Cottage Garden Design - for the subtropics

A personal article submitted by Barb Wickes, Buderim, Queensland, Australia

Cottage gardening in the subtropics can be a challenge! Having moved from Victoria in 1990, I was faced with a substantial challenge when creating a cottage garden in Brisbane. All my gardening life had been spent in temperate climates – first South Australia, then Victoria and for a couple of years, Upper Hutt in New Zealand.
This garden was to be a cottage garden with a difference! I had potted up over 300 plants when leaving Melbourne and of these probably 80% survived. My husband had been transferred to Brisbane and I was a reluctant follower, however after spending six months in the wonderful city of Brisbane I decided that a gardener really had the best of both worlds in this subtropical climate. Some magnificent tropical species could be grown alongside many temperate climate plants and I set out to achieve a cottage garden with this mix.

What is a cottage garden?
A practical mix of herbs, flowers and vegetables that surrounded many workers’ cottages in the nineteenth century.
Today this style of gardening has undergone many changes and has been adapted to suit the different climates within Australia. 
There is something intimate, comforting and homely about a cottage garden – the memories of grandparents gardens, soft colours and scents, a garden to be shared with friends and the wonderful bond formed between garden lovers generated from the sharing of plants.
I first grew the lovely ‘fairy rose’ in South Australia having been given it by the neighbour of my mother-in-law in Adelaide. Over the years plants propagated from this darling little rose have moved from house to house with me and are thriving in our country garden at Buderim today.
This garden has been and continues to be a challenge as two years ago we purchased a Mediterranean style home on an acre of land. Creating a cottage style garden around this home is testing my skills.

In 1990, whilst building a Federation style home in Brisbane, I spent many hours scouring nurseries in search of plants that I felt would suit the cottage style garden. Many hours were spent devouring information in gardening books and magazines as my knowledge was limited on tropical and subtropical species.
I joined the local garden club and The Queensland Herb Society – a wonderful way to get local knowledge as well as meet like-minded folk. Although it is a struggle to grow some plants like culinary sage and lavender, there are many subtropical species which blend beautifully with the cottage style. In most areas there is no frost so it is possible to have a garden full of colour for many months of the year. The period of the year when I prune heavily is summer, during the wet season, when it pays to cut back to give plenty of ventilation around plants and discourage fungal diseases.

Herbs are an integral part of the cottage garden. Most literature written on herb and perennial growing is written for temperate areas so when it is suggested these plants be grown in full sun often it is best to grow them in a position where they get some protection from hot afternoon sun in summer in the subtropics.
Plant on the eastern side of the house or under trees where they will have filtered sunlight on summer afternoons. Raising beds to create a well drained site, is very important when growing herbs and temperate climate perennials as many of them originate from Mediterranean areas.
The use of mulch is imperative as this keeps the soil surface cooler during summer.
Many herbs prefer an alkaline soil so the addition of dolomite or lime to the soil is beneficial. Culinary sage, lavender and rosemary definitely benefit from a dusting of dolomite on their leaves throughout the humid months.

Among the culinary herbs that contribute to the cottage garden are landcress, Chinese purple mustard, Basella alba (Ceylon spinach), cardamom, mustard lettuce, varieties of basil, an assortment of chillies and peppers and perennial rocket.
Adding interesting structure is false coriander (Eryngium foetidum) a most wonderful substitute for true coriander that rushes to seed so quickly in our climate. False coriander seeds prolifically and is available in all seasons.
The flowers of the tropical beauty, turmeric, are a highlight in the cottage garden. The curry tree (Murraya koenigii) and variegated elderberry (not so invasive) are also valuable inclusions.

Some of the fragrant species that add so much to the tropical cottage garden are datura, murraya, ginger, stephanotis, jasmine, Osmanthus fragrans, buddleia, gardenia, Ipomoea alba (Moonflower), frangipani, michelia, especially the new ‘Coco’ and Cestrum nocturnum.

The addition of bulbs, corms and tubers add colour over long periods and if chosen correctly will thrive for many years. Zephyranthes  (storm crocus), Cyrtanthus (ifafa lilies), babiana, freesia, Lilium longiflorum, Leucojum (Snowflake), Hymenocallis, hippeastrum, haemanthus, gladiolus, crinum, crocosmia, alstroemeria, zantedeschia (Calla lily) watsonia, Tulbaghia violacea, Tulbaghia fragrans, oxalis, jacobinia, Polianthes tuberosa, kniphofia, daylilies, clivea, cannas and agapanthus grow well in the climate.

The scented pelargoniums (commonly known as geraniums) add fragrance to the cottage garden as their scent is released when brushed or watered. Some of my favourites are Roburs lemon rose, coconut, apple, candy dancer, concolour, scarlet pet, pink pet, peppermint, royal oak and Mozzie Buster. All grow well in the suptropics.

