Humble in its origins, the cottage garden of England and early New England is small, unstructured, crowded, and colorful. An early settler in America described the sweet simplicity of his cottage garden as “gay with a variety of flowers, including the fair white lily and sweet fragrant rose.” Typical in the New World version was a picket fence, covered with vines and climbing vegetables, built to keep out the livestock.
Historically the cottage garden has had its practical uses: furnishing food, scent makers, dyes, cleansing agents, insecticides, medicinal herbs, lotions, and cosmetics. Because the cottage garden lends itself to a small space, its looseness calls for little, if any, pruning and shaping. Its unrestrained variety appeals to plant collectors, and its colorful beauty endures and changes throughout the growing season. Something of the effect of an expansive English herbaceous border can be realized in a small space. Today the style has returned to favor.
The cottage gardens of today are essentially the gardens of people who love plants for themselves and care little or nothing for the way they are organized. Plants are added to suit the taste and whim of the gardener. The guiding principle is to have close at hand all of those plants the gardener loves, without much regard for such rules as placing taller plants in back or leading up to bright colors with more subtle ones.
The effect is likely to be kaleidoscopic, with an old climbing rose, a clump of daylilies, a mat of nasturtiums, a towering stand of hollyhocks, and spots of cottage pinks, basket-of-gold, speedwell, poppies, and other plants all growing wherever they were plunked, without much focus or forethought. These are gardens of surprises, where such accidents of nature as the encroaching of vigorous plants upon one another and the sudden appearance of plants the gardener doesn’t recall planting are gratefully accepted. The true cottage garden has a wild and woolly look, but it is also a charming, engaging garden in which to lose oneself.