There is a reason so many feel-good murder mysteries are set in rural England: the picturesque glory of English cottage gardens in July.
Take one cottage. It doesn't even need to be an antique cottage. Once you've draped it with long blue garlands of wisteria, added rambling roses with fat pink blooms intertwined with clematis perhaps, or hardenbergia, no one will notice what's underneath. Add an idiosyncratic police person or two and a murder. Now add perennials, all in full bloom, and all you need is a plot complex enough to give you lots of shots of the scenery.
But not 'all the same' perennials. The essence of cottage garden charm is 'mix and match', whatever you have fallen in love with added over the years, or even gathered in several trips to the garden centre at different times of the year, including mid-summer and mid-winter to add variety and make sure there are blooms in the coolest and hottest part of the year.
Add annuals each year to fill in bare patches. Plant tall shrubs to the back, gradating down to low-growing clove pinks or thymes or catnip at the front, or even parsley, as an authentic cottage garden will also have edibles growing through it, like ornamental multicolored cabbage in the cold months, or red-flowered broad beans for spring, the multicolored stems of Swiss chard for summer through winter which will rise up in spires as they go to seed. You can even add carrots and parsnips, as they are also a delight if you forget to eat them and let them seed.
The best cottage gardens however are not carefully regulated. They'll have the rose bush that was a birthday present from a friend, a few buddleias planted because grandma used to grow them and the geraniums you pinched as cuttings years ago. Any cottage garden that looks too perfect was designed by a landscape gardener. It will look gorgeous, but not as instantly delightful as one that has been planted with more love than judgement.
Cottage gardens can be free. They are traditionally made up of plants that can be easily grown from seeds or cuttings, because that is how cottagers acquired their plants. Someone 'at the Hall' ordered new species, and the head gardener tended them and now and then gave seeds or cuttings to his Aunt Mary who passed a few to her friend next door, and the new rose or penstemon slowly migrated around the village. Cottage gardens these days, however, tend to be grown from plants bought from garden centres and nurseries, and they will be modern varieties. You may think I am going to scoff at modern varieties here, and if we were talking modern varieties of pink golf ball tomatoes, I would be.
But modern flowers have been bred to bloom longer; to be disease resistant; to carry their blooms above the old foliage so they don't need to be pruned as often. In other words, they will be bigger, brighter, much less work and more colorful and varied than their ancestors. Go and spend slightly more than you can afford on flowering perennials from catalogues or garden centres, and you won't regret it, partly because if you spend slightly more than you can afford you will be more likely to remember to water, weed, feed and mulch so your purchases will not just survive but thrive and multiply.
They will also look good all year round. Because there is a reason why all those English murder mysteries are filmed in the best four weeks of summer, or why, if you look very closely at a few of them, you might just think the blooms in the background might be plastic. (Don't scoff. I know at least one instance where that happened.)
Traditional cottage gardens looked good ONLY in midsummer. Glimpse them in mid-winter and all you'd see would be bare sticks and mud, which is why most modern English gardens have the same easy care, sculptural evergreens that landscape gardeners use in suburbs across the world.
Cottage gardens are also a lot of work. Massed blooms means massed pruning of dead blooms and seed heads. Many different kinds of flowers mean they will need pruning at different times too, plus a heck of a lot of weeding and mulching, nor do you get massed colour without feeding, too.
Cottage gardens were created in the days before streamed movies and TV series or even telephones, when most cottages had two bedrooms, eight kids and so there was no discreet place to do anything except garden on the weekends, apart from looking enviously ast next door's garden and comparing the size of your cabbages. Cottage gardens need hard-working cottage gardeners, just as the Hall gardens the parent plants came from had eight under gardeners as well as the head gardener and succession houses to make sure that both vases and vegetable dishes were kept filled, as well as out-of-season fruit adorning the epergne.
The sad truth of the cottage gardens you see on the screen is that the stunning wisteria cladding those walls is about to invade the roof space; the ivy is helping mould breed in the wall cavity, and those topiary trees lining the driveway need weekly trimming for at least 50 years to look so stunning.
And yet, despite all this - and despite my vows to grow only edibles and local bush species - I've fallen victim to the lure of cottage gardens, not one giant one, but a bit of cottage garden here and there. But when I look around at what has survived the last year of neglect - drought, bushfire winds, neglect, flood and more neglect - it is the modern varieties of the old cottage faithfuls that have not just survived, but raise the spirits more than a plate of lamingtons.
Just now the (modern) winter blooming red hot pokers are delighting the honeyeaters. The (recently bred varieties of) hellebores are lifting up high heads of red and pink and salmon, quite unlike their slate grey green ancestors.
Even the erigeron behind the bathroom has been bred to be far superior to the original native one, with bigger flowers held high above the plant. Our daphne is the modern disease-resistant kind; the hydrangeas give blooms of a laciness only dreamed of by gardeners 50 years ago, and that flame-yellow sage by the front gate is also a recent cultivar which for some reason I have never seen for sale again so can't tell you its name. Yes, they all need pruning at last once a year to look good, but they are also forgiving if you don't get around to it for a year, or even three.
Maybe cottage gardens survive because they need so much work that you are lured out into the garden, to spend the day among the flowers. Add a companion animal or two, a bird bath and someone to share a cup of tea with to admire your hard work*, and the day becomes almost perfect.
* But not lamingtons, because the only lamingtons worth eating are freshly made ones, and it is not worth making less than two dozen lamingtons. Lamingtons are a dish to be shared with many, not for social distancing.
This week I am:
- Suddenly remembering I planted cauliflowers and making slightly green cauliflower cheese (add chopped parsley) and cauliflower soup, both perfect for winter.
- Stir-frying the last of the bok choi before they go to seed.
- Discovering that if you actually feed and water warrigal spinach it will grow lush tender leaves the size of your hand, instead of tiny arrow-shaped ones that creep along the ground.
- Watching what seemed dead rose and camellia bushes continue to put out new growth, and vowing not to prune out any 'dead wood' till it makes a final decision about how dead it will actually be.
- Trying not to anticipate a summer of apples and apricots until those buds swelling on the trees actually turn into blossom, then fruit, then ripen.
- Making more lime butter than we can possibly eat.