Cottage Garden

Cottage Garden (1998-2000)

The cottage garden in bloomThis garden was started back in 1999 and I was involved in co-creating it for the first two years. These photos demonstrate what can be done with enough time and effort (two people in this case) in one growing season, beginning from a heavily compacted base of hardcore overlaid with gravel. When this photo was taken the garden was only a few months old; previously it had literally been a gravel covered parking area for the cars of the previous residents.... almost all of it. What vegetation that did exist had been recently hacked back to virtually nothing. This included some beautiful shrubs and some trees that were never to recover.

To a gardener, the first sight of the garden was one that generated both feelings of dismay and of great excitement for the great potential it held. Not many plants were available to begin with, but it was early Spring and we did have an large number of seeds. These were the first of our resources; a key element to address as part of the Permaculture design process. Other resources were as diverse as the large amount of space in the garden (a virtually 'blank canvas'), concrete pots and stepping stone seconds bartered from a friend, a large quantity of gravel(!) and our imagination and enthusiasm. We were also able to make use of two greenhouses that our neighbours weren't using that first Spring, in addition to another that we bought secondhand. So as luck would have it we were able to germinate a large number of those seeds that first year.

A few plants, some stepping stones, a big pile of prunings & an awful lot of gravel!With so much to do, it was hard to know where to start, so we undertook the customary observation phase while we started bringing on the seeds. This gave us time to notice the different microclimates within the garden and decide which elements would be best placed where. The garden was to provide for several needs, a place for adults to relax, for children to play, to provide nourishment (that can include beauty as well as food) and for two ex-battery hens to enjoy a much improved lifestyle. Some elements were worked out very quickly: the hens needed access to the shed and the greenhouse needed a sunny spot. 

Some other elements of the design evolved over time, through trial and error and a good deal of intuition (never ignored), the garden gradually taking shape. Finding a new home for the gravel was relatively easy, neighbours were keen to have it for their own paths and drives (but all things in moderation!). Breaking up the heavily compacted ground under the gravel was a different matter. We were told stories of lorry loads of hardcore and heavy motorised rollers packing it all down. By contrast we had a single pick axe to break it all up again, but we did have all the time we needed and each new bed was its own reward. Working with nature would have been our preferred method, but although tree roots break up rock very efficiently in the wild, we would have required a lot of patience to wait for them to do so in our garden. Planting potatoes to break up a heavy soil is one thing, but...

Rustic steps made from one of the cut down treesThis corner of the garden was very dark because of the fence, so we removed one panel, but then had to negotiate a short bank. Once again a quick check on our resources enabled us to make these steps from logs cut from the trees. We also fashioned a bird table from a birch trunk that was lying around (see left of picture) and then set about making a pond using an old bath. We were lucky enough to find a particularly wide one and we set it halfway into the ground, using the excavated rocks and sand to pack around the sides. A sloping bottom was made by using old bricks (from the hardcore) to make steps up towards one end and then covering it all with gravel, making a 'beach' at one end.

The flatter rocks were ideal for edging it with and by the time a bit of imported soil was placed around it and more beds made, it blended in very well. Pond plants were obtained from friends as gifts or bartered for, and in no time the pond became a place of  great activity. Insects and pond creatures appeared seemingly out of nowhere, occasionally a frog or toad would turn up and the birds would queue up to bathe at the shallow end on a regular basis. Once again, we could see that we had made a valuable habitat for wildlife and for virtually no cost either. The best picture of the finished pond can be found in my more detailed Diploma Portfolio record of this garden.

The children's playhouse, just a few feet away is almost hidden by plants!This children's playhouse was also made out of recycled materials and proved to be very popular. The wood used was thrown away old fencing stakes, which we decided were far too useful to be firewood (I made a big greenhouse staging bench out of it too). The old chicken wire that formed the support for the turf roof was found in a corner and the turf came with some topsoil we collected. We didn't want to use plastic as a base for the turf as it would have been seen from the inside, but in retrospect it did need something to keep the moisture in from underneath as it dried out too easily.

Turf roofs are usually laid on a waterproof layer and so next time I would try to incorporate one in a subtle way. Despite the dry roof, the playhouse still looked great and with all the new plantlife in the garden it almost disappeared into its own magic jungle.... Another popular Permaculture idea is the spiral bed, usually used for planting herbs, but ours was a bit more varied. The idea behind it is that it provides several diverse habitats in the same place, having both high (drier) and low (damper) beds as well as planting spaces facing all four directions. Thus, sun-loving, dry climate plants can be grown almost adjacent to shade and moisture lovers. It also looks quite unusual and gives height in such a flat area. Spirals are often made in combination with digging out a pond. The soil from the hole has to go somewhere, so it makes sense to make a feature of it and leave it there next to the pond!

A herb spiral (a good example of Permaculture ideas in action), the hen shed & a new lawn behind the cottageWe didn't make our spiral the usual way though, soil was a very scarce resource and couldn't be wasted at the bottom, but we did have plenty of tree prunings... After pick axing the circle (on a particularly hot day I remember), we hammered in the spiral uprights (more of those useful old fencing stakes!). Then we used branches from the cut down trees to weave in and out and make 'walls' for the beds. Then we piled in plenty of green waste (mostly conifer clippings and unrotted compost on top) and finally topped it off with more soil and then the plants.

Over the first few months the spiral's soil level sunk a bit as the green waste settled and more soil was put on top to maintain it. A few years on, some plants had thrived there, whereas others had fallen victim to the chickens. The experiment in hen-proof plants was ongoing, but like the rest of the garden, provided useful information to make each season easier.

A stray collie seed that germinated...

The greenhouse

The greenhouse provided bumper crops for a couple of years, but as needs change it found its way to a new home and that corner became a children's garden. All that remained of the gravel was on a few pathways, the last remaining large area (above right) becoming a play lawn. The diversity of plants in the garden increased and became easier to maintain each year, there being little room for weeds to grow in between the myriad of plants. It was most certainly a garden for plants and wildlife and whilst some might find it a little overgrown for their tastes, I really enjoyed the way everything grew together so well. It certainly came a long way since being a car park...

For a more detailed look at this design, see my Diploma Portfolio Cottage Garden Design.

The bath pond

The bath pond rockery