Cover Story

Living Outdoors
By Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Writer

English Cottage Gardening

With its roots planted in practicality, the English Cottage Garden offers a sense of sanctuary, nostalgic charm, and a luscious look in a limited space.

English gardening became well-rooted in American soil centuries ago. Long revered in Virginia, its influence is evident from the small, geometric gardens of Colonial Williamsburg to the formal boxwood gardens of large plantations such as Berkeley and Shirley. Anyone fortunate enough to have toured England, a mecca for gardeners, has been awed by the sweeping vistas of venerable estates with such imposing features as bowling greens and towering follies. Equally inspiring, though, and ever so much more inviting, are the little cottage gardens in every village with their romantic tangle of humble, native perennials spilling forth from the weathered front doors to the rustic gates. Today the old-fashioned cottage style has more appeal than ever — people are finding themselves drawn to these exuberant gardens for their nostalgic charm, therapeutic value, sense of sanctuary, manageable size, and stimulating seasonal changes.

In the second half of the 19th century, the supreme patron of cottage gardening, Gertrude Jekyll, was the first person to use the humble cottage environment as a source of ideas for more important gardens. Before this, it never occurred to anyone that a poor man’s garden could inspire anything. An artist, horticultural expert, and cultural historian, Jekyll appreciated the gardens’ value as a kind of historical archive of plants. When affluent owners of English estates, who could afford to follow each new, fashionable gardening trend, would replace entire plantings, the cottagers would salvage their discards. These early recyclers packed their existing collections with old, "outdated" cultivars that we now revere as antique. As a result, hardy edging plants such as cottage pinks (dianthus), for example, still survive from Chaucer’s time with colorful period names like "Sops in Wine" and "Pheasant’s Eye."

Incorporate buddleia to attract butterflies and hummingbirds into your otherwise private sanctuary.

Miss Jekyll respected local craftsmen, regional materials, native plants, and the flexible ingenuity of the modest plots. Since the illiterate cottagers had not read the rules on gardening handed down first from the monasteries and then from horticultural societies, they came up with their own practical solutions. Spacial concerns forced them to go vertical, which produced a feeling of enclosure and intimacy, bringing beauty, fragrance, sound, and all the the pleasures of the senses into close proximity to be savored. This look, created by picket fences, stone walls, and arbors (either rose-draped or practical jam and jelly producers), became popular in America in the early part of the 20th century.

The luscious cottage look evolved from simple practicality, since plant lovers wanted to cram a variety of flowers and useful herbs, fruits, and vegetables into the limited space they had available. The key to the image of profusion is a variety of plants — flowering shrubs, herbaceous perennials, herbs, groundcovers, bulbs, and pockets of annuals to fill gaps and extend bloom time. This packing of plants, even today, actually proves to be labor-saving once a garden is established. Novice perennial gardeners are delighted to discover their baby plants forming huge clumps after only a few seasons. As they multiply, they expand in mass and literally support each other without staking, so that the need for mulching is greatly reduced.

Use Native Plants

At Washington Gardens in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an inviting gate beckons you to come inside.

The frugal cottagers — being working class people rather than lords of the manor — did not have the time or money to tend temperamental or exotic plants. They appreciated workhorse plants that could thrive on low maintenance. This old concept has become more important than ever with today’s busy schedules. Few of us have a large staff of gardeners ready to do our bidding or the luxury of free time to fuss over fussy plants for long. Authentic "cottage" gardening means planting things that will grow in your locale without a lot of pampering. The pictures we see in books of cottage gardens packed with delphinium and lupine that love the cool, rainy summers of England would bake in Virginia Augusts.

If you live on a windswept coast, familiarize yourself with grasses that maximize the rustling sound of the wind and get to know plants with an iron constitution that thrive in sandy soil. If you live in high altitudes, it would make sense that you might have more luck with mountain laurel (kalmia) than someone would at the beach. Take a good look at the native plants that thrive in your area, less appreciatively known as "weeds" in some circles. If they survive neglect, plant them! Sweet peas, cornflowers, ox-eye daisies, and black-eyed Susans all thrive in farmer’s fields — imagine how they respond to cultivation.

Embrace plants that catalogs label "invasive"— if they thrive enough to become rampant, they must like their situation. (Your child or grandchild’s Spring Fair plant sale can always use your overflow.) Since forsythia easily roots where it touches the ground and daffodils naturalize effortlessly, it is tempting to take them for granted, but their bright yellow presence is an essential trumpet of springtime. Yarrow, daylily, and sedum all contribute good substance and reliable bloom with very little care.

Plant for Constant Bloom

Some perennials such as gooseneck loosestrife and gaillardia bloom from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but most have about a six-week show of bloom. One of the goals of the cottage garden is to achieve constant bloom through all the seasons. Foliage thus figures prominently into any cottage scheme because it holds its form. Peonies bloom only in the spring, but their full foliage makes a great companion to leggier plants and later blooming bulbs such as lilies. Full-leaved hostas are the mainstay of the late summer and fall garden. Artemisias’ gray foliage provides nice transition between colors and textural interest throughout the year.

