There may be no other type of garden that signifies English horticultural excellence than the authentic cottage garden. Like many traditions, the English cottage garden has evolved over time. Today, it has been inherited by other cultures on both sides of the pond. Even in England, where these gardens originated, subtle changes have occurred over time.
The basic idea behind these gardens is that the design should be informal, include traditional materials, feature dense plantings and a combination of edible and ornamental plants. This approach is very different than the stylised gardens that English estates lavishly boasted and that used mass plantings of greenhouse annuals.
Cottage gardens have existed at working class residences for centuries. The cottage garden became immensely popular in the late 19th century and has become a staple of the country ever since. We have wandered away from the theme of the earliest gardens that included more vegetables and edibles than are used today. In days of yore, one could expect to find a beehive or two, some livestock and one or more fruit trees in the cottage garden. Not so today!
One difference between today’s cottage gardens and the originals is that in yesteryear the gardens were enclosed within a fenced area that could be entered through a rose-bowered gateway. In fact, the flowers used in original gardens were what we today see in flower shops, including primroses and violets. Violets were extremely popular because they were often spread across the home’s interior floors because of their wonderful fragrance.
Other popular cottage garden flowers were daisies, flowering herbs and calendula. The original gardens always emphasised flowers and herbs with rich, full scents.
For more information about the history of cottage gardening, click here.
As the gardens have evolved, we now notice variations of the original scheme that suit the property and the owner’s personal preferences. Even at England’s finest estates, we now see one or more cottage gardens that feature such plant materials as ornamental grasses. Traditional roses, lush foliage, climbing plants and modern hybrids are all used on today’s gardens.
New roses, like David Austin roses have become popular because they have such a distinctive, old-fashioned, multi-pedaled appearance. Today’s cottage gardens also emphasise fragrance. One benefit of these gardens is that owners are using plants that can flourish in the native environment, which makes for more entertainment and less maintenance.
Today, the cottage garden may include a number of paths, arbors and traditional fences. Wooden posts and gates are very much in as are bricks and natural stones. The idea is to keep the appearance of a less formal garden, one that is authentic and harmonious with nature and the residence.
Any pots, ornaments and furniture used in the garden should also be natural. Finishes should all be traditional. Few things look more out of place than a non-traditional finish in a true cottage garden.
In fact, gardeners looking to begin a cottage garden should understand that by its nature, this garden should appear artless. Forget those artistic curves and the grand geometry associated with estate gardens. What cottage garden enthusiasts say about their gardens is that they are designed to look like “a vegetable garden that has been taken over by flowers.”
English cottage gardens usually have plants that are tightly planted. The purpose is to reduce weeding. However, once gardeners start adding paths, ornaments and turf, weeding becomes necessary. This is a big consideration with the traditional garden. It takes great discipline to create and sustain a cottage garden that is rectangular in shape for space efficiency and that still appears a casual afterthought.
In the US and in Europe and especially France, the cottage garden has taken on a whole new life of its own. The only resemblance to our original gardens is the name. In the US, the typical cottage garden might include more ornaments, paths of stone, a patio and what are really border gardens.
One of the most famous gardens in France is Monet’s garden at Giverny. This is far from the English cottage garden but is described as one.The sprawling garden in filled with native and non-native plants and large doses of water and his famous lilies.
This is all beautiful but true gardeners know the cottage garden exists for a reason and a true English cottage garden does not fit either of these moulds.
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