Planning Cottage Gardens – History, Spring, Summer, Herbs and Rose Plants

Planning Cottage Gardens - History, Spring, Summer, Herbs and Rose Plants

Cottage Gardens

The cottage garden tradition is one that is peculiarly English in character. The old-world charm of the cottager’s plot owed little or nothing to any of the major developments in garden design or landscape architecture. The English cottage garden just ‘happened’ and its chief attraction lies in the effect of ordered chaos that it produces.

Like the wild gardens and herbaceous borders of William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, the cottage garden is, to a great extent ‘natural’ but, as in the former instances, nature needed a good deal of taming and direction before the desired effect of studied carelessness could be achieved.

The heyday of the cottage garden covered a period that roughly coincided with the Victorian era, give or take a decade or so at either end. Its main characteristics were color and fragrance coupled with a joyous abandon that suggested nature running riot.

It had few permanent features of real importance—no stone figures or towering conifers, no exotic trees and shrubs, while for hedges, the quickthorn, beech or hornbeam of adjacent fields and farmland could normally be used.

From sheer economic necessity, most cottagers had to be self-supporting in fruit and vegetables. Families were large so that it is not surprising that a major part of the available garden was devoted to these food crops.

But this did not prevent the cottager or his wife from creating the traditional mass of color with what remained. He would often grow, as well, flowers for picking and herbs for the kitchen in the vegetable plot. Many of our favorite present-day flowers achieved their initial popularity in the cottagers’ gardens. Pinks, wallflowers, sweet williams, stocks, pot marigolds, and love-in-a-mist are a few that come first to mind. There are countless others.

Today, the true cottagers are rapidly disappearing. They move out of their cottages as soon as they can into more easily-run flats and houses. Their place is being taken by a new kind of cottage-dweller, the week-end countrymen and country commuters, for whom the peace of the countryside holds great attractions.

We cannot put the clock back, but there is no reason why the contemporary cottage garden should not reflect the old-world charm of its predecessors while making use, at the same time, of the new and improved varieties of older plants as well as some of those plants that have become more recently available.

Simplicity must always be the keynote of the well-designed cottage garden. This can be best achieved by a well‑ chosen mixture of suitable plants, by unpretentious design and accessories and by the use of old-fashioned climbing plants to cover walls and fences.


Spring is a season of major interest in the cottage garden, beginning with the emergence of the snowdrops and winter aconites. The yellow buttercup-like flowers of the latter, with their attractive green ruffs, start to open during the first mild spells in January. Snowdrops, which come a little later, look best naturalized in grass. A position under old fruit trees—often to be found in the cottage garden—suits them best. Both aconites and snowdrops seed freely if left undisturbed.

These will be closely followed by the early daffodils and many kinds of primula. Although few species of the latter were known to the cottagers by their proper names, surviving specimens of many present-day gems were found growing in cottage gardens by plant-lovers interested in their survival.

`Kinlough Beauty’, a bright pink hybrid of Primula juliana, is one of these. It was formerly known as ‘Irish Polly’. Its polyanthus-type blooms would never win prizes for size, but are attractive and have a central blotch of white surrounding a yellow eye.

`Cottage Maid’, with more restrained coloring, is somewhat similar. There are also a number of lavender and pink colored primroses, formerly widely grown and including `Refine des Violettes’, ‘Sweet Lavender’ and ‘Rosy Morn’ that are becoming increasingly rare in cultivation.

Even more typical, perhaps, of the cottage garden are the richly-colored, gold-faced polyanthus. Fortunately, it is still comparatively easy to obtain seed of these which can be sown in a cool greenhouse in February to produce full-sized flowering plants for putting out in autumn, or sown out of doors in May. The plants from the later sowing will be a good deal smaller and only a proportion will produce flowers the following spring. The true gold-laced polyanthus or primrose is a deep mahogany-red with petals narrowly margined with gold.

