The Cottage Garden. We all picture one the moment those words are uttered. A blissful froth of beautiful, informal bounty. Delphiniums and lupins nod in front of an ancient wall smothered with clematis and roses. Higher up the Wisteria hangs its glorious plumes. Marigolds sizzle amongst cool clumps of lavender and spires of salvia. An informal riot of colour, texture and scent, neatly enclosed with a ramshackle fence. A path of gently crumbling brick, almost overwhelmed by tumbling nemesia and petunias with pennywort industriously filling every crack and cranny, winds to the cottage door. Almost overlooked in a corner, canes form a wonky pyramid over which runner beans scramble, their intense scarlet flowers promises of harvest to come.
It’s these beans that hint at the long story of the cottage garden and show us how we might approach afresh what for some can seem a tired cliché. As we look increasingly askance at the highly processed food produced by our food industry and wonder about the future of healthcare it’s timely to look again at what the cottage garden was and wonder what it might be for our modern lives
Many historians say we have the black death to thank for the cottage garden. Land in an abruptly depopulated island was much more available and peasants started to cultivate plots of land directly outside their cottage doors. These were ‘densely cultivated lawns of flowers, herbs and vegetables for culinary, decorative and medicinal purposes’. Main crops were planted in larger fields further away. So the original cottage garden was perhaps more like a modern kitchen garden, a place where utility was foremost, but also with some beauty squeezed in too.
This style of gardening, where useful and ornamental were mixed together and plots were small and sometimes even intermingled has seen a revival of interest in recent times, partly as a way to reduce insect and disease in crops. Called polyculture or permaculture it has much in common with the cottage garden.
So what might a modern cottage garden, one that’s modernity lies precisely in its re-discovery of its past, look like? The main thing to strike the eye, and the sense, would be the variety, planting in small groups that are intermingled you would also note a profusion of herbs and even small areas of edible crops such as currant bushes or runner beans. Density is key with a strong informal air, but let’s not confuse that with randomness, it takes thought and time to plan so that each plant can find the space and place that suits it best. We are looking at using all the various heights and aspects available to us. Planting to allow each plant access to the light and rain it needs will naturally give a beautifully graded ascent from the lowest to the highest. Think of where the heat gathers in your garden – a south facing stone wall being prime – and in contrast where a semi shaded spot can offer the perfect situation for plants that can’t tolerate full sun.
The great thing about a cottage garden is that it can easily be adapted to a corner of a large garden, or the smallest of gardens, and even to some pots on the balcony. Just strive for variety in height, colour and foliage.
To get your imagination fired up here’s some herbs and flowers known to be cultivated in medieval country gardens:
 Cottage Gardening in the 14th Century England. Maria Paula Mugnani. The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, University of Massachusetts. 2013.
There’s not enough space this time to look more closely at the herbs you might want to add into the mix, and we’ll cover these in more detail soon, but in the meantime here’s a few more ideas from one of our recent blogs: http://northleedsgardendesign.co.uk/growing-a-herb-garden-for-health/.
All the photos in today’s blog are taken from my own garden which informally mixes edibles and flowers – and much else besides!