Cory Kelso of Arroyo Grande brought a wealth of knowledge and experience in cottage gardens when she and her husband, Jim, relocated to Arroyo Grande from Southern California in 2005.
She had spent 12 years as a landscaper, specializing in Cory’s Cottage Gardens, and was featured in three gardening guides, including the 1999 Sunset Special Issue Garden Guide with her article “Big Ideas for Small Gardens.”
“My mother was a farm girl who raised me with my hands in the dirt,” she said.
After high school, instead of going to college, Cory lived on a farm in New Hampshire, where she received a hands-on education in horticulture from a knowledgeable old farmer who knew every plant in the forest by its botanical name.
Cory used that knowledge as she raised her family, growing her own vegetables and fruit. As the children got older, she pursued her love of gardening and began landscaping for others. In 1993, she picked up a book, “Christopher Lloyd’s Flower Garden.”
As she read about his English gardens, she felt like he was writing to her. So moved by his writing and depth of knowledge, she traveled to England to participate in his weeklong Garden Symposium on his 16th-century Tudor estate.
They became fast friends, sharing a similar wit and adventurous spirit, and he invited her to spend two to three weeks working on the estate gardens for the next three summers.
From England, Cory brought not only an enhanced understanding and love of cottage gardening, but she carefully carried back several of his favorite clematis, which now thrive in her showpiece cottage garden in South County.
In order to have a traditional cottage garden near the house, they removed concrete and brought in “truckloads of mulch” to turn into the sandy soil. They chose water-saving rotator pop-up sprinklers that provide a soft spray that doesn’t harm leaves.
Creating a free-flowing cottage garden effect is not as easy as it looks, she said.
“It takes a ton of effort, even though it looks like the gardener just threw a bunch of seeds out.”
The three main elements of the cottage garden are permanent foundation plants, a variety of flowering plants with seasonal blooms, and self-sown annuals that fill in the nooks and crannies so that weeds have no room.
In Cory’s 20-by-20-foot cottage garden, her taller structured foundation plants include Japanese maple, philadelphus, holly, viburnum and osmanthus. These evergreens anchor the garden and provide rich green backdrops for the flowering plants. Seasonal blooms start with fuchsia and bulbs in the spring, and then roses and alstoemeria followed by dahlias, lavender, spiraea, hydrangea and true geraniums.
It’s important to add some light and airy bloomers to create movement in the garden, Cory said. She loves the tall Verbena bounariensis “stick verbena” and many of the self-sowns for this effect. Among her favorite self-sowns are the Agrostemma githago with its magenta bloom, the Lychnis coronaria alba that resembles a lamb’s ear with white blooms, and the bright yellow columbine Aguilegia chrysantha.
“The original cottage gardens in England were small allotments of land, where a family would grow both food for use and flowers for pleasure, packing every square inch as compactly as possible for maximum use,” Cory said.
It was that element of limited space that created the colorful, individualistic and informal look of the cottage garden. To keep this look, Cory advises that the cottage gardener allow plants to get tall and airy, to avoid overpruning and to “relax and let it happen.”
Cory, a Master Gardener and member of California Rare Fruit Growers, continues with her landscape consulting and design business, which focuses on helping people create something with color and pizzazz that is realistic for their lifestyle and reflects the design of their home.
“Landscape and garden choices bring the personality of the owner outdoors,” she said. This is certainly true in the case of the Kelso’s intriguing and vibrant English cottage garden in Arroyo Grande. Cory’s mentor, Christopher Lloyd, is now deceased, but would surely have enjoyed an early morning stroll through the garden with her.