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The Basics of an English Cottage Style Garden

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As a child, Glenis learned from her horticulturist family a love of gardening. Almost seventy years later, she continues to grow and learn.

Anne Hathaway's cottage garden at Shottery, Warwickshire, England

Anne Hathaway's cottage garden at Shottery, Warwickshire, England

Characteristics of an English Cottage Style

An English cottage garden has a distinct style—an informal design, densely planted, with paths and hard structures constructed from traditional building materials. The overall effect is artless, romantic, and unstructured. Certain plants are typical of this type of garden. Roses towering hollyhocks, planted in bygone days close to the walls of cottages to draw out damp, cranesbill geranium for ground cover under the shade of trees, and a wealth of other perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals provide a riot of colour throughout all but the coldest winter months.

A mixed border of shrubs, perennial, and annual plants. There is a lawn in my father's garden, though this is not a traditional component of a cottage garden

A mixed border of shrubs, perennial, and annual plants. There is a lawn in my father's garden, though this is not a traditional component of a cottage garden

History of the English Cottage Garden

Functional gardens attached to workers cottages first made an appearance in England several centuries ago, providing fruit, vegetables, and medicinal herbs for the family. Spaces that would otherwise be empty were filled with flowers, both for their beauty and to suppress weeds. Chickens roamed freely and there might be a pig sty and a beehive on the small plot.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum, many agricultural workers moved from the countryside into towns. A productive town garden was often not possible, but the people who remained in the countryside continued with the old ways. In the wake of Romanticism, the cottage garden became popular amongst affluent members of society, undergoing a stylised reinvention, and flowers became the predominant feature.

My sister's sheltered garden in South West England during early September

My sister's sheltered garden in South West England during early September

Choice of Plants for a Cottage Garden

Choice of plants is restricted by the type of soil, the aspect of the borders, and colour preferences. Try to plant for year-round interest. If you are stuck for ideas, consult a beautifully written and photographed guide to English gardens, like this one by award-winning gardening author and journalist Ursula Buchan.

Enrich Your Soil to Get Good Results

Heavily planted flower borders suck nutrients from the soil. It's essential to replenish the ground each year. I fork manure into my light sandy ground every few years and annually add compost around the plants. Manure is sometimes freely available from stables, if you have one close by, but you will probably have to fork it into sacks or a trailer. It's a messy job and the quality isn't always good so I now buy manure in sacks.There are various brands available. The manure that I used this year is RHS recommended. Compost can be made from garden and kitchen waste in a basic bin. I have not had much success with making compost this way and recently invested in a hotbin composter .Alternatively, buy compost in sacks from a garden centre.

A Hotbin heats compost to a very high temperature and so breaks down materials, including meat and bones if you choose to add them, within 30-90 days. The Hotbin mini that I have won the RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year in 2019. It's a compact bin,placed in a corner of my patio.

Gertrude Jekyll All roses thrive best if fed regularly, mulched, and sprayed to prevent greenfly and fungal disease

Gertrude Jekyll All roses thrive best if fed regularly, mulched, and sprayed to prevent greenfly and fungal disease

Roses

The traditional roses for a cottage garden are the fragrant Old Garden Roses. Some varieties have self-supporting stems, whilst others need support. Roses are delightful but they require dedication to caring for them. They thrive best if regularly fed, should be regularly dead-headed, inspected for insect and virus infestation, and carefully pruned.

David Austin has been breeding disease-resistant roses since the 1950s. His displays at the Chelsea Flower Show have won 23 Gold medals. I particularly like Gertrude Jekyll, which has his strongest fragrance and pink rosettes. It was voted England's favourite rose in a Gardener's World poll. I have a couple of specimens which grow in mixed flower borders. Nepeta and the tall delicate spikes of Heuchera made a nice foil that doesn't detract from the beauty of the rose. I sow Night Scented Stock annually amongst the plants to provide another layer of perfume.

