Why Have a Cottage Garden?

Today’s cottage garden has an ancient heritage, and despite the vast changes the passing centuries have brought to our daily life, the cottage garden style is still alive and well, and instantly recognizable. But why have one? Here are seven good reasons to allow some old-fashioned charm and beauty into your natural surroundings.

  1. Productivity
  2. Size
  3. Biodiversity
  4. Seasonality
  5. Nature
  6. Nostalgia
  7. Beauty

Dig for Victory poem

(Poem published in the Western Mail, Thursday 24 September 1942.)

A COTTAGE GARDEN IS PRODUCTIVE. When John Curtin, our Creswick-born Prime Minister of World War Two, initiated the “Dig for Victory” campaign in 1942, Australian families once again began growing food in their own backyards. They were difficult days for the whole world, and Australians joined many in other countries in returning to the life of their cottager ancestors, for productivity was originally the whole point of the cottage garden. In recent years we have again seen what it is like to have empty supermarket shelves, and if anything this has only helped to maintain the appeal of having a certain level of self-sufficiency by growing our own.

In Elizabethan England, before all the land was enclosed, cottages had to have at least four acres of land attached to them by law. Even though cottagers were amongst the poorest of the post-feudal social classes, each family had enough land to live a practically self-sufficient life. That all changed as the land was gradually enclosed and consolidated into the big, efficient, highly productive farms of the Agricultural Revolution. But the association with cottages and a productive garden was never lost, even when there was no longer enough land for each cottage to sustain a family with all their food requirements.

In 1797, the cottage garden of Britton Abbot in Tadcaster was admired for its neatness. Sir Thomas Bernard’s description of it also shows how well the land was used for produce:

‘The slip of land is exactly a rood [i.e., a quarter-acre, or about 1,000m2], enclosed by a cut quick hedge; and containing the cottage, fifteen apple trees, one green gage, and three wine-sour plum trees, two apricot trees, several gooseberry and currant bushes, abundance of common vegetables, and three hives of bees; being all the apparent wealth of the possessor.’

Britton Abbot had previously owned two acres at Poppleton but had been a victim of the enclosures. A Mr Fairfax then allowed him to build a cottage on this quarter-acre block in Tadcaster, and was afterwards so impressed with the neatness of the cottage and garden that he allowed him to continue there rent-free.

In The Cottage Gardener, 1839, Thomas Poynter wrote of his ideal cottage garden:

‘For extent of garden, let us take our old Saxon king Alfred’s allowance. A rood, or forty square poles of land, nearly facing the south or south-west, a gentle slope if we can get it so. If it is sheltered from the north, and particularly the north-east, the better. But, as before said, we have seldom a choice, and must make the best of what we can get. I know it may be said, he must be a very extravagant or idle fellow who wants forty rods of kitchen garden. I am thinking of helping to keep a cow, or a pig or two. Ten rods of land [i.e., 1/16th acre, or about 250m2], well cultivated, will furnish a cottager’s family in the way it is now supplied with vegetables; I wish to add a few luxuries.’

By the Victorian era, it was not intended that the English cottage garden should provide all the necessary food for a family, but just to produce enough to supplement the family’s daily diet. The prolific gardening writer George Johnson said in 1848 that the cottage garden ‘does not fill [the cottager’s] pot every day, but every day it will yield something to put into the pot – something which will make its contents more nourishing and more agreeable. No cottager should desire to have more than an eighth of an acre [i.e., about 500m2] for his garden … If it be much larger, no cottager can keep it well manured, well dug, and well hoed, - and if all this be not done, he had better have a still smaller piece; for a less piece thoroughly well cultivated will yield him much more than a piece of ground twice the size badly cultivated.’

