The cottage garden is one of the most popular of all garden styles. Today’s versions are particularly well suited to modest plots, and depend on the selection of plants and the careful choice of appropriate and authentic materials for their quaintly old-fashioned look.
Originally, cottage gardens were primarily functional and practical, with fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers and shrubs crammed into a very small area. Cottage gardening tends to be labour-intensive, relying on good husbandry rather than modern chemical sprays; the garden itself can also look unattractively dreary and bare in the winter, as a large proportion of the plants are annual or herbaceous.
However, when in bloom, the cottage garden can be very pleasing to the eye, and a perfect remedy to the man-made environment, and the style has devotees in country and city locations all over the world.
The Principles of the Cottage Garden Style
The seeds of the modern cottage garden movement were sown in late nineteenth-century English nostalgia. Influential garden writers of the time extolled the virtues of the unpretentious gardens that they saw cultivated by rural cottage owners, as a reaction to the artificiality of large-scale country house gardens. They wanted to return to what they considered to be native small-scale gardening.
The cottage garden was closely and abundantly planted with hardy flowers and bulbs, fruit bushes, herbs and vegetables. Whilst hedges (some trimmed into shapes) were important, shrubs were not.
The planting was lush as the soil was kept in good condition by quantities of manure. A great variety of plants, often highly scented, were grown, such as old roses billowing over cabbages, Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) next to marigolds (Calendula), or towering hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) framing the doorway. However, little thought was given to colour harmonisation or geometry.
Lawns were rare, as it was thought that any spare ground was better used for growing more plants. The garden was characteristically divided by paths of trodden earth edged with stones, tiles, shells, or clumps of flowers such as pansies (Viola x wittrockiana).
Recreating the Style Today
Whilst it is possible to recreate a traditional cottage garden successfully, the characteristic plants do not usually provide much interest in autumn and winter, and the maintenance demands are high. However, many of the cottage garden principles are valuable ideas for modern gardens, and may be borrowed or modified to suit individual sites, whilst certain typical features and plants are often used today to create a rural and relaxed effect in a scheme.
The web design banbury of cottage gardens can be surprisingly formal, with symmetrically arranged beds for produce and flowers and straight paths edged with hedges of lavender or box. However, it is the careless abundance of the planting, tumbling over the paths and hedges and softening the hard edges, that gives cottage gardens their characteristic appearance of informality. It is this factor of controlled casualness that gives the true spirit of the cottage garden style.
The right choice of plants is the key to success with a cottage garden. The large beds should be planted with good examples of old-fashioned flowers (particularly hardy perennials), and a few shrubs to give structure. A wide assortment of herbs, vegetables and fruits should be grown either amongst (to produce what is known as ‘integrated’ gardening) or alongside the flowers. Scented plants are an especially good choice, particularly those that attract bees. One or two favourites may be used repeatedly as ‘key’ plants to produce a consistent effect.
Paths made from bricks, cobbles or gravel are practical as well as fitting in style, whilst an edging of lavender (Lavandula) provides scented flowers outdoors and for drying, as well as attractive evergreen foliage. A rustic, wooden arch is an excellent feature for supporting scented climbing plants such as honeysuckle (Lonicera) or roses, and borders overflowing with lupins (Lupinus), peonies (Paeonia), pinks (Dianthus) and wall-flowers (Cheiranthus) recreate the feeling of unrestrained profusion.
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