Cottage gardens are a form of garden that feature informal planting and the primary focus is a pragmatic use of plants and edibles. A traditional cottage garden is all about charm and character and encourages wandering and evokes whimsy.
A typical cottage garden design includes rose-covered arbors, low fences, ambling pathways and a heady mix of perennials and annuals; including hollyhocks, catmint, lavender, foxgloves and roses.
What is a cottage garden?
First created out of necessity in England in the 1400s, traditional English Cottage Gardens are a hectic mix of flowering plants and edibles, as their original purpose was to be a source of food for the family. As a result, their characteristics depend on charm and elegance as opposed to formal structure and grandeur.
Early cottage gardens were more practical than today’s and up until the 1800s most cottage gardens only included potatoes and had an emphasis on vegetables and herbs, fruit trees, maybe a beehive, and possibly even livestock. This was because the garden was a functional part of the home and meant to provide the family, if located some distance from a town or market, a degree of self sufficiency.
Reinvention of the cottage garden
The reinvention of the cottage garden happened in the 1870s in England, as a reaction to the structured and rigorously maintained estate gardens, which featured formal designs and mass plantings of annuals, cultivated in greenhouses.
The appeal of a cottage garden is easily apparent as the explosion of flowers and fragrance provides a warm welcome home and it’s possible to provide any home with a cottage feel by firstly planting a small bed on either side of a path or drive and continuing to expand it over the years.
Are cottage gardens low-maintenance?
The idea that cottage gardens are low-maintenance however is not true, as self-sowers can rapidly expand, perennials will require dividing and many flowers need deadheading. But for the gardener who that doesn’t want to be constrained by rules and with a love of activity and wildlife this is where the joy of a cottage garden can be found!
For a gardener there can’t be anything more romantic and rewarding than a traditional cottage garden as they provide a wonderful vista for the gardener and a heady mix of the scent of flowers and the activity of wildlife including bees and butterflies.
History of cottage gardens
The cottage garden, as a defined gardening style, is a recent development and was popularised by respected 19th century garden writers Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and Vita Sackville-West, as well as artists Myles Birkett Foster and Helen Allingham, who developed the picturesque visuals of flower-filled cottage gardens. The origins of the garden however date much further back in time.
The English cottage garden has a deep and involved history which begins in medieval times. During these times fruits such as apples, pears and plums would be grown alongside vegetables. Herbs were also necessary for medicinal uses and a pig and chickens would be also be included as part of the garden’s ecosystem to provide the house with meat and eggs and fertile soil.
Elizabethan Cottage Gardens
A cottage gardener’s plot was often small in size and so gardens were densely populated with plants and herbs to maximise the soil’s productivity. Elizabethan times saw an improvement in prosperity, which allowed gardeners to introduce more flowers, many of which had functional uses, such as violets, as their scent deterred vermin. Other flowers, such as hollyhocks however, were grown for their aesthetic value alone.
Over the course of time, more flowers would have been squeezed into beds and borders in order to attract pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as well as increase the beauty and scent of the garden.
Cottage Gardens in Victorian Age
By the early 1900s the phrase “cottage garden” could even be applied to mature gardens such as Hidcote Manor, which was described by Vita Sackville-West as “a cottage garden on the most glorified scale”. Sackville-West had applied similar styles to her own Cottage Garden, which she described as a place where “plants grow in a jumble”. The ideal of the cottage garden style was also popularised by the water-colourist Helen Allingham.
The cottage garden fitted with the Victorian nostalgia for a simpler, pre-Industrial age and also suited their relatively small houses and gardens. Today a Cottage Garden is often defined by its informal planting as well as overflowing borders containing a mix of flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables. In essence there is nothing pretentious or sophisticated about a cottage garden.
How to create a cottage garden
Although a classic cottage garden often looks entirely natural, they are really well organised chaos and when done well is the result of careful and strategic planning.
It’s also important to note that to create a cottage garden you don’t need to own a cottage as the style can be applied to almost any style of property or home. This is because a cottage style garden has much less design rules to be followed and if planted well the structure won’t be visible thanks to the abundance of plants, flowers and paving all inter woven by self-seeding perennials and herbs.
If you’ve decided to create a cottage garden look, it’s worth understanding that a successful cottage garden is unlikely to be created quickly. Enthusiastic gardeners who appreciate the time they’ll be required to dedicate are those that will take the most reward from a cottage garden plot. So as cottage gardens are high maintenance, before you take the time to design flower beds, consider truthfully if you’ll be able to dedicate the time in the garden necessary to look after them.
The relaxed style of cottage gardens is created by keeping the layout both simple and under-designed and the outline of your garden design will soon be overtaken by the volume of plants once the garden matures.
