The Cottage Garden

The traditional English "everyman's" garden—fragrant, beautiful flowers in spontaneous, informal patterns alongside vegetables, herbs, vines, and other plants—is enjoying a well-deserved American revival.

| November/December 1989

"On one side is a gloomy garden, with an old man digging in it, laid out in straight dark beds of vegetables, all earthy and mouldy as a newly dug grave, Not a flower or flowering shrub! Not a rose tree or currant bush! Nothing but for sober, melancholy use. Oh, different from the long irregular slips of the cottage gardens, with their gay bunches of polyanthuses and crocuses, their wall-flowers sending sweet odours through the narrow casement, and their gooseberry trees bursting into a brilliancy of leaf, whose vivid proneness has the effect of a blossom on the eye."
—Mary Russell Mitford
Our Village, 1824  

"There is an old tradition that the Madonna lily throve best in cottage gardens because the housewife was in the habit of chucking out her pail of soapsuds all over the flower bed. Curiously enough this tradition is now confirmed by the advice that young growth of these lilies should be sprayed with soft soap and water, to prevent Botrytis."  

Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening, 1959 

I love gardens. My affair of the heart started with vegetables, but now I love flower gardens even more. But how often do you see a real flower garden—not just a border or row or clump? People tend to establish basic landscape plantings and to raise straightforward lines of vegetables.

Still, some home gardeners do seem to be becoming more sophisticated. Many of us who have been enthusiastic vegetable gardeners for years are now expanding our reach, captivated by the ornamentals. Hasn't the time come for a flower-garden revival?

When I look at landscape design books, time after time I'm drawn to the history sections, to the pictures of old English "cottage gardens." These can, I think, provide perfect models and the necessary inspiration for contemporary flower gardens. A cottage garden is informal, diverse, evolving, easy to care for, useful. Its old-fashioned, hardy flowers can blend happily with vegetables, herbs, vines, and flowering and fruiting shrubs. Here, primroses grow under a currant bush. There, a rambling rose drapes down from an overhanging branch. Nearby, tall hollyhocks, delphiniums, and foxgloves grow above the Canterbury bells and love-in-a-mist. Who wouldn't love such a garden?

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