterbury bells (Campanula medium), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), hollyhock (Alcea rosea), sweet William (dianthus barbatus)


Winter gardening?  In Muskoka?
By Elaine Vida
One of the many gardening magazines I receive in my mailbox had an article that I passed over the first time I saw it.  It was a story about winter gardening.  Winter gardening?  In Muskoka?  When we get snowfall like we did last year I think: “why bother?  Everything gets buried!”
The magazine had some great ideas such as planting red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea) for their red stems, or the interesting skeletal shrub shape of a corkscrew hazel (Corylus avallana ‘Contorta’) or growing plants with berries like bittersweet (Celastrus scandens).  And we can enjoy these great ideas…for a while…until the snow keeps building up, and up.  Soon the red twigs are just red tips sticking out of the snow banks, 
The question then is: how can we get 4-season appeal in Muskoka?  My solution is THINK BIG!  To keep interest around here we have to look above the snowline.  What, in your yard, still shows when the snow is at its deepest? 
Trees are a major profile in the winter landscape.  Keep that in mind when planning your landscape or when adding new trees to your yard.  Because we tend to spend a lot of time indoors looking out in the wintertime, go from window to window in your house and look out with an eye for what you will be looking at this winter.  A few well-placed trees can make your window view into a picture postcard.
You can do the same with the view that others will see as they go by or approach your yard.  Think about what will show when the ground is covered with snow.  See if you need to add some taller shrubs or trees. 
Evergreen trees look spectacular when covered with snow but some deciduous shapes are needed for contrast.  It’s interesting to watch the snow accumulate in the branches of both types of trees.  The topography of Muskoka creates protected pockets where the wind doesn’t knock the snow off the trees for days at a time so we get a prolonged show.  The more trees you have in your yard the more wind protection you create. 
Another way to get vegetation to show in winter is to grow vertically with vines attached to structures such as trellises, arbours or obelisks.  Of course they have to be tall to show in the winter but you can grow vines with berries or vines with interesting seed heads such as clematis.  If you don’t have success with growing vines just the structures themselves can be the interesting features. 
Ornaments can be part of the winter show but here again they have to be up high or tall.  Not all of us have a classic concrete cherub statue to display but any form of ornament, especially one that appeals to your sense of fun, can be placed on an overturned barrel or on an old wooden stepladder so you can enjoy it all winter.   Consider using colourfully painted birdhouses hung in the trees.  Make hanging baskets of colourful berries to replace your annual baskets.  An arrangement of dried branches or evergreen boughs can be placed on the corner post of a railing. 
If you have evergreens that need to be covered with burlap use your imagination and make them into people-like shapes.  Add a scarf and a toque and you’ve got a burlap family and a conversation piece for your yard.
Lighting can be especially dramatic in the winter.  Why not light up your most spectacular trees with a spotlight shining up into the snow-covered branches?   Use white bulbs until it gets close to Christmas then you can change to another colour.  When the holidays are over you can go back to white.   Tiny white lights have become a year round sight in many parks.  Use them to cover your arbour or trellis.  No one will notice the wires if you twine some artificial vines with the lights. 
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to rush winter.  I still love the fall but as you put your garden to rest this year get your imagination in gear and think of all the ways that you can dress up your garden for the winter show.  Have a good winter gardening season and see you again in the spring.

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