One early-flowering spring shrub that was widely grown in cottage gardens was our native mezereon, Daphne mezereum. It still retains its former popularity and although sometimes short-lived, provides one of the most welcome sights and scents of winter with its bright carmine flowers, smelling of hyacinths, that cluster the bare twigs and branches in February. Less often seen is the white form, alba.

Daphne mezereum is easily raised from seed, if you can rescue the red fruits—which, incidentally are poisonous to humans—from the birds. It is a good idea to have a few seedling plants

1 coming along, to act as replacements

2 when the older plants die off.

There is a whole group of tulips that have earned the suffix ‘cottage’. These cottage tulips, which are tall-stemmed with pointed petals, flower in May a little in advance of the Darwins. They have, however, no more special claim to be grown on the cottage plot than any of the others, especially the early-flowering species such as the lady tulip, Tulipa clusiana, the brilliant scarlet T. fosteriana ‘Red Emperor’ or the beautifully-formed waterlily tulip, T. kaufmanniana.

Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) is a spring bulb formerly closely associated with the cottage garden that has been elevated out of its former humble station by its present-day scarcity value. Crown imperials seem to thrive on neglect and some of the finest clumps are found in untidy corners of old gardens in places where the fork and hoe seldom penetrate.

They are certainly neither as common, nor as varied in color as they were when they formed a major component of almost every seventeenth century flower arrangement, if paintings of the period are anything to go by. Today, our choice is restricted to yellow, and orange, although there were once also white, bluish-purple and spotted varieties.

So many of these former cottage garden flowers have won universal esteem that we are apt to overlook their humble origins until their popular names bring them to mind. This is true of the lungworts or pulmonarias, that cottagers grew and delighted in under a variety of titles that included boys and girls, soldiers and sailors, spotted dog and hundreds and thousands.

These are all different names for Pulmonaria officinalis whose spotted leaves and pink-and-blue flowers make their appearance towards the middle or end of March. Today, we have the choice of several garden species: P. angustifolia with its sky-blue flowers and narrow green leaves; P. rubra which, in favored situations will open its coral blooms as early as January and P. saccharata which, with its white-marbled green leaves and rose-pink to blue flowers comes closest to the older species. All the lungworts make first-class ground cover. They thrive equally well in sun or partial shade.


As spring progresses towards summer, the cottage garden provides a continuous succession of color and fragrance. Wallflowers, often assuming their true perennial character and coming up year after year are followed by the sweet clove-scented dianthus—the cottage pinks and clove carnations.

Here again the present-day gardener has a much wider choice where the latter plants are concerned. Interest in the old laced pinks has revived and forms are now obtainable that flower continuously throughout the summer. `London Poppet’ is white, tinged with pink and laced with ruby-red; `Laced Hero’ has large white flowers laced with purple and a central eye of chocolate-brown.

The old garden pinks have a shorter flowering season, but give a generous display of scented blossom. `Mrs Sinkins’, a favorite white of long standing is still among the most widely-grown of these; there is now a pink ‘Mrs Sinkins’ as well. Other good whites include ‘Iceberg’ and ‘White Ladies’ ; `Inchmery’ is a delicate shell pink of outstanding quality while ‘Priory Pink’ has a distinctive mauve tinge to its flowers.

The name of Allwood Brothers and pinks are practically synonymous and the modern gardener can call upon the great number of hardy hybrid pinks (allwoodii) for whose development and
introduction Allwoods were responsible. These combine all the virtues (including fragrance) of the older forms with great vigor and a flowering season that lasts from spring to early autumn.


Among the major attractions of the cottage garden in summer are the fragrant herbs that provide material for sachets and potpourris, as well as for use in the kitchen. Lavender, of course, is the most widely-grown of these. Lavandula silica is the old English or Mitcham lavender, distinguished for its fresh, strong fragrance. Today, there is a wide choice of cultivars of differing habit and color but none of these can quite compare with the old-fashioned kind where perfume is concerned. `Munstead Dwarf’ and `Twickel Purple’ are compact in habit with spikes of a really intense blue; L. s. rosea is an unusual lilac-pink variety, while the dwarf form Hidcote’ is the deepest purple-blue of all the lavenders.

