Cottage Gardens: Gardening Ideas

With more and more old country properties being renovated, the cottage garden has taken on a new importance in this country. Certainly it is the right type of garden for many older houses.

To many people, a cottage garden is simply a chaos of colourful plants. This conveys the general impression that there is no planning involved, and all you need do is sow seeds all over the place. The facts are very different. The chaos is, in reality, highly organised, and the successful cottage garden is invariably the outcome of careful observation. It is worth having a quick look at the origin of the cottage garden.

Throughout the long, settled period of the reign of Queen Victoria, gardening flourished in this country as it had never flourished before. The big houses, employing vast staffs, from head gardener to pot boy, set a standard of excellence never seen before or since. And for the first time, smaller houses had attractive gardens, with correspondingly smaller staffs, right down to the cottager who made his garden often from plants and cuttings given to him by his more wealthy neighbours and employers.

During the latter half of the 19th century-gardening was the main interest of the British people. There were then few other forms of entertainment for the countryman. There was no wireless, no television, no cinema, and no motor bicycles or motor cars.

The garden offered recreation — and profit — to the farmworker or anyone employed in the rural industries. And it would often be a glorious mixture of flowers, fruit and vegetables — each plant being cared for individually, to make a complete picture of considerable beauty.

One reason for the success of the cottage garden was that the proud owner was able to devote the whole of his time to the study of his plot — largely because he had nothing else to do. This is much more important than we realise to-day. For there are plants that will grow successfully in one place, even in a small garden, but will be a total failure in another. The Victorian cottager, sitting quietly on his broken chair outside his front door, smoking his pipe and contemplating his plot of land, was able to observe and remember the behaviour of different plants in different places and, as a result, to grow them all to perfection.

The basic design of the cottage garden was usually so simple as to be no design at all — merely a straight path from the gate to the front door with two plots on each side. But there would be certain features in many cottage gardens which would often dominate the scene.

An old gnarled apple tree — a Bramley Seedling, perhaps, or something similar — would be the largest single specimen. This would provide blossom in the spring, fruit for preserves and jellies, stewed apples for apple pies, and — a trick that sums up the cottage garden — a home for a climbing rose.

The art of topiary, clipping trees into peculiar shapes, came back to large gardens in the Victorian period with the revival of formalism. This, too, strayed over into the cottage gardens — a clipped hedge decorated with the occasional peacock, or large clipped specimens, either simple mounds of Yew or Box, perhaps with a figure on top, would be placed at an appropriate point to form a solid basis for the design. Similarly, there would be two or three large shrub roses or ornamental shrubs.

The rose bush might be the thornless ‘Zephirine Drouhin’, or the old large white, ‘Frau Karl Drushki’ or some long-forgotten hybrid — like the variety now known as ‘Rubrotincta’, a single Damask rose with a white flower margined with red, and having a delicate scent.

The shrub could be something very common — Kerria japonica ‘Flore Pleno’, known as the ‘Jews’ Mallow’, or it could equally well be some little known, exotic plant — perhaps a hammamelis or a viburnum, given to the skilled cottage gardener as a cutting.

There is no catalogue of ‘Cottage Garden Flowers’. Even so, there are certain plants that have come to be associated with the style, although it would be better to describe many of them as ‘Tea-cosy’ flowers, the sort that are seen on elementary embroidery designs and on coloured calendars.

Yet these do give the effect of old-world cottage gardens — hollyhocks, for example, are singularly appropriate, although now difficult to grow because of the prevalence of rust. Again, although of comparatively recent introduction, clarkia, godetia and nasturtium are easy annuals which give a good show, need little skill, and fit in to the picture.

Curiously enough, there are some plants which will grow very well indeed in small gardens but are totally unsuccessful in larger areas where they might be somewhat lost. The Madonna Lily Lilium candidum is the best example, for it only grows really well in a small space.

Sunflowers, the big brash yellow ‘frying-pan’ annual types, are also typical — because the seed can be put to good use. It should also be remembered that the runner bean was grown originally as a decorative plant — and tripods of scarlet runners are very much in the cottage garden tradition. So, too, are sweet peas, both the annual kind and the everlasting pea Lathyrus pubescens.

The cottager realised the decorative value of vegetables. The beautiful glaucous foliage of nearly all the brassicas — the cabbages, cauliflowers, sprouting broccoli and so on — is as attractive as the much admired hosta, if it is regarded with an eye that has not been conditioned by false values of rarity.

These are some of the elements of the cottage garden. But it is not something that can be ordered, ready made, from a landscape gardener. It must depend entirely on the thought, care, concentration and skill of the owner. But — given that — it is one of the most beautiful and satisfactory styles of gardening in the world.

06. September 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Cottage Gardens, Gardening Ideas | Tags: , | Comments Off on Cottage Gardens: Gardening Ideas

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