While the English "cottage garden" is well-known, cottage gardening is found in any culture people had small plots of their own and a need and interest in growing stands of useful plants. The look is abundant and informal. English cottage gardens, and their American counterparts, have a profusion of plants for cutting, herbs for cooking and areas or interspersions of vegetables. Fruit trees and roses usually find a place as well.
The original creators of cottages gardens were working people,and often burdened trying to make ends meet. The first cottage gardens met needs of food, medicine and fragrance with no flowers grown for beauty. Most plants were utilitarian in nature and were for medicinal use or food rather than simple landscape beauty. A key point of their economy in the garden is the ability (and need) to cover every square foot of space with something that served a purpose, whether plant, structure, or feature, without forfeiting plant health. Crops grown included garlic, onions, leek, parsley and fennel. Intermixed with these strongly flavored herbs were peppers, beans, kale, cabbage, apple and cherry trees. The early cottage gardener lived almost entirely on fruits and vegetables.
Flowering plants, grown for their specific uses among the disorderly plantings included English primrose, from which a wine was made and peonies, whose seeds were eaten as condiments. Other flowers in the cottage garden included violets, whose flowers imparted their color in salads and other foods, and day lilies the blossoms of which provided edible flower buds. Hollyhocks provided edible young leaves, roots and whole seed pods. Pinks, introduced by the Normans and possibly the Crusaders, were grown for fragrant flowers, which imparted their sweetness to ale.
Also grown were horehound and verbascum, each used in cough medicines, and mullein, with its harvested l eaves steeped in tallow and then burned like a wick inside children's old shoes. Woodruff, southernwood and lavender were grown for their leafy branches and tucked between linen and clothes to keep out mustiness. Great yellow loosestrife was cultivated for its leaves which, when dry, were thought to repel flies. Winter savory provided leaves which, when rubbed on wasp stings, brought immediate relief.
Sweet scented flowers were especially appreciated in the early cottage garden, for such fragrant blooms masked unpleasant scents associated with dark, musty interiors of low roofed cottages and almost total lack of toilet facilities. Madonna lily (introduced by the Crusaders) and sweet scented red, gallica rose flowers were grown then intertwined with periwinkle to form fragrant crowns worn at weddings and other important occasions.
Hyssop and rue were grown for their orange scent. The dried stems of lavender and sage were burned like incense. Mock orange and white lilac provide sweet blossoms in the garden.
The mid-sixteenth century, however, brought change. Increased trading brought new flowers to England. Plants came to be grown for the beauty of their flowers. Flowers were separated from vegetables and fruits, cottage gardens took on a more romantic face that remains to this day. Today, a cottage garden is often primarily flowers and completely free-form in nature. Many gardeners attempt to use heirloom varieties of plants in their cottage gardens to preserve the antiquity of the method. Typically, heirlooms have adapted over time to whatever climate and soil they have grown in. Thanks to their genetics, they are often resistant to pests, diseases, and extremes of weather. Medical use is mostly a remnant of the past: remember that delphinium and valerian are potent and digitalis is derived from foxglove! They are also gorgeous flowers with playful twists of whimsical form and color. Many impressionist paintings portray the beauty of the cottage garden. Monet's was most famous.
You can recreate an early cottage garden in your own landscape by following a few, basic principles: Mix together useful flowers, fruits and vegetables in abandoned disarray, fill all spaces in your yard with useful plants, such as those for culinary or fragrant purposes, and use early English cottage garden plants where possible. Improve soil with aged manures or compost, and use dead leaves, bark or twig mulches on the soil surface to retain soil moisture. Early English gardeners knew what they were doing -- these soil management practices used then are the recommended practices of today.
Flowers in a Cottage Garden are many times old-fashioned types and they are planted in billowing drifting groups. Think of puffy summer clouds, and wafting mists.