As a child, Glenis learned from her horticulturist family a love of gardening. Almost seventy years later, she continues to grow and learn.
Characteristics of an English Cottage Style Garden
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.
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. Later, at the wake of Romanticism, the cottage garden became popular amongst affluent members of society, undergoing a stylised reinvention. Flowers became the predominant feature.
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. Nowadays I buy bags of manure from the garden centre, but in the past have persuaded the men in the family to visit the local stables where the owner allows people to bag up manure free of charge.
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 ,which 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.
Planting and Caring for 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. Pick a variety that is resistant to disease.
In the British climate bare rooted roses should be planted in the autumn. Pot grown roses can be planted in autumn or springtime. Water regularly and thoroughly until established.
Be sure to incorporate plenty of well-rotted manure into the planting hole at planting time. I also use a mycorrhizal fungi powder when planting any shrubs and perennials, to give them the best possible start.
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Roses thrive best if regularly fed, should be regularly dead-headed, inspected for insect and virus infestation, and carefully pruned.
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 disadvantage of hollyhocks is that they are prone to powdery mildew. Regular spraying with fungicide keeps it in check.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
Increase Your Stock of Plants by Dividing Perennials
In England, the best time to divide most perennials is in the early spring or in autumn, before the ground becomes too cold and damp.
- Lift plant with a garden fork, working gently to avoid root damage
- Shake of excess soil so that the roots are clearly visible
- Some plants can be gently pulled apart. Others, with more fibrous roots, may need to be split with a garden spade or even with a sharp knife.
- Replant immediately, incorporating fresh compost if the soil is poor, and water thoroughly. The plants can be replanted in the same place or in other parts of the garden.
- Growth can be accelerated by planting in pots for the winter, if you have a frost-free place to store them.
- For more information and advice about dividing specific perennial plants see the RHS website
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.
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