The joy of cottage gardening comes from its informal, seemingly unplanned, blend of flowers of different sizes, textures, shapes, and colors. Successful gardens, however, are the result of careful planning to keep the helter-skelter mélange of plants overflowing with color throughout the season. Cottage gardens typically include a mingling of annuals, perennials, grasses, and bulbs. Often a shrub, dwarf tree, or vine is thrown into the mix. The addition of a rustic fence, topiary, or garden ornament personalizes the garden and adds a whimsical touch.
The charm of the cottage garden has its roots in 15th-century England and Scotland, where peasants working on large estates grew the plants that they needed for food and medicine right outside their cottage door. Usually the plots were tiny, featuring a tangle of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but few, if any, flowers. Late in the 16th century, when travel and trade began to flourish, new varieties of flowers from other countries became popular. These were planted among the herbs and vegetables for color and fragrance, and eventually transformed the cottage garden into the tumble of flowers that it is today.
Cottage gardens have remained popular because they are easy to care for—looking a bit unkempt is part of their charm. Each cottage garden is as unique as its gardener, but all follow a few guidelines: First, plant in abundance to create a lush, overgrown look; by growing plants close together, weeds are crowded out. Second, choose plants with a long blooming season, including ones that will be coming into bloom as others fade. Third, add garden accessories for a personal touch. A wooden wheelbarrow, a sundial, an arbor, or an antique bench becomes a focal point in the sea of color.
If you are a bit of a traditionalist and want to grow some vegetables and herbs as was done in original cottage gardens, mix them right in. Colorful vegetables such as ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard add delicious tones and textures to the planting, and strawberries or creeping thyme make great edible ground covers. By adding a few of these practical plants, your garden will be a very pleasant—or should we say “peasant”?—place to be.