What is a Cottage Garden?

Britt Archer

In a world that is highly connected, where the business of importing and exporting necessities seems routine, it may be tough to imagine a fully self-sufficient lifestyle that was simple and born out of necessity. But these are exactly the conditions it took for the style of plant cultivation known as cottage gardening to form. It was from these beginnings that the modern cottage garden evolved.

Flowers are more common than vegetables in modern cottage gardens.
Flowers are more common than vegetables in modern cottage gardens.

Throughout history, gardens have been meticulously planned and groomed to be aesthetically pleasing, serving no more purpose than to cause an enjoyable response within the viewer. The exceptions to this rule were the gardens grown by lower class peasantry, who did not live in large estates and did not have room to grow such lavish gardens. "Cottage garden" was a term that originally referred to gardens grown by this class of people for their own daily needs, rather than for enjoyment.

Gardening tools.
Gardening tools.

In early 18th century England, a movement arose to reform the world of gardening. Proponents of this reform stated that gardens should be simpler, less ornamental and more functional, with little space unused. Many prominent English writers of the era, including Alexander Pope, Lord Shaftesbury and Joseph Addison, pushed for this change in gardens and brought awareness of the movement to a larger demographic.

Cottage gardens were originally planted to provide small dwellings with the necessary vegetables and herbs that were needed to feed the families who lived within. Like modern cottage gardens, the early gardens often appeared to be unruly. While there was no pattern or plot for these gardens, they were always maintained and well-tended. Due to their location, homeowners often added fences to keep the family's livestock from devouring the growing plants.

Modern cottage gardens have evolved from their predecessors, allowing for variables such as geographic location, soil conditions and dissimilar weather patterns. In a modern cottage garden, flowers are more frequently seen than herbs and vegetables, although they may make an occasional appearance. Often when planting a cottage garden, the gardener will choose to plant both annuals and perennials to ensure a variety of blossoms every year. It is also not uncommon to see roses play a part in today's cottage gardens.

The term "cottage garden" no longer applies only to small plots next to tiny dwellings. Plots at British dwellings such as Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire and Sissinghurst Castle in Kent are now considered cottage gardens. While those gardens were planned and plotted out before planting, they still capture the aesthetic and ideals of what a cottage garden may have looked like in turn-of-the century England.

One important thing to keep in mind when planning a cottage garden is that there are no hard rules. While most cottage gardens emulate the original English styles, a garden that is planted in the American Midwest may have a completely different set of plants and may not resemble the English gardens. Most gardens have a casual, Old World feel but this is not a necessity or a rule that must be strictly adhered to. Advocates of cottage gardening seem to agree that it is not the types of plants or the layout of the garden that allows it to fall under the category, but rather feelings reminiscent of an old-world quaintness.

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