The Cottage Garden
The true cottage garden is very informal with a mix of plants from climbers to bulbs planted close together so when one plant stops flowering another will take over and fill the gap. The garden is then full of bright colour and interest from an apparent hap hazard random mix of plants without planned colour schemes or design. Plants should be allowed to set their seed and spontaneously appear wherever the breeze and insects or birds take them. Include Honesty, with its fragrant purple flowers in spring which attract pollinating insects and is a host for the orange tip butterfly caterpillar, Forget Me Nots, Columbine, Foxgloves, Nasturtiums, Snowdrops and Bluebells. All these will increase the density of plants or be found in nooks and crannies in paths, paving and walls adding to the random overall informal appearance. The crowded planting should also minimise weeding maintenance and allow plants to support each other although of course this needs to be managed until established.
Historically Cottage Gardens provided for the Cottagers way of life with fruit, herbs and vegetables grown amongst ornamental flowers which provided a source of plant material for medicinal or cleaning preparations. A Bee Hive supplied honey and chickens and ducks foraged producing eggs and meat to supplement the diet. Lavender was always grown for Pot Pori to scent the home or added to white vinegar as a cleaning agent for hard surfaces and windows. The flowers of Thymes were used to deter moths and other insects from destroying fabric or for perfuming homemade soap and mouthwashes. An infusion of Rosemary flowers and leaves was an ingredient for washing hair. Yes, medieval cottagers were clean certainly in country locations. Today Cottage Gardens are mostly ornamental but Herbs and Veg like Runner and Broad Beans, Carrots, Chard and Garlic are easily added annually to the mix. Spring Bulbs like Snowdrops and Bluebells readily spread and colonise if left undisturbed for the foliage to die back after flowering.
When building a Cottage Garden it is important to start with a few basics before introducing any plants. The site should be sunny with only a little partial shade. The soil should be weed free and it is worth spending time achieving this and adding a mulch of rotted down garden compost or horse manure to ensure organic material is incorporated to help maintain moisture in the soil. Now is the time to also build any rustic structure to support climbing plants like Honeysuckles and old fashioned Climbing Roses. Grass is not a feature of Cottage Gardens so paths should meander through the planting areas where Alchemilla, Mint, Chives, Nasurtiums or Marigolds like Calendula Art Shades can drape the edges as the grow. If the paths are constructed from stepping stones, gravel or bark the seedlings may encroach and appear between the stones adding to the casual relaxed planting you are trying to achieve. Picket or woven Willow fences make authentic boundaries and backdrops and will also support Species Clematis like Tangutica or Viticella, Morning Glory or Sweet Peas. A weathered Bench and a Bird Bath add interesting features.
It is good to have a skeleton planting of shrubs for winter interest like winter flowering Viburum Tinus, Mahonia, Winter Sweet, and Winter Flowering Honeysuckle and Holly J C Van Tol for red berries at Christmas. Honesty with its papery seed pods are also excellent winter interest as are the seed heads of Sea Holly and Sedums with their ghostly appearance when covered with an early morning frost. Hydrangeas are long flowering cottage garden shrubs. Leave the faded flowers on the plant throughout winter to protect the delicate shoots below and also add to the lovely spectacle after a heavy air frost. And let’s not forget the Christmas Roses.
After the spring flowering bulbs the perennial wallflower Erysimum Bowles with purple flowers and Alliums which readily set seed have lovely seed heads for winter interest to follow.
Now for the summer colour which is endless. The perennials for the permanent planting should include Lupins, Delphiniums, Foxglove, Phlox, Geraniums, Pinks, Alchemilla Mollis, Hollyhocks, Paeonies, Campanula, Michelmas Daisies, Heleniums, Aquilegia, Red Hot Pokers, and Campanula. These can be supplemented annually by sowing seeds of Larkspur, Californian Poppy, Candytuft, Cornflowers, Sweet Rocket, Rudbeckia and the climbing Morning Glory which is good to cover the picket fence.
A Cottage Garden will bring a breath of the countryside to any space.