Take a nostalgic walk through the cottage gardens of yesteryear and bring a touch of romance to your own garden in this month of love
There is romance and a sense of history in traditional cottage gardens. Cottage flowers of field and wayside are enchanting, spreading their colour and fragrance in pink and gold, crimson and purple.
In 1570, Thomas Tusser, an English poet and farmer, listed the popular cottage garden flowers of that time – roses, snapdragons, dianthus (pinks), lilies, primroses, love-in-a-mist, lavender, daffadowndillies (daffodils), columbines and poppies.
These traditional cottage plants have remained popular through the centuries. To this list of early flowers we can add violas, sweet peas, delphiniums, hollyhocks, daisies, foxgloves, calendulas, heliotrope and clematis.
History of the cottage garden
The original cottage garden was practical and necessary, the colour and prettiness accidental and not contrived. Boundaries of berried hedges or stone walls protected the cottage from dusty lanes and wandering animals; a path led from the lane directly to the cottage door.
Sometimes a nearby well supplied water, but rain water was also collected in butts or barrels.
Cottagers were extremely poor and could ill- afford to buy food or consult a doctor, so all available garden space on either side of the path was planted with nourishing vegetables – leeks, onions, potatoes, cabbages, kale and turnips.
Monks in early Christian monasteries grew herbs and flowers to heal the sick, so too did these humble cottage dwellers – sage, thyme, betony, hyssop, dill, chamomile, lavender, rosemary, and self-sowing flowers for their bees. The cottages were often dark and badly ventilated, so sweet-smelling herbs were mixed with the rushes on earth floors and hung to dry from the rafters. Saplings supported peas and beans that were dried and used to thicken soups; willow branches were woven into fences to protect the chicken run and pigsty.
The hard-working cottagers had little time to admire the old roses that scrambled through apple and pear trees, their fruit made into cider – their value lay in the petals and hips that were used to make soothing syrups, jellies and wine.
The cottage garden of today
Today’s cottage gardens retain the romantic image of cottage gardens past, visually pretty gardens filled with fragrance and colour, a bee’s haven and a butterfly’s delight.
While the informal planting style and the simplicity remains true, the addition of a rustic bench, a birdbath or small statue or a rose-covered archway further adds to the charm.
It is a cornucopia of plants, not only of the wild flowers of Europe and North America, but of flowers from other countries, including our rich South African floral heritage. Plants that suit local climate and soil conditions include Cape marrow (Anisodontea spp.) and honey bell bush (Freylinia spp.); felicia and watsonia; tulbaghia (wild garlic) and scented pelargoniums; butterfly bush (Buddleja salviifolia); nemesia and lobelia; diascia (twinspurs) and scabious (pin cushions) which bring honeybees for their nectar and pollen.
Roses of yesterday and today
Roses with their soft, fragrant and romantic blooms were, and still are, an integral part of a cottage garden. Basic cottages were made beautiful by these old roses growing against their walls – “Parson’s Pink China”, also known as “Old Blush”, Rosa gallica officinalis the “Apothecary’s Rose”, and Rosa centifolia, the cabbage rose.
One of the best yellow roses of French breeding was “Céline Forestier”; “Souvenir de la Malmaison”, named to honour the memory of the Empress Josephine, was one of the first repeat-flowering Bourbons. “Madame Isaac Pereire” (1881) has huge, deep cerise flowers with a strong perfume. Most old roses have conspicuous thorns, the exception is cerise-pink “Zéphirine Drouhin”, a Bourbon climbing rose.
The 1920s and ‘30s saw the introduction of Hybrid Musk roses, “Moonlight”, “Penelope”, “Cornelia” and “Felicia”; “Buff Beauty” and “Erfurt” also had softly coloured blooms.
Sixty years ago, Englishman David Austin set out to create beautiful roses with the colours, sweet fragrance and beautiful form of old roses combined with repeat blooming and disease-resistance. Their names are as enchanting as their blooms – “The Lark Ascending”, “The Poet’s Wife”, “Heritage”, “A Shropshire Lad”, “The Pilgrim” and “The Shepherdess”.
We are fortunate that fashion has not affected the cottage garden as it did other garden styles or much of the beauty, scents and value of old roses, flowers and herbs that grew in the cottage gardens of yesteryear would not have been preserved for present day gardeners to enjoy.