Pretty, Practical Cottage Gardens Rooted in Pandemic History
Romantic visions of small, rose-covered houses with thatched roofs and bountifully blooming yards come to mind when hearing the phrase cottage garden. But that image of working-class country life in 19th Century England is a one-size-fits-all stereotype that doesn’t define cottage gardening past or present.
Today, you certainly don’t have to live in a quaint cottage to grow a cottage garden bursting with flowers — including sages that cozy up to roses — and edible landscaping. However, a small, simple house is part of the look.
Southwestern adobes, California bungalows, Cape Cods featuring classic symmetry, and low-slung, suburban ranch styles are all good backdrops to dress up with these gardens. But, aside from a cottage garden’s connection to a modest home, exactly how do you define the term?
What Is a Cottage Garden?
There is nothing exact about a cottage garden. Perhaps you could even grow one on an apartment balcony, filling it with container plantings fostering flowers, herbs, and vegetables.
At first glance, cottage gardens today may look like a free-for-all of floral abundance. This Old House refers to the style as “organized chaos,” because an informal, seemingly unplanned appearance is one of the defining traits of a cottage garden.
Look closer at homes surrounded by minimal turf and maximal flowering plants, and you may notice elements of order including winding pathways lined with gravel or stepping stones. You may also see birdbaths, bowers, obelisks, picket fences, raised beds, retaining walls, and trellises — all of which help organize plantings.
Cottage gardens tend to contain an eclectic community of flowers and edibles, because they usually aren’t planted all at once. The gardens evolve over time as busy owners add, subtract, and move plantings. Density is another characteristic due to gardeners not being able to resist tucking in “just one more” plant.
Cottage Garden Salvias & Partner Plants
The need for easy-care plants always has been a key feature of cottage gardens. Long ago, people had little free time for home gardens. Many were busy all day long tending the grounds of wealthy landowners.
Consequently, the plants in cottage gardens historically have been ones that don’t require lots of attention and replanting. Easy-to-grow perennials work well in combination with annual flowers and herbs that reseed, like parsley and Love in a Mist (Nigella).
Plant kits from Flowers by the Sea Farm and Online Nursery — such as our Chilly Winter Cottage Garden Collection and our Gentle Winter Cottage Garden Collection — are helpful for getting started or filling holes in otherwise lush landscapes.
Although dairy cows and other four-legged livestock once were the rule in cottage gardens, you're more likely to find chickens and honeybee hives today in the yards of urban and suburban homesteaders. Today, edibles growing side by side with ornamentals are the most common reminders of cottage gardens’ early agricultural roots. For example, modern cottage gardeners might pair grassy looking, lavender- or white-flowered chives with a large-leafed stand of similarly cold-hardy Wild Clary Sage (Salvia verbenacea). Spring borders of mixed lettuces and other salad greens — sometimes called mesclun — might border shrubby Fuchsias, which have edible flowers.
One caveat: Don’t experiment with eating ornamentals. Carefully research edibility before adding flowers or other plant parts to baked goods, cooked foods, and salads. Seek out reputable sources such agricultural extension services at universities. Here’s a list of ornamental edibles from the University of Minnesota, which reminds cooks only to use plants that haven’t been treated with pesticides.
Drought Resistant Cottage Garden Plants
Low-water cottage gardens can also be intensely colorful. Good plant choices include Agastaches, Autumn Sages, bearded Iris, succulents of many shapes and heights, old fashioned favorites like hollyhocks, clouds of daisy-like Cosmos, and wildflowers native to your region. Conserve water with green groundcovers like wooly thyme and rosette-shaped hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum types handle both cold and warm winters).
Click on the Cultural Icons tab included in any FBTS plant listing to gain a clear picture about a plant’s growing needs, including water. You also can rapidly check moisture needs for all the Salvias in our catalog by using our FBTS Salvia Finder and choosing the watering cup icon.
Roses are traditional choices for cottage gardens, and there are a wide variety for different growing conditions including semi-arid climates. It’s a common misconception that roses don’t like to share their soil with other plants. Yet short, drought-resistant sages, like Salvia farinacea (Big Blue is one type to try), are usually successful choices for underplanting and aiding moisture retention.
