Monday, January 31, 2011

What is a cottage garden?

cottage garden

I think this is a good question. I mean I think most of us have heard the term at some point in our lives, but what is one really? I will give you the condensed version...

 Cottage gardens go back for centuries. Cottage gardens in the beginning were more out of necessity than for pleasure as they are today. The cottage gardens of England were poor working class folk who had but a small "cottage" and a little plot of land surrounding it. They had to make the most out of what they had so therefore they crammed as much out of their tiny plot as they could. They would grow things that would be used as food and medicinal purposes. Fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers all growing together. They often would keep bees and a few livestock as well. To protect what they had they would often put a fence around there garden to keep there livestock in such as perhaps a cow or pig and to keep out other unwanted guests. Hence the white picket fence you think about when picturing a cottage garden. Everything had a purpose, they needed these things to survive not to look pretty. There were some flowers grown just for their beauty but most had a purpose.

 Over time though the cottage gardens started to evolve into a garden of pleasure than out of necessity sometime in the mid to late 1800's. The emphasis was now becoming more about the flowers than the vegetables and herbs. Today in the 20th century it has become extremely popular. Cottage gardens are often romanticized about...those sweet thatched cottages, white picket fence and arbors just draped in gorgeous perfumed roses, and beautiful pastel shades of flowers everywhere the eye beholds. They are informal but not messy and chaotic. They are relaxing, inspiring, and welcoming.

 Today's cottage gardens still have elements of the traditional cottage gardens of times past. Most choose to use just those old cottage garden flower favorites such as roses, hollyhocks, sweet william, and daisies. Some like to incorporate herbs and/or vegetables into there gardens as they were original used, even adding a fruit tree here or there as room permits. The white picket or something similar and an arbor are still important elements of a traditional cottage garden. Then throw in birdhouse here and there and a birdbath and you are on you way to creating a traditional cottage garden.

 Notice I said on your way. That is because there is more to it then just having the things listed above in your garden. Now everyone may tweak their garden to suit their home or location or budget and that is fine. Someone living in Arizona or Florida will probably not be able to have the look of a traditional cottage garden because of house styles and a climate not suited to growing typical cottage garden flowers. They would have to modify it but as long as you keep the elements the same you can still achieve the look you want. My cottage garden is a sort of country cottage garden. Reason being I have a weathered post and rail fence that I grow my roses over and not a white picket fence. All the fencing and the arbor I have are weathered wood so to me it gives it more a country look but I try to keep and still working on creating the cottage look around the yard. Like I said you can modify it to suit you.

 Creating a cottage garden is not about just going out and buying one of every plant and plonking it in the ground just anywhere. A cottage garden may be informal but that doesn't mean it doesn't take some planning and maintaining. In fact I think to get it right it does take planning and upkeep. A traditional cottage garden had very little grass (something I still have plenty of) as it was prime real estate. Instead there were paths meandering around beds and borders filled to the brim with flowers, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, roses and trees. Even in a modern cottage garden you will have this without perhaps the veggies. So in order for plants not to get lost in there you must consider the different heights of plants, their color, bloom time. Taller plants in the back like hollyhocks or delphiniums, Medium plants in the middle such as sweet william or daisies and the smaller or border plants up front such as violets, dianthuses. Pick a color scheme and stick with that throughout the garden repeating colors so the eye flows around the garden. For example most traditional cottage garden flowers are pastel shades with some darker variations. You wouldn't want to have a mostly pastel garden with an orange or bright red plant thrown in. It will stand out like a sore thumb. There is nothing wrong with using hot colors especially if you live in an area where most of the flowers grown there come in those shades. What I am saying is pick a color scheme and stick with it. Also try to stay away from to many different colors as it takes away from the serene calming effect that a cottage garden should have. I have seen pictures of beautiful cottage gardens with a  color scheme of of just two shades such as white and blue or white and purple. Very nice! I have also seen monochromatic gardens of all white, or all purple and that is very pretty too although very hard to achieve. Grouping flowers in groups of 3 or 5 also make a big impact rather than 1 or 2 and it gives it a much more natural look. Again repeat the colors, if you have a clump of white daisies than a little further down the border or bed repeat that color with either the same flower or a different flower but in the same color. Try to consider the times they bloom and plant accordingly so you have consistent flowers throughout the garden and throughout the year. That way you won't have blank spaces in the garden. Bulbs and rhizomes are great for this job.