In 1873, Peter Henderson, one of America’s leading authorities on commercial floriculture, wrote in The American Agriculturalist:

‘Let me relate how the English cottager works his garden in some of the old towns, such as Colchester. To each cottage, renting for about 50 dollars per year (£10), is attached a garden of something more than an eighth part of an acre in extent. In this little spot the tenant contrives to grow from four to six kinds of vegetables, such as potatoes, cabbage, peas, turnips, &c., and of fruits, gooseberries, currants, raspberries, and strawberries. Every foot is made to produce something, and rarely a weed was seen in some scores that we saw ranged side by side. The heavy work is done be the man of the house, “before or after hours,” on his own time. In the weeding and hoeing he is assisted by wife or children. There is great rivalry among the different owners of these cottage gardens, and in many places liberal prizes are given by horticultural societies to those that are best cultivated.’

These historical references to cottage gardens show that by the 18th and 19th centuries, there wasn’t usually a lot of land attached to a cottage, which brings us to the next point.

A COTTAGE GARDEN CAN BE SMALL. Most garden styles can be miniaturised, but this is especially true of the cottage garden, which has endured centuries of gradual shrinkage. From the Elizabethan four-acre allotment to the Victorian-era quarter acre which in the 20th century became the ‘Great Australian Dream’, down to today’s average Australian block size of 467m2 (less than 1/8th of an acre) with a house filling most of the land it sits on, or the residential land lots for sale right now in Ballarat that are sometimes as tiny as 1/20th of an acre, dense planting has become increasingly important over time, and has long been a distinctive feature of cottage gardens. Expansive lawns and large paved areas are seen by the cottage gardener as nothing more than wasted space that could otherwise be under cultivation, and when it comes to plant spacing, cottage gardeners will often throw out the rule book. As Claus Dalby said:

‘Empty spaces are banned. Plants are tightly packed, shoulder to shoulder.’

A COTTAGE GARDEN IS RICH IN BIODIVERSITY. There are three types of diversity in a cottage garden:

First, plant diversity. Many cottage gardens are home to self-seeding flowers and heirloom vegetables grown from seed. Propagating from seed naturally brings genetic robustness, acclimatisation, and disease resistance to plants that are grown in the same area over many generations. And a cottage garden’s biodiversity is not just intraspecific. It is nothing to have hundreds of specimens and varieties, and over a hundred distinct species planted in less than a quarter of an acre. No other style of garden comes even close to this level of plant diversity in a small plot.

Second, geographic diversity. We may call it an ‘English’ cottage garden but make no mistake: The English cottage garden is not a garden of English natives. The cottage garden style began in Victorian England and was inspired by the gardens of many centuries of England’s cottagers. That is what makes it English, not the geographical origin of the plants themselves. Of course, plants native to England do exist in a cottage garden – foxgloves, aquilegias, cornflowers, daffodils, lily-of-the-valley, primroses, forget-me-nots, blue bugle, to name a few – but plants from every corner of the globe are used and welcomed, including our own native Australian plants.

Third, wildlife biodiversity. Plant diversity combined with plant density encourages all sorts of wildlife to the garden. Cottage gardeners are probably less inclined than most to use herbicides and other poisons in the garden - frogs and ladybirds are our natural pest controllers. Blackbirds have made nests in our garden because of the wealth of grubs and insects, and right now we are enjoying the presence of spotted pardelotes who have built a nest in the earth under our quince tree. We also enjoy a wide array of visitors who come for nectar, fruit, and seeds. New Holland honeyeaters, eastern spinebills, and red wattlebirds all come to our window to enjoy nectar from the fuchsia blossoms. Elsewhere in the garden, silvereyes feed on the white mulberries, rainbow lorikeets on the apples, and crimson rosellas on the sunflowers. None of these native birds care that the plants they are enjoying are not Australian natives, but actually come from Europe, Asia and South America.

‘It is the diversity that is important - not the genus. Plants from South America or Europe can provide food and shelter or offer a resource to wildlife.’ – Polly Musgrove, Horticultural Trainer, Federation University.

A COTTAGE GARDEN IS SEASONAL. One of the biggest changes that came over suburban garden design in the late 20th century was to produce the low-maintenance, evergreen garden. A lawn, some shrubs with dense or glossy foliage in every season requiring no maintenance but the occasional clip, and an evergreen tree or two. And all year round, the enjoyment of a garden that consistently looks – mediocre and boring. In a temperate-climate cottage garden, the seasons can be distinctly different, with leaf-bud and huge bursts of green growth in early spring, followed by the spring, summer, and autumn flowers, the autumn seed and fruit harvest, and with winter the emergence of bulbs and winter-flowering plants. Every species runs to its own calendar, and every week there is something new to discover and admire.

