Though I have a cottage, and a garden, I didn’t think I was a cottage gardener until I read the phrase ‘Cottage gardeners spend little, propagate lots, and share compulsively’.
It’s so true, but I had been blind to the blindingly obvious! I had become brainwashed by the chocolate-box impression of an English cottage garden – billowing blooms and pastel shades, a minutely planned chaos of voluptuous beauty that needs painstaking attention to each individual plant to pull off the effect successfully. That could never be me – I’m just too lazy!
But, as it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.
The Original Cottage Gardeners
Cottage garden design pioneer Gertrude Jekyll’s little book The Beauties of a Cottage Garden hardly mentions fruit, and vegetables don’t get a look in as far I can recall. But the original cottage gardeners were not flower gardeners at all.
In the Middle Ages, poor English laborers supplemented their meager wages with edible crops grown in their own gardens. This would normally consist of vegetables such as kale and cabbages, onions and leeks, turnips, plus peas and beans that would be dried and used as the basis for a thick soup or stew known as ‘pottage’ (which, incidentally, is where the word ‘potager’ comes from).
Alongside these staple vegetables, fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, plums and damsons would be grown, as well as wild strawberries. Various herbs were essential too, for medicinal uses. A pig and some chickens would be part of the garden ecosystem, providing meat, eggs and fertility.
It’s likely that, despite the desperate conditions – or perhaps because of them – some cottage gardeners sought beauty in their gardens alongside all this productivity. Perhaps the odd self-seeded violet or primrose was allowed to flower to cheer the spirits early in the year, or a particularly floriferous honeysuckle or dog rose may have been dug up and transplanted from a nearby hedgerow into the garden’s own boundary hedges.
Over time, more and more flowers would have been squeezed into odd corners to help attract pollinators and keep less attractive weeds in check.
Poles cut from a nearby woodland or hedge would be used to support beans and peas, willow would be woven to create hurdles to keep the pig and chickens away from vulnerable plants, and any irreparably broken household items would be repurposed, in one way or another, in the garden. Buying something purely for use in the garden would have been almost unheard of!
English Cottage Garden Plants
When garden designs from the Continent became fashionable, well-off gardeners began to grow a range of native and non-native flowers; delphiniums and roses, hollyhocks and peonies, calendula, cornflowers, nasturtiums, sunflowers and much more, as well as a wider range of vegetables. No doubt a few cuttings or seeds from the large estate gardens ‘found their way’ into the less grand cottage gardens!
As England began to prosper, and ordinary workers found themselves with a little money and some time to spare, they were no longer quite so dependent on the edible and medicinal plants growing in their gardens. Gardeners began to devote more and more ground space to flowers, presumably as a way of saying ‘Look how well off I am – I have enough time and money to raise plants that no-one can eat!’
It is often said that cottage gardens are not designed but evolve over time. Since a cottage garden reflects and represents the gardener’s personality, all cottage gardens are unique. One gardener may favor spires of hollyhocks and hyssop plus chives or lavender to edge paths, while another might prefer to grow a spume of runner beans up a wigwam amid waves of sunflowers and cabbages. No plants are forbidden, so long as you like them or find them useful.
Dense planting chokes out weeds, but be ready to intervene when necessary. For instance, cut back anything that threatens to completely engulf neighboring plants, or transplant self-seeded annuals to a more favorable location if they pop up just where you don’t want them.
The Modern Cottage Garden
Today the cottage garden style is much-influenced by Gertrude Jekyll’s ideas of what an English cottage garden should look like. While undoubtedly winsome, the look depends far more on a contrived sense of rural idyll than on the realities of life in times past.
Today, few of us are constrained by the need to grow all our food ourselves, though many of us attempt to grow at least some of the fruits, vegetables and herbs that will make it onto our tables. To me it seems very bourgeois to grow a cottage garden purely for the flowers, but it would be foolish to say that flowers don’t have value; a burgeoning garden of blooms is a much-needed lifesaver for the various insects, birds and other animals that live and feed amongst them.
No matter what your personal means, if you’re frugal with cash but profligate with plants, you can be proud to call yourself a cottage gardener.