The English cottage garden has long inspired poets, including John Clare, William Wordsworth and Flora Thompson, and is often cited as being part of the so-called rural idyll that makes many people long for a little cottage in the countryside.
The quaint stone cottage at the end of the path bedecked with hollyhocks, roses, carnations, larkspur, etc. has become the epitome of the term “chocolate box”, meaning traditional, attractive, romantic and perhaps somewhat idealised.
A cottage garden today is an informal design with flowers, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables growing alongside each other in an informal, almost casual way. They rarely include much lawn and are densely planted – with different colours just about working together – without any hint of the contrived.
The peasants of medieval England used the ground around their homes to grow fruit and herbs to eat and for use as medicine. The fruit would have included apples and pears for making cider, and also gooseberries and raspberries. Many also found room for some chickens, a beehive and maybe even a pig sty. Keeping livestock required fencing and these fenced areas over time became known as gardens. The livestock also provided manure with which the peasants could fertilise their plants.
Come Elizabethan times, rural England had become more prosperous and flowers started to be grown as fillers between the herbs and fruit. Even these flowers often had a use, for example, lavender and violets were picked and strewn on the floors of the cottages in an attempt to sweeten the smell.
Gardens continued to develop and, with the coming of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1880s, even large houses were opting for an informal cottage garden style effect. Hidcote Manor is just one example of the many wonderful gardens from this period and is well worth a visit.
Tips on Creating a Cottage Garden
The wide range of plants included in a cottage garden means that it’s not an easy garden to either create or maintain, and it does require a medium-high level of plant savvy. The good news is that the dense planting will help to suppress weeds and the fact that the plants are jumbled makes it less easy for pests and diseases to take hold. Just bear in mind that the various plants will have different needs in terms of feed, pruning, etc. and that by the nature of the type of plants included there won’t be a huge amount of winter interest. If that doesn’t put you off then here are a few tips to help get your garden started:
- Use natural products and structures such as wooden fences and gates, hurdles, local bricks or stones for paths and rustic willow or wooden arches and arbours.
- The joy of a cottage garden is its informality with the plants all jumbled together so don’t over-plan. Think higgledy-piggledy!
- Abundance is a keyword to bear in mind whilst creating your cottage garden. No empty spaces are allowed! Create new plants by dividing large clumps of perennials. Annuals are great fillers – both cheap and cheerful.
- Variety is important in terms of the types of plants, the heights and the colours.
- Keep it simple and naturalistic.
- Try to make any paths curve as opposed to being straight lines and soften the edging with plants such as Alchemilla mollis and lavender.
- Scatter wildflower seeds on the approach to your garden and wherever there is space.
- Encourage wildlife by hanging bird feeders and perhaps including a small natural pond or other water feature.
- Leave somewhere for you to sit and enjoy the beauty that you have created. A rustic wooden seat or perhaps a colourful deckchair.
Plants Suitable for a Cottage Garden
One of the many good things about a cottage garden is that there are no rights and wrongs – grow whatever plants you like! Just remember that you need an abundant jumble of them. Some suggestions:
- Alchemilla mollis
- Michaelmas Daisy
In amongst these plants, grow cabbages, salad leaves, courgettes, tomatoes, wigwams of beans and any other vegetable that you will later enjoy eating. And don’t forget to include fruit trees, soft fruit and of course plenty of herbs.