Garden Tour: English-Style Cottage Garden in Ohio | Midwest Living
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Garden Tour: English-Style Cottage Garden in Ohio

A pair of self-taught gardeners followed their hearts rather than fixed principles to cultivate color, joy and happenstance in their inviting, cottage-style suburban Ohio yard.

Plant happy

Linda and Jeff Laine have only two hard-and-fast rules when tending the 18 (and counting) gardens surrounding their Westerville, Ohio, home: “Experiment! Have fun!” Linda says.

More than two decades ago, the couple spent a year searching for the perfect empty lot for a house and garden: They wanted a blank canvas—no trees—and southern exposure for the backyard. What they got was a half-acre potential paradise with an open view to the yards of 13 neighbors. Today, blue spruce, pine, purple-leaf sand cherry, roses, honeysuckle, mallow and Mop cypress provide privacy. 

Overflowing with blooms

The English-style cottage garden overflows with a tangle of blooms, and there are more than a dozen separate islands and tucked-away spaces throughout the yard. Included in the mix is a wedding garden with low-maintenance roses and a chapel birdhouse, the green-and-white garden, a gazebo garden of swaying grasses, and four little fairy gardens filled with tiny houses and whimsical plants with mini blossoms or polka-dot leaves.

Free-flowing appeal

A visit to the cottage and gardens of Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife, in England inspired the overall relaxed, meandering design. “Everything was all over the place, and that’s what I like,” Linda says. “It was more free-flowing, not stodgy.”  Pictured: Granddaughter Lindsay twirls amid 'Annabelle' hydrangeas as honeysuckle waltzes up an arbor.

Hydrangea heaven

Despite numerous gorgeous flowers in the yard, it’s the 10 varieties of pink, blue and white hydrangeas that have passersby literally stopping in the street. “I have hydrangeas in the north, south, east and west, in hot sun and in deep shade under the pines,” Linda says, noting that many stretch over 5 feet tall. The key to keeping them happy, she says, is to use shredded pine mulch and turn the dirt at least once a month. “A four-tine hoe, that’s my favorite tool,” she says. Pictured: Invincibelle Spirit hydrangeas.

Dahlia cult

Their latest obsession began six years ago when a friend brought over a magnificent bouquet of dahlias. “We got sucked into the dahlia cult,” Jeff says jokingly. “The first year we planted 17. Then 40, then 80, then 120, then we did 150. This past summer, we had 165 plants and about 83 varieties.” (Pictured: 'Powder Gull' dahlia.)

When they started cataloging their dahlias for a garden tour a few years ago, the Laines realized that they had—almost—a full alphabet of the tubers. So they set out to create an A to Z dahlia scavenger hunt to entertain the tour guests. “The head of the dahlia society gave us a ‘Zorro’ for Z, but we were missing an X,” Linda says. “We finally found a ‘Xenon’ in Canada, and to get that imported, we had to pay exorbitant fees.” Still, they insist it was worth every penny.

After all, it’s hard to stick to a budget when you’re having this much fun.

Storybook charm

A gazebo enhances the yard’s storybook ambience, which Linda Laine says inspired one visiting child to declare she felt like Alice in Wonderland. 

Fairy garden

The Laines’ four grandchildren helped create this fairy garden with bishop’s weed, pink begonia, lobelia, polka dot plant and variegated grasses. 

‘Annabelle’ profusion

The 15 lush ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas started from one plant. 

Wedding garden

Low-maintenance Knockout roses and a chapel birdhouse romance the wedding garden. 

Statue vignette

Salvia blooms around a statue accent.

Sweet helper

Sweet peas clamber up a white wooden tuteur, used to train vines.

Front border

The front border brims with petunias and heliopsis among other blooms.

How to get the look: Design elements

Choose furniture, structures and decorative items that appear as if they’ve graced the garden for decades. Think painted arbors, gates and fences, rustic benches, moss-covered pots, stone birdbaths and statues. Nurture the impression of stumbling upon a secret garden by letting plants sprawl across paths, peek out from crevices and weave through furniture.

How to get the look: Dense plantings

The delightful chaos of cottage gardens stems from beds and borders bursting with blooms. Herbs, vegetables, flowers, fruit trees and woody shrubs all squeeze into the mix. Vines are key, especially classic roses and clematis (shown). Generous self-sowers like alyssum, valerian and larkspur add to the charm. Harmony comes from simple color schemes, pleasing texture combinations and editing of zealous spreaders. 

How to get the look: Sensory appeal

Cottage gardens are meant to be experienced up close. Old-fashioned peonies, phlox, hydrangeas and sweet peas (shown) lend fragrance. Winding brick, stone or gravel paths suggest a meandering pace that makes time for discoveries. Fountains and bubblers add the soothing sound of water.

How to get the look: Personal style

Fill your garden with things that have meaning to you, such as hollyhocks (shown) reminiscent of your grandma’s garden or stepping-stones cast with handprints of your kids. 

Native cottage plants: Pasque flower

Of humble origins, cottage gardens took root in the English countryside and included plants gathered from nearby woods and fields. In that same spirit, we asked Bob Henrickson, head of Nebraska State Arboretum’s Great Plants for the Great Plains program, to suggest unsung natives showy enough to be in Midwest cottage gardens like the Laines’. On this slide and the following are eight of his favorites. Pictured: Pasque flower, South Dakota’s state flower, is a 6-inch-tall early bloomer that thrives in dry soil. 

Dwarf spiderwort

Dwarf spiderwort partners well with spring bulbs. 

'Eureka' prairie blazing star

Drought-tolerant ‘Eureka’ prairie blazing star’s summer blooms are a butterfly magnet. 

Joe Pye weed

Tough-as-nails Joe Pye weed reaches up to 7 feet with blooms in July and August. ‘Gateway’ is a reliable performer.

'Prairie Gypsy' bee balm

‘Prairie Gypsy’ bee balm is compact and mildew resistant. 

Milkweed

Top choices from the monarch-attracting species milkweed include rose milkweed (shown) and the vanilla-scented white cultivar ‘Ice Ballet’. 

Dwarf blue indigo

Shrublike dwarf blue indigo grows 2–3 feet with spring blossoms.

Prairie smoke

“The flowers of this perennial won’t stop you at 55 mph, but the seed heads might,” Bob says of prairie smoke. “They really do resemble smoke.”

Garden creators

Jeff and Linda add at least 10 new plant varieties every year to their exuberant garden, and once, on a whim, planted a flower bed deliberately filled with "clashing" orange and reds. "It still looked very pretty," says Linda, who focuses more on doing what she loves than following a manual. "I plant to happiness." 

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