A Lovely Cottage Garden … Sort Of

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“Profusion best describes the cottage garden – a place where flowers of assorted sizes, shapes, and colors spill over walls and paths, where herbs, vegetables, and berry bushes crowd among roses and fruit trees. The bloom is perpetual, as new blossoms draw attention away from any fading flowers. Planting is haphazard and cultivation is minimal, since the fullness of the beds makes it difficult for all but the most determined weeds to find a foothold. Seedlings are pampered in the beginning to assure a healthy start, and then allowed to grow freely. Plants thrive on this benign neglect.” – Marina Schinz from Visions of Paradise: Themes and Variations on the Garden

Haphazard? Minimal cultivation? Benign neglect! Ah-ha! See, there is a method to my madness; a style to the semi-controlled chaos in my yard. “You’ve got a lovely cottage garden,” sidewalk passers-by have said to me as I sit on my favorite perch on the front porch; sometimes they stop to look at the flowers in the garden along the sidewalk; other times Keith will offer them a “tour.” He’s so funny. “Let me give you a tour of the grounds,” he says. Or to me, “The grounds look nice today, Dear.” Giving the impression we actually have “grounds” to tour, instead of a ¾ acre lot in town.

A visiting friend recently exclaimed after such a tour, “You’ve brought the country right here to the middle of town.” The term “cottage garden” presents romantic images of farmhouses along a country road fronted by an old stone wall; an unpretentious village house with the open gate of a white picket fence inviting visitors up the path leading to the door; a painted lady of the Victorian era with an arch of climbing roses framing the front porch, or a centuries old stone cottage in England, barely visible through the vines covering it, and the gardens surrounding it.

Is our house a Victorian or a farmhouse? It may have started out as one, but ended up as the other. It’s changed and been added on to so many times in its one-hundred-plus years of existence, who can really tell? A house with acreage in the country, a lot in suburbia, or a brownstone in the city: the style of the house and its location is unimportant. It’s not the type of dwelling, but the abundance and variety of plantings, generous doses of color and texture that blend with simplicity which define a cottage garden.

If I have a cottage garden it was created purely by accident; some of the elements are there, but it’s not a style I set out to adopt. And whether or not it’s “lovely” is most surely debatable. Come take a walk with me, and you can decide. We’ll tour some of  “the grounds” as I tell you a little bit about one of the world’s oldest forms of gardening, and the history of how it came to be. Welcome to the cottage garden.

Enter a cottage garden and most often you’ll walk through a gate and down a path to the front door. Look! I’ve got a path … although it’s concrete. And there’s no gate to enter before you step onto the “path,” but there’s a garden along side it. This little garden along the sidewalk and front walk was created out of necessity. It’s sand; turf doesn’t grow in sand, and the sand kept eroding onto the sidewalk. There are plants that do grow in sand though; this bed is a mix of flowering perennials and herbs – chives, sage, parsley, and winter savory. The bees love the masses of tiny white flowers of winter savory; if anyone can tell me what else it’s good for I’d love to know. I planted it strictly for its looks; I’ve got no idea what to use it for in the kitchen.

Cottage gardens began as necessities, probably during medieval times. Laboring families grew the essentials: herbs used for medicinal and culinary purposes, fruits were eaten fresh, and preserved for hard winters when food was scarce. Flowers were grown as nectar sources for bees, and to use inside the house for fragrance … because let’s face it; people during that period did not have the same type of hygiene standards we practice today. To put it bluntly, they stank. Unpleasant odors not only came from their own bodies, but also from earth privies, and domestic animals in close proximity, often right outside the door and sometimes right inside the house. Pleasant counter-smells were used to combat the offensive odors. Roses were made into rosewater, flowers and herbs were used in pomanders, which were carried and sniffed whenever unpleasant smells reached the nose, and strewing herbs – sweet smelling plants – were scattered on the earthen floors, so that their scent was released when walked upon.

I actually do have a path to the front door – it’s the servant’s entrance; the servant would be me. It was also created out of necessity, again because this patch of front yard is comprised mostly of sand. When we moved into the house, the “lawn,” which was mostly a tangle of weeds, ran up to the foundation of the house. What little grass that grew there was worn thin from us walking across it from the driveway, creating a dust-bowl whenever the wind blew. The early garden once had a boundary of brick like the path’s outer edge, but it has long since been lost as ‘Fairy’ roses, lady’s mantle, and lamb’s ears are allowed to spill over the edge. Excuse the weeds in the path please; if I had known you were coming, I’d have swept them under the bushes.

Some of the weeds I would have left, even if I had known you were coming. A benevolent wind blew in seeds from this common white campion; a rather pretty weed I think, so I let it stay. In the spring, poppies, forget-me-nots, and tall wild phlox bloom here. The poppies and forget-me-nots are courtesy of my neighbor’s garden, the seeds also blown in from the wind. I waited for years for the phlox to arrive – it grows everywhere around here – and last year it finally came; this year it was beautiful. The wind here isn’t wicked all the time. In earliest gardens, flowers and herbs were collected from the wild, others were traded with neighbors. The plants in a cottage garden are often considered ordinary; they’re not fussy and are the plants your grandmother’s grandmother grew. You’d never find white campion and its companions in this garden – the ditch lilies, spiderwort, and rose checker mallow – on any hot new must-have perennial list.

