A Year in the Life of a Cottage Garden – Andrew Sankey

At our meeting on 21st April the speaker was Andrew Sankey, a garden designer, nurseryman and lecturer based in Cambridge.  The talk was the story of a particular cottage garden that Andrew used to own in Lincolnshire and the moral of the story was  don’t try to fight nature; grow the plants that are suited to your particular soil and situation.

After many years of searching Andrew found his dream location for a cottage garden that would be big enough to develop as a show garden for his design business and also accommodate a nursery. During the seven years of his search  he accumulated a large variety of plants and he stripped his ‘temporary’ garden  to provide the stock for his great enterprise. He planted them out in their new location and within two year eighty per cent of these plants were dead. Andrew confessed that in the excitement of finding his new plot he had forgotten to test the compatibility of the soil for the plants in his existing garden. This  was a rich loam but the new garden  was a sink hole of dry gravel. He was forced to accept that he was faced with the growing choices of only dry shade or dry sun. His solution was to grow only plants that would cope with drought conditions. He waters new plants  while they are being established and then they have to fend for themselves.

The greater part of Andrew’s talk  was  an illustrated presentation which showed how successful he had been in coping with the  conditions and described the surprising variety of very attractive plants that can be grown in difficult circumstances. His aim of an “exuberance of planting” was certainly achieved. He explained that, for him, the garden’s year really consists of two seasons; spring and summer . The garden’s climax comes in the spring with a second burst culminating in July and the show is over by September.  This suits his work pattern of devoting the autumn and winter months to lecturing.  He made the point that a spring garden is best sited where it can be seen from the house so that it can be appreciated without venturing outside in cold weather.

One of Andrew’s basic design principles is to plant in drifts; always in odd numbers and the more plants in a drift the better.  A particular advantage of planting in drifts is that where the plants flower in a variety of colours the combinations provide contrasts which highlight some colours which might otherwise be lost. Hellebores provide a good example of this. Another feature of his cottage garden planting is to mix up vegetables and herbs with the flowers. They don’t have to be grown in separate dedicated areas.

Andrew illustrated and talked about far more plants than can be listed here but he drew attention to several groups that do particularly well in the dry conditions. Good for spring colour are hellebores, primroses, epimedium, and dog tooth violets and a little later aquilegia, dicentra and allium. In summer cornflowers and lupins do well and hardy geraniums come in great variety and will grow anywhere. Another advantage of hardy geraniums is that they provide an answer to the problem of what to do about the unsightly foliage of daffodils and allium as they die down. Plant the bulbs together with the geraniums and as the bulb foliage dies down the geranium will grow up and hide the mess.

Cottage gardening  lends itself to companion planting ( where there is an advantage to one plant from its proximity to another ) and Andrew mentioned the traditional association between lily of the valley and solomans seal.  A surprising companionship is foxgloves with apple trees where the foxgloves help to extend the storage life of the apples.

Andrew enhanced his descriptions of the plants he illustrated with reference to literary associations and the origins and meanings of their names. One that stays in the memory is the cowslip. This plant which often grew in areas grazed by cattle was, until changed by Victorian sensitivities, originally called the cowslop. It’s not difficult to see why.

A small selection of slides from Andrews presentation:

The next meeting of the BGA will be on Tuesday 19th May when Caroline Tait will talk about the gardens at Coton Manor, Northamptonshire. There will be a special opening of Coton Manor gardens  to see the bluebell wood until 10th May ( closed Mondays)

Jeremy Arthern

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