Rosemary, as well as being a useful seasoning for roast chicken or veal makes a decorative small garden shrub. Very old plants can still be found growing by cottage doors; planted originally for convenience of picking and now serving in a more ornamental capacity. Rosmarinus officinalis is the common culinary kind but for more decorative effects, there are a number of others, including that unusual erect form, ‘Miss Jessup’s Variety’ which makes a slender grey-green column that is studded with pale blue flowers in April and May. `Benenden Blue’, from Corsica with very narrow leaves and deep blue flowers has an interesting, compact, white-flowered form.

Artemisia abrotanum, known variously as lad’s love, southernwood and old man, is a herb that must have found a place in almost every cottage garden. Its aromatic foliage has always been enjoyed by country folk and we find it planted in strategic positions, at the junction of paths or by the kitchen door, where a sprig can be plucked in passing and crushed to release its unmistakable aroma. For the modern cottage garden there are several other species of artemisia that now share in the popularity engendered by the current vogue for grey and silver-leaved plants

A. arborescens is noteworthy for the delicate filigree of its silvered leaves; A. nutans is a compact and elegant shrub with finely divided foliage silver-white color. Good for associating with them are some of the perennial forms, such as the lacy-leaved `Lambrook Silver’ and ‘Silver Queen’ with its narrow willow-like foliage.

All the culinary and medicinal herbs, including mint, thyme, chervil, borage, sage, bergamot and angelica are very suited to the cottage garden and the plantsman can enjoy them even more by growing decorative garden forms in the beds and borders or, where thyme and some of the mints are concerned, in crevices in paths and paving.

There are several mints deserving of a place in the ornamental garden. The variegated apple mint and the prostrate peppermint-scented Mentha requienii, whose dense mat of dark green foliage comes to no harm when trodden underfoot, can both be used in this manner.

Thymes are obtainable in great variety. The soft lavender flowers of the lemon thyme, Thymus citriodorus `Silver Queen’ make an attractive contrast to the silver-variegated foliage. For planting in paving the prostrate forms of T. serpyllum are useful. One of the most interesting of these is T. s. lanuginosus, which quickly forms a dense carpet of grey woolly foliage.

It would seem that almost any plant with the suffix ‘sweet’ has affiliations with the cottage garden. Sweet peas, sweet williams, sweet sultan and sweet rocket are just a few of the cottage flowers that have earned this name, probably because fragrance plays so important a part in determining the cottager’s choice of plants.


It is doubtful whether he would have had much time for many of the modern, practically scentless roses in spite of their great size and exquisite form. Sweet briar, moss and cabbage roses would have been more to his liking and it is not surprising that many of the old roses that are today enjoying such a welcome renaissance, should have been rescued from oblivion by their discovery in these surroundings.

On the walls the cottager’s choice might well have been the great maiden’s blush, with its grey-green foliage and quilted pink blooms, or another old favorite ‘Caroline Testout’, with its loose-petalled deep pink cabbage flowers. Climbers On the walls of a cottage, there is no need for formality. Climbing plants can be permitted to run riot and intertwine one with the other. This will particularly suit clematis such as Clematis montana rubens and many of the vigorous jackmanii types. The yellow stars of Jasminum nudiflorum will brighten the walls in winter and in summer the more rampant and sweetly-scented J. officinale, the sweet jessamine, will take over.

Other typical cottage climbers are the sweetly perfumed honeysuckles, whose modern garden forms are in striking contrast to our native woodbine, and Lathyrus latifolius, the everlasting pea which lacks the fragrance of the annual varieties, but which puts on a magnificent show each year.

Upkeep of the typical cottage garden should not entail a great deal of work. Normally, the plants are so closely packed together that weeds get little opportunity to take hold. For the contemporary cottage, grass is almost certain to play a more important part than formerly but generally speaking, the lawns will be relatively small and it should be possible to maintain it in first-rate condition at all times.

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One Comment


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