Because of the simplicity of the plants contained in a cottage garden, it’s often thought of as a kind of botanical archive. Cottage gardeners are credited with preserving older species and varieties of plants, allowing new generations to nostalgically fill their gardens with the plants their great-grandmothers grew.

This ‘Seven Sisters’ rose bush is a very old variety of rose, first cultivated in 1817. The woman who lived in our house for fifty years may have planted it; it may have been planted by the house’s original owners. She took it with her when she moved, though. When we bought the house from its next owners, just a sprig remained, and even that Keith accidently cut down with the lawn mower. Its size now is a testament to its indestructibility. It’s considered a collector’s rose in cultivation for nearly 200 years, but those centuries have taken a toll; there’s much debate about what is a “true” ‘Seven Sisters.’ But it’s pretty just the same. If you look hard enough at this photo, you’ll see another weed growing up from the rose bush. Long after the roses fade and petals drop, tiny white asters on tall willowy stems will bloom in autumn. Who can think a plant as a weed when it willingly gives you flowers after everything else has faded?

Speaking of weeds … the tall torch-like thing is common mullein. Somehow I always end up with one or two a year, always in different parts of the yard. Wherever they crop up, they get to stay too … just because I think they’re really cool. In front of it are peach and rose-colored daylilies and purple coneflower. And yes, that’s really orange and pink. Together. It’s a combination that would make most people cringe, but it’s my favorite color scheme, and you’ll see variations of it in most of these pictures.

Aside from the clash of colors, there is a lot going on in this garden. I love flowers; the family and I are also fond of fruits and vegetables. We have very little sun in our yard; most of my gardening is done in the shade. In the few areas we do have sun, as much has to be packed into the garden as possible. In his book English Gardens, Peter Coats, garden editor of House and Garden quoted a friend as saying, “A garden should be like a fat woman in a tight corset – bulging out of it.” I couldn’t agree more.

Beyond the flowers are the squash and tomato patches; the two vegetables are separated by a mulched path which allows us to get to the blueberries planted in a row along the house. They took a hard hit this winter; ice built up under the eaves, and came crashing down on the bushes. As a result, I really had to prune them hard in spring. We’ve got berries though; maybe not as much as we’d like, but we’ve been picking a handful here and there. Potatoes are planted between the blueberry bushes.

Just on the other side of the fence is a smaller garden with asparagus, chives, and parsley. I’ll be moving the blackberries to the vegetable garden in fall; they only get about half a day of sun now and would really prefer more. Vegetables will continue to be planted here next year, though I’ll be expanding the side garden along the driveway where our beans are growing now to include more. A grape vine that bears heavy clusters of the sweetest amber-colored grapes is trellised in the foreground.

(Yep – that wooden thing is another piece of “Good Junque.” It’s a neat old hand-truck my boss was getting rid of a couple of weeks ago, which somehow ended up in my yard … which had nothing to do with me putting it in my trunk and taking it home.)

Up until about a century ago, cottage gardens contained fruits such as currants, gooseberries, and raspberries. Apple and pear trees rose above mixed beds with herbs, flowers, and vegetables. Early in the nineteenth century as people became more prosperous, the gardens turned more toward ornamental plantings. I think it’s interesting that with many people now growing their own fruits and vegetables and adding them in existing gardens, cottage gardens are returning more toward their original form.

Cottage gardens are generous; plants are not singled out and defined, but rather are allowed to mingle, colors blend, and both useful and ornamental plants are grown in a manner that’s does not require a lot of effort to tend. It’s an intimate type of garden, simple and without pretension. Space is the only limiting factor; there are no restrictions about what to plant, or where to plant it – anything can be included – even if it’s pink and orange together, or an odd combination of hydrangeas and squash (see below). It’s a garden for people who love plants. It’s nostalgic and perhaps represents an idealized version our desire to return to more simple times; it’s less a particular style than it is an attitude.

And it’s not for everybody. My sister-in-law told me once that she looked at the photos in gardening books and magazines of gardens brimming with flowers and thought they looked messy. My friend, who has a gorgeous garden, likes things symmetrical and orderly and meticulously plucks blemished leaves and faded flowers from her plants. You’d never see a weed in her garden, much less one purposely allowed to grow there. If our gardens could be considered children, she’d constantly try to run a brush through my child’s hair; her child wouldn’t have a hair out of place, just tempting me to tousle it.

Whatever style of gardening you prefer, I hope you enjoyed this little tour, and the hearing a bit of history about the cottage garden. Are you tired after all that? Grab a seat and rest for a bit … but be careful where you sit! You never quite know what you’ll find in a cottage garden.