Nepeta, Heuchera, and Pinks growing amongst rose bushes

Nepeta, Heuchera, and Pinks growing amongst rose bushes

Hollyhocks

After roses, hollyhock is the flower that I most associate with a traditional cottage garden.Plant a few hollyhocks and they will last for several years, self-seeding if you don't remove the spent blooms, and growing to a height of up to 2.4 metres. The only disadvantage of hollyhocks is that they are prone to powdery mildew. Regular spraying with fungicide keeps it in check.

Hollyhocks by Eastman Johnson 1876

Hollyhocks by Eastman Johnson 1876

English Lavender

What could be more evocative of an English garden than the scent of lavender? The plants are tolerant of poor soil and of drought conditions. I have Hidcote and Munstead in my garden. They are attractive to bees, who produce lavender honey from the nectar that they collect.

Grow individual plants or plant them to form a hedge. When cutting back at the end of the flowering season, the dry flower heads can be used in baking, for a bowl of fragrant potpourri, or for making lavender bags to slip into a lingerie draw.

English Lavender Blossom

English Lavender Blossom

Pinks

Delicate, fragant, garden pinks are easy to grow and their silvery foliage provides all year round interest in the garden. They are good for cutting, if you can bear to do it, and make a lovely corsage for special occasions. The plants become woody after about three years but it's easy to maintain a constant supply of young plants by either layering non-flowering shoots or taking cuttings.

Double Pinks

Double Pinks

Delphinium

A classic flower in the traditional garden. Tall spikes of flowers are short-lived but if the plants are cut back to the ground after flowering they may produce a second flush later in the season. Plant in groups for best effect. My favourite at the moment is Delphinium Cherry Blossom. Regenerate and increase your stock every three years by dividing the plants. Guard against attacks by slugs and snails, particularly amongst new, unestablished plants.

Delphiniums aka Larkspur

Delphiniums aka Larkspur

Love-in-the-Mist

Love-in-the-Mist is the beautiful common name for Nigella. Delicate flowers and fern-like foliage. It self-seeds and flowers abundantly in my flower beds every year. Scatter seed wherever there is a gap in the flower border. It flowers for about eight weeks.

Love-in-the-Mist Miss Jekyll

Love-in-the-Mist Miss Jekyll

Clematis

Choose several different plants carefully for a variety of different clematis scrambling over your fences, trellis, or amongst trees, for many months. I grow macropetala Blue Bird, a shade loving variety which can withstand extremely low temperatures and flowers in March/April, Comtesse to Bouchard, which flowers July-September, Margaret Hunt - June/July, and the evergreen Arabella in a pot at the base of an east-facing wall of the house. Clematis roots must be shaded from the sun - place a few rocks or some gravel around the base of the plant. There are three different pruning groups - light, severe, and no pruning - so make sure that you know which yours belong to so that you can cut back at the correct time of year. Watch for clematis wilt, or stem rot, and cut out any affected stems.

Clematis Margaret Hunt, planted on trellis nailed to a west-facing 6ft wooden fence

Clematis Margaret Hunt, planted on trellis nailed to a west-facing 6ft wooden fence

Mock Orange

Philadelphus, a perennial shrub, is commonly known as Mock Orange because its scent is said to be similar to that of orange blossom (though it reminds me of bubble gum). During summer evenings in June, the perfume from the gracefully arching stems pervades the garden and mingles delightfully with that of Night Scented Stocks and garden Pinks. Mock Orange is very easy to grow. I have succesfully taken semi-ripe cuttings and simply planted them to my light soil, where within a few years they have grown to a height of around seven feet. Philadelphus must be pruned properly - immediately after flowering cut out the dead flower stems and cut out some old branches to prevent overcrowding.

Philadelphus (Mock Orange). A perennial shrub, flowering in June, that has a wonderful scent that is reminiscent of bubble gum.

Philadelphus (Mock Orange). A perennial shrub, flowering in June, that has a wonderful scent that is reminiscent of bubble gum.

