Today we visualise a colourful and haphazard style of planting when thinking of English cottage gardens. This is mostly a Victorian preference as early cottage gardens were often more formally planted with beds of herbs and vegetables.
Originally, cottage gardens grew up as a result of the Black Death in the mid 14th century. So many people died there was more available land than workers. Some of the workers who survived the Plague started to cultivate small areas of foodstuffs near to their homes in order to feed their families. Later flowers and herbs were introduced into these gardens, and every available space was used. Usually, the only part not planted was the path leading to the house.
This may seem a haphazard way of planting, but many plants act as protection to others and as an example Lavender is often planted next to Roses to keep greenfly and black flies away. Both plants were believed to have had medicinal properties and could be used in a variety of other ways. Other plants would be grown for making pot-pourri, moth protection, food, food flavouring, medicinal uses, etc. All plants had to be hardy in the British weather though. Cottage dwellers did not have access to greenhouses and often did not have the time to raise plants that could not grow readily from seed sown into open ground.
The grand Victorian houses on the other hand had huge areas of brightly coloured flowers (often using a planting colour scheme) in beds in amongst lawns. Most of these flowers and plants were raised in greenhouses and tended by a small army of gardeners throughout the plants’ lives.
Most plants found in cottage gardens originally were native to the UK and all had a function. Lavender grown in the garden would be collected in summer and made into lavender bottles or lavender sachets to protect clothes and bedding from moth attacks. Dried herbs would also be used to deter flies and other pests from the house. Lawns are never found in these gardens (possibly because people kept animals on common lands) Prior to the invention of the mechanical lawn mower in 1827 sheep and cows or a scythe was used to manage grassland.
Many cottage gardens also included a bee skep (an early beehive made of straw that could be placed in a niche in the walls to encourage bees into the garden, but mainly to provide honey for the family.) Many skeps were open to the elements, but covered with old upturned crocks to protect the straw. A slight rise in the lower edge gave entry for the bees. Bees were transferred to the new skep in spring by inverting the old skep and covering it with the new one, the bees would fly up into the new skep and the honeycomb would be collected from the old one.
Today cottage gardens are well manicured and take hours of work to make them look haphazard and randomly planted. However the simple addition of a climbing rose up the side of a dolls house, trailing over a porch or some greenery and flowers in a window box can often create the image of a cottage garden, without having to spend a lot of money on plants for the dolls house.
Kits and patterns shown in photo can be purchased from Buttercup Miniatures web shop