What is cottage garden
The essence of the cottage garden was that it was unplanned. The typical ‘cottager’ was a farm worker whose small garden had to supply vegetables and fruit, herbs for flavouring and medicines, as well as garden flowers for decoration. There wasn’t much time for carefully tending difficult plants, so cottage garden flowers had to be tough and easy to grow. No space was wasted, either. Walls, paths, windowsills and every nook and cranny were pressed into use.
How to develop cottage garden
The traditional cottage garden doesn’t usually have a lawn. If you want to include a lawn, surround it with wide, flower-filled borders to preserve the cottage garden effect.
Informality is one of the two keys to making your garden. The other is the choice of plants. They should be simple, free-flowering, colourful, preferably scented and easy to grow. There are many suitable plants, most of them perennials. Mix them with a sprinkling of shrubs, climbers and bulbs. Many cottage garden plants have been ‘improved’ by plant breeders and are now available in brighter colours with double or frilled flowers and shorter stems that need no staking. While some of these can be incorporated into your plan, the unimproved, old-fashioned varieties will give a more authentic effect.
Forget about careful colour planning. Cottage gardens should provide a confusion and profusion of colours, and should not be planted to any strict scheme. Try dotting taller plants in among shorter ones to give occasional spires of interest. Avoid an organised graduation of heights from back to front.
It is important to pack the plants closely for the best effect, but there are ways to keep the costs down. Choose a number of key plants and shrubs to start with and get them established. It’s worth spending a little extra on large well-grown specimens. Before planting, take some cuttings, offsets or small divisions from the plants and grow them on in a nursery bed.
Once you have the key plants set out. fill in the gaps in the first year or two with annuals, sowing direct in the positions where they are to grow. Many annuals fit in well in a cottage garden. Meanwhile increase your stock of perennials by raising plants from seed, taking more cuttings from your own stock, and getting offsets or cuttings from friends and neighbours.
Perennials raised from seed take a year or two to reach flowering size, and cuttings too will need time before they are ready for planting in the main garden. It’s worth keeping a small area, perhaps part of the vegetable plot, as a nursery bed to grow on seedlings, cuttings and small divisions until they are large enough to plant in their permanent positions.
Traditional cottage garden on a new estate
Cottage gardens generally go best with cottages, and can sometimes look uncomfortably out of place in the wrong setting. By all means incorporate some cottage garden ideas into your new garden, but don’t overdo the old world theme. The front gardens of modern terraced houses are usually open-plan, and look better if they conform to the same style. You may, however, have much more opportunity for individuality in the back garden. If you are lucky enough to have a fully walled or fenced private garden, there’s no need to take neighbouring gardens into account. On most estates, however, the back gardens are more open, and you will need to make concessions to the way the gardens of the houses either side are laid out if they are not to spoil the effect of your own garden.
A new house may clash with an old-style garden, so one of the first things to do is to plant a variety of creepers and climbers against the walls. These will disguise the newness of the wall and help the house to complement the garden. Give the same treatment to walls and fences.
Keep the lawn small and the borders wide. If space is short, one very wide border at the far end of the garden may be more effective than narrower borders round the edge. Spreading plants, such as London pride (Saxi-fraga x urbium), catmint (Nepeta x faassenii) or snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum), will help to soften the lines of the garden, but do not use them to excess; plants that look charmingly informal in the garden of a thatched cottage can look merely untidy in the more formal setting of an estate.
Grow rambling roses and honeysuckle over walls and fences, and among perennials plant neat shrubs such as rosemary, pink or white-flowered cistus and scented, silver-leaved artemisias. Clumps of golden-headed achillea or tall-growing campanulas, summer-flowering dicentra, scented phlox and mat-forming pinks are the plants to give the right sort of effect. Fill gaps in corners and against walls with small plants such as creeping thyme, primroses and spring-flowering bulbs.
Brightening up a cottage garden in winter
The cottage garden was not originally intended to be of interest all year round. But you can extend its season and brighten its appearance with winter-flowering plants. Evergreen shrubs form the garden’s winter architecture. The golden-splashed varieties of elaeagnus and euonymus are particularly attractive and the dark-leaved Viburnum tinus carries its heads of pink-tinged, white flowers from November until May. The variegated forms of ivy look colourful on walls and fences throughout winter.
There are several plants that flower in the coldest months. Iris unguicularis, for instance, forms a large clump of untidy leaves in summer, but its strongly scented blue flowers appear between about October and March. Witch hazel. Viburnum fragrans, the shrubby honeysuckle Lonicera standishii, and Daphne mezereum are also valuable plants because they carry their sweetly scented flowers when there is little else of interest in the garden.
You can brighten the early days of spring by planting early-flowering narcissi and tulips, and choosing shrubs such as Japanese quince, forsythia and flowering currant.
Cottage gardening is not the most labour-saving of gardening styles. Because of the dense planting and tangled informality of cottage gardens, weeding is more difficult. Make sure you get off to a good start each year. Once young shoots show on the herbaceous plants in spring, hoe off or pull out weeds growing between them, then mulch all round the plants with peat, well-rotted manure or spent mushroom compost. The crowded plants make it difficult to use chemical weedkillers, but glyphosate painted on the leaves of perennial weeds such as bindweed will deal with the problem.
Stake tall plants early in the year before they begin to flop. As soon as you can identify the clumps of plants, give them twiggy branches, circles of canes or grow-through supports. If you want to avoid staking, plant short, sturdy varieties that are self-supporting. These varieties are easier to look after, but they won’t give such an authentic cottage garden look.
Creating path in cottage garden
Modern, regular paving slabs are not ideal for a cottage garden, but their appearance can be improved by clever planting. Spreading and mound-forming plants such as pinks, thyme and lavender planted close to the path will grow over the edges and help to disguise its geometric look.
Natural stone is a traditional material, either as flagstones or crazy paving, but it’s expensive. Modern concrete paving slabs with a riven stone finish look like natural stone and are much cheaper.
Generally, try to match the paving material to the building material of the house. A brick path will look more in keeping with a brick house than a stone path. Brick paths can be laid in a variety of patterns, such as herringbone, basket or basket weave. Basket weave is one of the most difficult patterns to lay because it involves cutting a lot of bricks into thirds.
Ideally, buy old bricks to give the path an instant patina of age, but this may be slightly more expensive because of the labour involved in cleaning the bricks.
Gravel is cheap, practical and attractive, but use edging stones to prevent the gravel from spilling into the borders. In a traditional cottage garden, the paths usually went straight from the gate to the front door, but the straight lines were softened by a variety of plants spilling over the edges.
Gentle curves to paths don’t look too out of place, but keep them gentle. Try laying out a hose along the line you want, and adjusting it until it looks right from all the surrounding viewpoints. Any ornaments you decide to put along the path should be simple and practical. You might try a natural wood or white-painted seat, a stone sundial or birdbath.
Large pots planted with lilies, a prized shrub or a flowering plant often stood by the door of old cottages. A porch not only provided shelter from wind and rain: it also became an ornament in its own right when covered with a climbing rose or honeysuckle.