No series on small gardens would be complete without looking at the cottage garden.

The pretty cottage garden has a timeless and enduring appeal for us, harking back nostalgically to a simpler way of living. But of course, reality is different from the chocolate box image of the cottage garden.

The original cottage garden dates to Elizabethan times. The first cottage gardens were built around the production of food, with herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees, and would usually include livestock such as chickens, or perhaps even a pig. Only a little consideration was given towards aesthetics; the traditional rose arch being the most enduring aspect of this. Any flowers would be small, and fill spaces too small for anything else. Sometimes even these were useful, as seasonings or insect repellent, for instance.

The special feature of a cottage garden was its limited space, so everything was grown together in an informal jumble – plants being squeezed in where they would fit, giving it a quirky and idiosyncratic look.

Originally, cottages would have been one room hovels, but between 1570 and 1640, many of the better quality cottages were built – villages were transformed as almshouses and village schools were built. The early eighteenth century to early nineteenth century saw another wave of building. Often landowners would pull down hovels they deemed unsightly, and sometimes put up better quality cottages for their labourers, in their place. The well to do, came to appreciate the cottage aesthetically, and many built architect designed cottages in the vernacular style, for themselves, which were far more spacious than earlier cottages. This was part of the ‘picturesque movement’.

Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson both drew inspiration from cottage gardens, and the Arts and Crafts movement, with which they were connected, gave rise to the modern cottage garden as an aesthetic entity.

Both Sissinghurst and Hidcote gardens were inspired by cottage gardens.

The overall identity of a modern cottage garden is to be informal, small, and at least partially edible, while packing the content tightly and efficiently. Unlike the gardens of the ‘great houses’, which had the luxury of separate vegetable and ornamental gardens, the cottage garden was a way of growing your own food in a space also to be enjoyed. Hard materials that were used were natural stone or brick, but it is the planting that dominated.

Whilst originally, flowers would have been natives, once the era of the great plant hunters began, and exotics were introduced to the big houses, many gardeners working there passed on plants to cottagers, so many ‘old fashioned’ cottage garden favourites were once imported. Favourite Cottage garden plants include: roses, lupins, foxgloves, aquilegias, delphiniums, centaureas, phlox, aubretia, centranthus ruber, geraniums, ferns, honeysuckle, hollyhocks, and topiary. Indeed, throughout the years when the landed gentry were influenced by Capability Brown’s and The English Landscape School’s ideal of a classical landscape, it was cottage gardens that kept the art of topiary alive.

The cottage garden is a ‘gardener’s garden’ – it needs care and attention if it is not to deteriorate into a mass of weeds.

Contemporary cottage gardens can include ornamental grasses, a small tree, such as an apple tree, fruit, vegetables, flowers, and any idiosyncratic ornaments such as reclaimed sinks, teapots, hazel or willow woven plant supports. What makes a garden cottagey is the overflow and abundance of planting, and the informality of design.

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