Rainforest plants add another dimension to the cottage garden. I remember years ago trying to purchase Backhousia citriodora in Melbourne with no joy. Today I have a hedge of this wonderful plant surrounding the vegetable garden. Backhouse anisata and Backhousia myrtifolia are another two favourites trees that find a place in my garden. Randia fitzalanii (native gardenia), Cananga odorata (Ylang ylang), Hymenosporum flavum (Native frangipani) and Phalaria clerodendron are some of my special shade loving fragrant rainforest trees. The glossy leaves of some native plants make a lush addition to the garden and the shrub Graphtophyllum exculsum (native fuchsia) with its rich burgundy flowers and holly like leaves contributes well. The leaves of Leptospermum petersonii (Lemon scented tea tree) are a wonderful addition to pot pourri.

Some other trees and shrubs that can be used as a backdrop include lagerstroemia (crepe myrtle), rondeletia, Viburnum odoratissimum, spiraea (May bush), Clerodendrum ugandense (butterfly bush), tibouchina,  grewia (Lavender star), brunsfelsia, Iboza riparia (nutmeg bush), old fashioned hibiscus such as 'Ruth Wilcox', gordonia, tree dahlias and euphorbia (snowflake bush).
To add contrast the rich burgundy leaves of Euphorbia cotinifolia, Breynia ‘Iron Range’ and Loropetalum ‘China Pink’ are  superb additions to the shrubbery. Iresine also –
Trees that will give autumn colour are Betula nigrens (tropical birch), tallowood, swamp cypress and liquidamber.

Probably my favourite addition to the cottage garden are the wonderful array of salvias that thrive in the subtropics. Many species native to South America do so well in our climate. Salvia elegans purple, iodantha, madrensis, wagneriana, gesneriiflora, involucrata bethelii, involucrata x karwinskii, karwinskii, indigo spires, marine blue, Mexicana lime bracts, microphylla’s, greggiii’s, leucantha, chiapensis and purple majesty are just a few. They are all long flowering and will take hard pruning. In South-east Queensland there are now over 100 species thriving in the gardens of a group of salvia enthusiasts.


If you are wanting to add a little formality to your garden with hedging here are a few suggestions.
 Ligustrum Lemon Lime and Clippers, Duranta ‘Sheena’s Gold and Duranta ‘Squatters Gold’, murraya (there is now a dwarf variety available), austromyrtus, syzygium species and philanthus ‘Sleepy Green’.
Don’t forget the vibrant coloured bougainvillea – try one of the new range of Bambino’s as they are not as vigorous and respond well to regular pruning and fertilising. They also make excellent hedges.

Perennials that do well are Tagetes lemonii, Tagetes lucida (winter tarragon), gaillardia, perennial statice, Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis fruticosa), coreopsis, angelonia (Granny’s bonnet), erigeron daisy, dianthus, pentas, verbena, shasta daisy, yarrow, chrysanthemum, rudbeckia, echinacea, lemon verbena, heliotrope, feverfew, penstemon, nepeta (catmint), marjoram, rosemary, Lavandula dentata, Lavandula stoechas,  gaura, scutellaria, otacanthus ‘Little Boy Blue’, barleria, bidens, asystasia, Artemisia ‘Valerie Finnis’, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, southernwood and wormwood.
Some thymes do well, in particular lemon thyme and pizza thyme. There is a great range of mints available today but please don’t put these invasive plants in the ground – they look wonderful in terracotta pots!

Annuals once established  self sow regularly as long as mulch is placed thinly over the area. Those that do well are cosmos, Queen Anne’s lace, love-in-the-mist, alyssum, cynoglossum (Chinese forget-me-not), torenia, poppy, calendula, nasturtium, heartsease, cleomes, Malva sylvestris, herb Robert (Geranium robertum) and zinnias.

Archways and fences look wonderful draped with subtropical climbers such as Antignon leptopus, Ipomoea horsfalliae, Petrea volubilis, Quisqualis indica, Thunbergia mysorensis, jasmin, Parthenocissus quinquefolia (virginia creeper), Vigna caracalla (snail creeper), Pseudocalymma (garlic vine), Beaumontia grandiflora, solanum or potato vine and allamanda.

If you have room why not add some fruit trees. Lemon, lime and orange look wonderful if kept compact and fruits such as jaboticaba, acerola cherry, wax jambu, wampi, coffee, dwarf mulberry and carambola add a little of the exotic.

A cottage garden is not complete without roses. Old-fashioned roses such as chinas, teas and noisettes seem to cope better with the humid weather and it is a good idea to buy roses that have been grown on rootstock that has been tested in the subtropics. Some of my successes are: Crepuscule (noisette), Lamarque (noisette), Dr Grill (tea), Marie van Houtte (tea), Cecile Brunner, Monseir Tillier (tea), Simply Magic, Lorraine Lee (tea), Carefree Wonder, Green Ice, Mme Alfred Carriere (noisette), Duchess de Brabant (tea), Bloomfield Abundance, Seduction and Safrano (tea). Fertilise well and spray fish emulsion (with liquid soap added) onto leaves of roses regularly throughout the summer to help prevent black spot and mildew.

Remember there are no rules to  cottage gardening - the list of plants that blend into the cottage theme is endless  - be adventurous - use your imagination – and most importantly enjoy your achievements!

Additional valuable gardening advice and recommendations for plants suited to the tropics and subtropics - go to subTropical Gardening magazine -

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