History of Cottage Gardens
“Evergreen” isn’t a word limited to horticulture. In blogging, it refers to articles that aren’t dated by connection to current events. They stay fresh even as time passes.
But it makes sense to touch on how today’s coronavirus catastrophe is increasing interest in home gardening and why a much earlier pandemic — most commonly called “The Plague” — led to the cottage garden movement.
Spring 2020 Gardening Boom
Stay-at-home practices, whether ordered or voluntary, have become a worldwide tool for slowing the exponential spread of Covid-19 — the baffling disease caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus now officially called SARS-CoV-2.
It seems difficult to accept that anything positive can come from the pandemic. However, many people are turning to gardening as a soothing, creative activity that fills time, provides food, and encourages outdoor learning for children.
In an article published April 19, 2020 (Home gardening blooms around the world during coronavirus lockdowns), Reuters reported huge increases in seed sales at companies such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Maine, Stokes Seeds of Canada, and the W. Atlee Burpee & Co. of Pennsylvania where the article stated that March sales were greater “than at any time in its 144-year history.”
The news service noted that Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society has experienced a 500% rise in requests for gardening information, including how to save seed from grocery produce.
At Flowers by the Sea Farm and Online Nursery, we sell flowering plants instead of seeds. Our specialty is Salvias, of which we grow hundreds of kinds. As the seriousness and uncertainty of the pandemic increased in late winter, we braced for loss of mail-order plant sales. However, business so far has been strong, and we feel lucky.
Planting flowers, particularly nectar-rich kinds such as Salvias, is good for pollinators. Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects need lots of flower nectar to thrive and do their work. Bountiful blooms attract pollinators, and this results in higher garden yields. So, beauty is practical in gardens. Even in the Middle Ages when cottage gardening began as a movement to feed working-class families, peasants found room for flowers.
The Plague & Land Reform
During the reign of Constantinople’s Emperor Justinian and beginning in 541 A.D., tens of millions of people died from a bacterial illness spread by flea-infested rats. It became known as the Plague of Justinian.
Hundreds of years later, from 1347 to 1351, a similar bacterium transmitted by rats caused the world’s second recorded pandemic —the Plague or Black Death.
The Plague devastated Europe and parts of Asia, killing so many people that feudal land ownership practices changed. This was especially true in Britain where the population decrease led to lower prices for land and higher fees for labor. This made ownership and home gardening possible for the poor.
Beautiful Gardens for All
The idea of humble cottage gardening as a horticultural art first began appearing in agricultural publications in the early 19th Century. Scottish landscape architect John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) and his wife, author Jane Webb Loudon (1807-1858) are credited with encouraging respect for the agricultural knowledge of working-class cottage gardeners whose tiny yards were jammed with edibles: vegetables; herbs; and fruiting bushes, trees, and vines.
Garden writer and landscape designer Thomas Mickey has noted that the Loudons “opened the door to an appreciation for gardening by social classes other than the aristocracy” by writing in the horticultural press “for anybody who gardened.”
One publication that John Claudius Loudon edited was The Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Rural & Domestic Improvement. In the 1826 issue, a chapter titled “Gardens of Cottages” (page 275), Loudon published an estate manager’s article about how one of his former employers used a system of rewards to encourage workers to upgrade their gardens. The desired improvements included growing food gardens behind their homes and planting front courtyards with flowers.
Gertrude Jekyll’s Influence
But it wasn’t until the early 20th Century that artistry in home gardening was taken seriously. Landscape design books, like Gertrude Jekyll’s Colour in the Flower Garden (1908) advocated for the importance of thoughtful design choices in even the humblest settings.
Jekyll supported an overstuffed cottage-garden look by casting a disapproving eye on borders that bloomed lavishly with tulips in spring, then looked patchy in summer. But she also encouraged putting thought into planting choices so as to avoid bulb plants being “cruelly stabbed by fork or trowel” when filling in bare spots.
Furthermore, Jekyll stressed that “the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection.”
The lesson: It takes a village of compatible flowers, greenery, and hardscape working together artfully to pull off lovely chaos.