Permanent features also need to fit the environment, therefore deciduous hedges are a better choice than fence panels and ideally sheds would be cloaked with climbers. It would also be recommended to use gravel or grass paths to break up space in borders and beds.
Wildlife in a cottage garden is another area to consider as the potential to attract frogs, toads and dragonflies with a natural pond, small garden birds due to the fruiting plants as well as bees and butterflies is too great to ignore!
The architectural features of a cottage garden also require consideration as they play an important role. Arbors and arches as well as benches and pergolas are often used to divide a cottage garden and act as focal points and lead the eye from one area of the garden to another. Also the higher structures are a great support for scented climbers such as jasmine, clematis and roses.
For gardeners inspired to create their very own unique version of a cottage garden we have put together a helpful how to guide of 15 helpful tips for creating a cottage garden.
Features of a Cottage Garden
Landscape Features: The primary characteristics of a cottage garden are the plants and to enhance the effect and enjoyment they bring it’s a good idea to use hard landscaping, such as containers, areas for seating as well as paths. Hard surfaces also contrast effectively with and help to break up large areas of plants.
Climbers: Whether you use an arbour, tree of pergola is possible to combine a number of different climbers on the same structure to create an incredible display of scent and colour for the benefit of you and garden wildlife and pollinators. They are also great at utilising space to create colourful features for many months throughout the year.
Containers: Containers are a convenient space-saving method of introducing year round colour to a cottage garden and also allow you to landscape and develop your garden in an agile way. They can easily be moved and used to add extra colour to seating areas, patios and paths.
Up-Cycling Objects: Almost any durable or hardy object such as pots, earthenware or metal objects can be utilised and recycled to create an authentic, aged feature that will bring added character to a cottage garden.
Pros and Cons of Cottage Gardens
- Unique and Personal: All cottage gardens are unique and no cottage garden will be the same for two years in a row. As such plants will continue to move and the equilibrium will naturally evolve.
- Low Cost Gardening: Although it won’t return and immediate return it’s possible to start a cottage garden with a just few a few seeds and a drop of patience. Even if you invest in a variety of anchor plants, such as roses or flowering shrubs, you can always provide more density with less expensive plants. Indeed a great satisfaction can be derived from dividing and multiplying perennials every year.
- Imperfect Maintenance: It’s only natural to want to introduce a degree of order to a garden, as without care will quickly become overgrown and untidy. However, the joy of a cottage garden is that it does not need to be immaculate.
- Cottage gardens can quickly become messy and disjointed as when you allow plants to choose where they grow, chaos or serendipity can ensue.
- It’s crucial to be ruthless about thinning out volunteer plants and not to be sentimental over seedling that brings you joy as you may soon have an over abundance. Instead it’s so much better to share.
- Finding and creating space for new plants can often be a challenge and this can become a major problem if you want to start growing more vegetables in the garden.
- Although you can successfully create a beautiful cottage garden in any garden the very best examples are gardens that receive full sun as this will generate the best blooms.
Tending a Cottage Garden
Love your soil.
It’s always important to make every effort to improve the quality of your garden’s soil; however it’s crucially important with cottage gardens as you’ll be expecting it to work even harder than usual. The soil in a cottage garden has to produce a burst of flower growth in a very short period of time. Therefore it’s important to start feeding in early spring as well as digging in rotted manure between the plants during the winter months.
Deadhead, Deadhead, Deadhead.
Sauntering through your garden with secateurs and attacking dead flower heads on a regular basis is crucially important to the maintenance of a cottage garden. This is not just to keep the garden looking its best during the summer months but also because many cottage garden plants produce even more flowers if you cut off the old ones as the process of deadheading encourages new growth. Cosmos, roses and dahlias continue to flower for a much longer period if you deadheaded consistently.
It’s incredibly tempting to plant too much in an effort to achieve the full romantic effect of a cottage garden; however the reality is they will suffer as they compete for light and water. It is only the toughest plants that will survive so ultimately your garden will be left with only the toughest single plant dominating the garden. Remember to provide each plant with enough space to grow and prosper.
Preparing for winter too soon or too late.
If you close things down too soon then you’ll deprive yourself and your garden weeks of lovely visuals, and conversely if you wait too long it might be too cold to work comfortably in the garden, or worst of all, the bulbs and new spring growth may have already started to come through which will make more complicated. Make sure to keep a close watch on the garden in October and November and get ready to react when you think the garden has finished for the season.
Informal doesn’t mean no rules.
Although a cottage garden isn’t meant to be symmetrical it should definitely be balanced. For example, if on one side of the path you have vibrant dahlias; plant something just as confident on the other side as it will look unbalanced if they are paired with something delicate like daisies.