A COTTAGE GARDEN IS NATURAL. The revival of the cottage garden style in the stately homes of England was something of a backlash against the extreme ‘taming’ of nature in the formal gardens of Jacobean and Georgian times. Not only did it feature a more naturalistic plan, with less symmetry and straight lines, but nature was allowed a much freer hand in the plan. And just as honeybees are never tame although we control them to a certain extent with our man-made hives, so too does a cottage garden have a kind of untamed wildness about it, though we do the initial planting and sowing. We think of them as stationary, but some plants can actually be very mobile. Self-sown seedlings will often pop up where they want to, and some running plants may send up shoots some distance away from where you chose to plant them. It is often as though the plant has said, ‘I’m not comfortable over there. I want to grow here!’ Running plants can be a nuisance, though, and the gardener needs to be ever vigilant for plants that bully and dominate others. But otherwise, it is often to beautiful effect that nature is allowed a little bit of freedom to find its own equilibrium in the garden.

‘I have learnt much from the little cottage gardens that help to make our English waysides the prettiest in the whole temperate world. One can hardly go into the smallest cottage garden without learning or observing something new. It may be some two plants growing beautifully together by some happy chance, or a pretty mixed tangle of creepers, or something that one always thought must have a south wall doing better on an east one.’ – Gertrude Jekyll.

A COTTAGE GARDEN IS NOSTALGIC. Bulbs, seeds, and cuttings given to us from the gardens of well-loved grandparents, old friends, and neighbours easily find a place in the cottage garden. Flowers remembered from early childhood provide a sense of happy continuity; in a cottage garden there is a feeling of timeless nostalgia. There is no difficulty mixing new and old, native and introduced, hybrids and heritage species, although many of the quintessential cottage garden favourites are, of course, the same plants that have been loved and cultivated by countless generations since time immemorial.

‘Nowhere in the world is there anything quite like the English cottage garden. In every village and hamlet in the land, there were these little gardens, always gay, and never garish and so obviously loved. There are not so many now, alas, of those cottages of cob or brick, with their thatched roofs and tiny crooked windows … but the flowers remain, that have come to be known as ‘cottage flowers’ because of their simple, steadfast properties.’ – Margery Fish

‘With their uncultivated aesthetic and picturesque charm, cottage gardens encapsulate the spirit of the English countryside beloved by so many. They speak to us of an idyllic past.’ – Claus Dalby

A COTTAGE GARDEN IS BEAUTIFUL. No argument! – perhaps a little wild, informal, not colour-coordinated, but always with a natural beauty that often surpasses other garden styles in its character, quaintness, and charm. One of the main reasons for the growth in popularity of the cottage garden style amongst the upper classes of England was the observation that the humble but floriferous cottagers’ gardens were being more admired than their own grand and formal masterpieces.

Writing in 1889, the famous Irish gardener William Robinson (owner of Gravetye Manor and friend of Gertrude Jekyll) obviously loved the English cottage garden:

‘Those who look at sea or sky or wood see beauties that no art can show; but among the things made by man nothing is prettier than an English cottage garden … I pass a cottage garden by a road in the Weald of Sussex never without a flower for nine months in the year, except there be snow in February and March. It is only a square patch of earth, but the beauty it gives is beyond price – far more delightful, usually, than the large gardens near. It is often pretty when they are bare. What is the secret of the cottage garden’s charms? Cottage gardeners are good to their plots, and in the course of years they are made rich and fertile. The shelter, too, of the little house and hedge favours flowers. But there is something more. It is the absence generally of any pretentious plan which lets the flowers tell their tale direct.’

In short, a cottage garden is the perfect place to grow your own food, support biodiversity, be physically active, clear the head, and enjoy the beauty of nature at its very finest. Time spent in such a place is time well spent!

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