An another important element as I mentioned above is mixing your flowers with shrubs, roses and even a tree or two. These are considered the bones in the garden. They are a constant in the ever changing world of flowers that come and go throughout the year. Many of these have added interests as well such as berries and flowers that give it seasonal interest as well. Roses...a must have for any cottage garden! If you haven't tried them yet because you are afraid of them or don't know how to grow them, then please take a look at my posts on roses. You simply must give them a try. Start with a few knockouts for now to get your courage up. You cannot go wrong with these I promise! Old garden roses can be trained along fences, up arbors, and along houses or simple grown as a shrub. Most old garden roses flower all summer into fall and some just once in spring. Many have a wonderful scent to fill the garden for you to enjoy! Vines are wonderful as well, many with strongly scented flowers such as honeysuckle or jasmine and some with gorgeous flowers, such as clematis. Shrubs are a wonderful addition to cottage gardens when mixed with perennials and other flowers. There are so many different kinds...not all are just balls with green leaves. Trees are fantastic too and if you are lucky to have some mature trees on your property work with them. Too many can be a problem as it takes the sun away from all those sun loving plants but if you can work with them. It attracts wildlife...add some feeders, birdhouses and a birdbath and welcome the birds to your garden. Have fun with it, create winding paths, wide borders and beds, and over time it will mature and fill in giving you your very own cottage garden. You must be patient, it won't happen over night. I am still working on mine, planning beds, creating them. It takes time. Most of your flowers will come from perennials and they take a few years to really fill out. Roses are the same as they take at least 3-4 years to really start to fill out. Fill in with annuals in the time being and or bulbs. Whimsical statues such as rabbits ans sundials help fill in the spaces as well. One thing I also love about cottage gardens is allowing the seeds to drop and spread at random giving you more free plants and doing some of the work for you by reseeding themselves. Black Eyed Susans are very good at that..perhaps too good. Which brings up another point... sharing. Any extra or unwanted plants? Share them with neighbors and friends and help them create there very own cottage garden!

 Just have fun with it, relax, and enjoy the experience of creating one. God has created so many glorious plants for us to enjoy if we would only get out there to enjoy them. I started with a clean slate when we moved into this house 5 years ago as it was new construction. I still have a long way to go but I enjoy every minute of it. I add to it little by little over the years, and change things that I find didn't work. That is one thing I love about cottage gardens is that they are always changing and so you get something new every year! Go at you pace, in the winter when you can't get outside and everything is dormant or covered under a blanket of snow go to the library and get a few books to take home on cottage gardens, roses, perennials and herbs. Learn what will grow in your area, look at the examples you like in the books and see how and what you can copy into your own garden. The cottage garden forum is a great place to get information and meet a bunch of wonderful people as well. If you have any questions post a comment below and I will try to answer it the best I can.


  1. I love your blog. I just found it by following the activity on mine. I see it's new, but you have done such a good job with it. Your header is absolutely charming! I'll have to finish reading it when I get home. It's wonderful to see more information available about Old Garden Roses. I have a friend who has chickens (and I have 'chickens' everywhere in my kitchen!), and I buy my eggs from her. I probably can't have chickens on my tiny lot but would love to. Thanks so much for adding my blog link to yours.

  2. Oh thanks Sherry! A dear friend of mine once told me I should start a blog on gardening and keeping chickens so I finally took her advise. Actually it was you who (I'm momof2luv2garden on the antique rose forum)finally gave me the push to go ahead and start one from your post on blogging. I hope to get more followers in my area to encourage more people to try old garden roses and keep chickens as well. Thanks again for your lovely comments about my blog..yours is delightful as well and I enjoy reading it!

  3. Thank you for such a good post! I am only starting to create my own cottage garden up here in northern Europe, and trying to gather information and resources together. Your post brought a lot of points to my attention, thank you for sharing this!

    ~ Piia Anneli / annelivia

  4. Piia, thank you very much for stopping by and letting me know that this post was a help, I appreciate it and I'm glad to be of some kind of help. :) Good luck with the start of your very own cottage garden, have fun and enjoy it! ~Meghan