As a child, Glenis learned from her horticulturist family a love of gardening. Almost seventy years later, she continues to grow and learn.
History of the English Cottage Garden
The English love of gardens and gardening is legendary. It has been said that, by and large, we are a nation of gardeners. Functional gardens attached to workers cottages first made an appearance in England several centuries ago. They provided 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 even be a pig sty and a beehive on the small plot. As the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum, many agricultural workers moved from rural villages to towns. A productive town garden was often not possible, though the people who remained in the countryside continued with the old ways. In the wake of Romanticism, the cottage garden became popular amongst more affluent members of society, undergoing a stylised reinvention. Flowers became the predominant feature.
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, of course. Towering hollyhocks, planted in bygone days close to the walls of cottages to draw out damp, feature at the back of borders, cranesbill geranium provide 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.
Choice of Plants for a Cottage Garden
There is a vast array of traditional cottage garden plants to choose from. Choices will be restricted by the type of soil, the aspect of the borders, and colour preferences. 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.
I have one border that has been designed for romantic pink and blue plants and another for the hot reds, oranges, and yellows that arrive later in the summer season and the autumn here in England. Here are a few of my favourites.
You may not have a rose-covered porch framing an ancient oak door but a few feet of trellis or an obelisk provide great alternative support for climbing or rambling roses. The traditional roses for a cottage garden are the fragrant Old Garden Roses. Some varieties have self-supporting stems, whilst others need support.
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.
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. I have double pinks masking a brick boundary wall and double maroon and double white in front of a trellis that screens a small raised vegetable bed. The only disadvantage of hollyhocks is that they are prone to powdery mildew. Regular spraying with fungicide keeps it in check.
3. English Lavender
What could be more evocative of an English garden than the scent of lavender? There are so many varieties that gardeners are spoilt for choice. The plants are tolerant of poor soil and of drought conditions - which makes them an ideal choice as the climate changes. 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.
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 they make a lovely corsage or buttonhole 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.
A classic flower in the traditional garden. Tall spikes of flowers are short-lived but if the plants are cut back to the ground immediately after flowering they may produce a second flush later in the season. Plant in groups of blue and white for the best effect. My favourite at the moment is Delphinium Cherry Blossom. Regenerate and increase your stock every three years or so by dividing the plants. Guard against attacks by slugs and snails, particularly amongst new, unestablished plants.
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.
Verbascum, common name Mullein, needs well-drained soil, lots of space for the foliage, and a sunny aspect. The numerous tiny buttery yellow flowers are borne on spikes which grow to a height of seven feet in my sandy soil. A spectacular perennial, attractive to bees, for a cottage border.
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
9. Mock Orange
Philadelphus, a perennial shrub, is commonly known as Mock Orange because its scent is said to me similar to that of orange blossom (though it reminds me of bubble gum). During a summer evening in June, the perfume from the gracefully arching stems will pervade the garden and mingle 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.
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 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 for as long as possible 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.
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.)
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.
How to Take Cuttings from Dianthus (Garden Pinks)
- Make a mixture of potting compost and horticultural gravel and place it into small pots. I find a mixture of 80/20 percent works for me.
- Find some none flowering shoots on the parent plant and carefully remove, by either gently breaking or cutting away.
- Using a sharp knife cut a section of the stalk just below a leaf node.
- Strip off most of the leaves above the leaf node.
- Dip the base of the cutting in rooting compound.
- Gently insert the cutting into the edge of the plant pot.
- Continue in the way until you have four of five cuttings around the edge of the pot
- Water the compost and place the pots out of the sun.
- Keep the compost moist, but don't overwater
- Once the cuttings have taken root and start to grow, pot them on into individual plant pots
- During the winter months keep the plants in a frost-free location - if you don't have a greenhouse a garden frame or a cool windowsill in the house are OK.
- Plant out in the Spring
This method works well for pelargoniums too. I have just taken what must be twelfth generation cuttings from a plant that was originally grown by my father. (You may think me sentimental, but I feel that my Dad's spirit lives on in the plants that he so lovingly grew).
Use Plastic Carrier Bags as Propagators
Potting-on Rooted Cuttings
Collecting Seed from Garden Flowers
Once the flowerheads on hollyhock plants have died back and fallen off you will find a seed pod on the plants. Harvest these and store them in a labelled brown paper bag until the sowing season (March or July in England). Then plant them in seed trays filled with seed compost and watch them grow!
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.
How to Grow Hollyhocks from Seed
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.
Taking Semi-Ripe Cuttings of Shrubs
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