Annuals for an English-Cottage Style Garden

The quick and cheap way to produce a spectacular display of flowers in a new unestablished border is to sow annuals among the young perennials and shrubs. Many of them are self-seeding if you don't remove the dead flowers. I have marigolds coming up in the borders every year as a result of putting in a few plants many years ago. I scattered a few forget-me-not seeds gathered from my son's garden many years ago and now each spring have a blue carpet of flowers mingling with tulips.

Nowadays different seed mixtures are available ready-sown in biodegradable mats. Simply place the mat where you want the flowers to appear and cover lightly with compost, grit, or topsoil. Water regularly until established. This year I have had very successful results from a couple of seed mats which produced bee-loving Borage, Common Knapweed, Anise Hyssop, Verbena, Lady Phacelia and Viper's Buglos.

Every Spring I sow Night Scented Stock throughout my flower borders every few weeks so that I get blossoms throughout the summer season. The flowers are unspectacular but the scent, once the sun has gone down, is sublime. Place a bench in a quiet spot in the garden, watch the stars appear and enjoy.

Borage. An annual herb also known as starflower It is used both for medicinal purposes and in cooking.

Borage. An annual herb also known as starflower It is used both for medicinal purposes and in cooking.

Herbs for a Cottage Garden

No traditional cottage-style garden would be complete without a collection of herbs, nowadays used largely for culinary purposes but in the past used to make herbal remedies. Grow them in terracotta pots on the patio, or in the borders. I have a bay, thyme, sage, mint, chives, borage. (Mint is invasive and bay trees eventually grow to a height of around 38 feet if left unpruned. Both are best grown in pots.)

Oregano. Good in Italian recipes and a pretty polinator friendly plant for the flower border

Oregano. Good in Italian recipes and a pretty polinator friendly plant for the flower border

Increasing Your Stock of Plants for a Cottage Garden by Taking Cuttings

A new garden takes several years to mature unless you have unlimited financial resources to buy large quantities of the best-quality mature plants. Patience is a virtue that most gardeners have to learn. The good news is that our stock of plants can be substantially increased for the cost of a few cheap plant pots, a sack of cutting compost, a bag of horticultural gravel, and a small pot of rooting compound.

The correct time to take cuttings from dianthus, pelargoniums, and flowering shrubs such as lavender is during the flowering season.

Life in a Cottage Garden

Carole Klein in is a passionate plantswoman who often appears on British tv to talk about the flowers that she loves and how to cultivate them. A recent accolade that I recently heard from her peers is that nobody knows more about perennial plants than she. This beautifully illustrated book, Life in a Cottage Garden, is about a year in her lovely garden at Glebe Cottage. It is both inspiration and a useful guide for anyone who loves the cottage garden style of gardening.

Taking Cuttings From Lavender

There are two methods of taking lavender cutting - ripe, hardwood cuttings or semi-ripe cuttings. The methods can be applied to all flowering shrubs. My father said that I had magic in my fingers because I have had success simply breaking off a piece of hardwood with a heel and dropping it into the garden. I suspect that the 'cuttings' grew because I have very light sandy soil, ideal for Mediterranean plants. I wouldn't recommend that you rely entirely on this method! Instead, take a semi-ripe cutting from a non-flowering shoot and dip the bottom of it into hormone rooting powder.

Vegetables in the Cottage Garden

There are few garden tasks more satisfying that stepping into the garden to harvest fruit and vegetables for the table. In bygone days a cottage gardener aimed to grow sufficient fruit and vegetables to feed the family throughout the year. My garden is small, and as my family has flown over the years my fruit and vegetable patch has reduced in size, but I still maintain a small raised bed as a nod to tradition. Filled will fertile compost the bed can be intensively planted. Currently, I am harvesting cauliflower, salad leaves, radish and strawberries. I look forward to beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, leeks, tomatoes and red onions later in the year.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Glen Rix

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