An all-white garden will take on an ethereal glow at night in lamp light or moonlight.

Most Virginia gardens are spring showcases. The azaleas and dogwoods are a beautiful backdrop for spring bulbs and creeping phlox, but as spring wanes, and both the temperature and the bug population climb, many faint-hearted gardeners go inside. Plan a summer focus — a dwarf crape myrtle or a butterfly bush — and then come back strong with an autumn extravaganza when the cooler days are once again gardener-friendly. Try dendranthemum, asters, balloon flower, and Japanese anemone; you can also have a second flush of bloom on many spring-flowering plants when the weather cools if they have been cut back and deadheaded properly. Give some thought, also, to valuable evergreen perennials (such as hellebores, Shasta daisies, coral bells) and to small shrubs that berry (like "Harbour Dwarf" nandina) or that retain seed pods (sedum) for winter interest. You want your winter display to be more than a patch of brown mulch, especially if your garden is at the front entry.

The traditional cottage garden is, of course, in the front yard. Never use this American term "front yard," however, unless you want to produce distasteful frowns all around as I did when I made this blunder. I was politely corrected: a "yard" in Britain connotes a field or a barren lot (or, as a proper noun, a police station). Refer, from now on, to your "front garden" or "back garden" as you develop the inviting English cottage look. Turning the front wall of your house into one side of the garden by vining is an easy first step — it can be a great cosmetic remedy to a non-descript facade. The ugly brick of my 1950s tri-level, when painted white, became a pleasing backdrop for romantic treillage, windowboxes, and climbing roses ("Zepherine Drouhin" and "New Dawn" perform even in filtered sun).

Enclosures Create Sanctuary

Found objects can establish a garden boundary and provide an interesting backdrop for colorful vines.

Vines clambering upward soften walls, porch columns, and railings or can frame a door or large window as a focal point. You must conquer any tendril anxiety you may have at this point. True, wisteria and trumpet vine can become like tree trunks, but are magnificent with the proper heavy supports. Such rampant vines can be kept in check by pruning their main leaders, but manageable vines such as honeysuckle and akebia can be held in place by large hooks or masonry nails.

The only fixed feature is a path leading from the door to the gate or street entry. This main axis establishes a formal framework that will be informally planted. The simplest treatment would be to line the walkway with classic cottage plants such as hardy geraniums, primrose, lady’s mantle, veronica, rose campion, phlox, Canterbury bells or carpeting herbs that, when tread upon, emit fragrance. A fuller treatment, though, continues the feeling of enclosure on the other three sides of the garden by, again, going vertical. Install a fence or stacked rock wall along your street side and watch old-fashioned hollyhocks tower to provide summer screening. If you cannot afford to extend the fence or wall on the other two sides, plant a fast-growing hedge or tall grasses to define your boundaries. The resulting garden "room," whether in the front or back, continues the sense of enclosure that fits the modern gardener’s desire for privacy, makes the most of shrinking lot size, creates a sanctuary that brings Nature closer, and reduces the amount of time necessary to cultivate a limited space.

It is important to start small as you develop a section nearest the house or an intimate corner using a fence backdrop. For now, mow all the grass beyond and expand later. Soil preparation is key to success with perennials. Beds dug at least 12 inches deep and enriched with composted materials and peat moss will be so thick and lush that you will be inspired to add more space as you have time and money to amend the soil carefully and thoroughly.

Create a Focal Point

Nestle a distinctive seat in your garden as a focal point.

When planting, never group fewer than three new plants arranged in a triangle; they will eventually grow into a clump. The larger the scale of your garden, the more horizontal your overlapping sections can become to achieve an interwoven effect of informal drifts, the way they sow themselves naturally in their native habitat. Repeat bloom and foliage colors along a border and from one side on the other to achieve unity. Include a visual focal point, whether it is a birdhouse, feeder, or bath, a piece of statuary, an interesting found object, or a bench upon which you can sit when you stop and smell the roses (the plant most associated with the cottage garden).

Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she runs her design business, Imagine That. Questions, comments? E-mail her at pbimaginethat @

It is no wonder this quaint garden style is experiencing such a resurgence, for it seems to offer something for everyone. Though practical, its aesthetic beauty is striking. Nostalgic, it transports us to a gentler, more carefree time (your grandmother’s garden come to life). Therapeutic, it soothes, yet can also stimulate all the senses. Scaled-down, it fits today’s building sites and provides a feeling of sanctuary. Ecologically sound, it works organically with Nature to support the delicate Web of Life. Finally, being perennial, it not only delights us with the life-cycle continuum, but also, by multiplying reliably, it gives so much for such a small initial investment. 


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