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The Early Cottage Garden

By Bonnie Ennis, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, horticulture

When we think of cottage gardens, we imagine flowers falling over each other, helter-skelter, as their beautiful tops sway gently in the wind and touch the sky with their colors. Behind the garden, we might envision a small, stucco cottage with an inviting mahogany wood door, edged with a bed of tall hollyhocks.

Such sights did not appear in the English countryside until the mid-sixteenth century. A brief overview of history tells us why, and suggestions at the end of this article tell us how we can duplicate the English Cottage Garden in Colorado.

Prior to the sixteenth century, the common man spent his time trying to survive wars and disease and working to put food on the table.

On farmlands, serfs or field laborers were lost in poverty under the feudal system of farming. There was little hope of improving poor living conditions because serfs had to pay high rents in the form of time spent cultivating manorial lands. They also were required to tithe or deliver a percentage of crops from rented land to overlord or landlord.

The black death or bubonic plague in 1349, which devastated Europe, nonetheless improved the lives of surviving field laborers and marked the beginning of the cottage garden. With one-third of England's population dead after the plague, the few remaining serfs marketed their skills. Overlords were forced to pay their former serfs for labor rendered, and the serfs were allowed to pay a yearly rent instead of giving a portion of their crops to the overlord.

With more land available, the newly independent tenant farmers moved from clustered wooden shacks far from the fields to primitive homesteads. These homesteads became the sites of the first English cottages. In the process, the tenant farmers claimed vacant land near their cottages, and grew herbs and vegetables and cultivated bees for honey.

The first cottage gardens met needs of food, medicine and fragrance with no flowers grown for beauty. Crops grown included garlic, onions, leek, parsley and fennel. Intermixed with these strongly flavored herbs were peppers, beans, kale, cabbage, apple and cherry trees. The early cottage gardener lived almost entirely on vegetables and fruits with an occasional wild animal poached from manorial lands.

The fruit trees, planted here and there, offered shade. Over time, a few flowering plants were added, mostly from the wild. Plants were tucked here and there, in no special order, until all the ground was covered. Disarray best describes the design of the early cottage garden.

Flowering plants, grown for their specific uses among the disorderly plantings included English primrose, from which a wine was made and peonies, whose seeds were eaten as condiments. Other flowers in the cottage garden included violets, whose flowers imparted their color in salads and other foods, and day lilies the blossoms of which provided edible flower buds. Hollyhocks provided edible young leaves, roots and whole seed pods. Pinks, introduced by the Normans and possibly the Crusaders, were grown for fragrant flowers, which imparted their sweetness to ale.

Also grown were horehound and verbascum, each used in cough medicines, and mullein, with its harvested leaves steeped in tallow and then burned like a wick inside children's old shoes. Woodruff, southernwood and lavender were grown for their leafy branches and tucked between linen and clothes to keep out mustiness. Great yellow loosestrife was cultivated for its leaves which, when dry, were thought to repel flies. Winter savory provided leaves which, when rubbed on wasp stings, brought immediate relief.

Sweet scented flowers were especially appreciated in the early cottage garden, for such fragrant blooms masked unpleasant scents associated with dark, musty interiors of low roofed cottages and almost total lack of toilet facilities. Madonna lily (introduced by the Crusaders) and sweet scented red, gallica rose flowers were grown then intertwined with periwinkle to form fragrant crowns worn at weddings and other important occasions.

Hyssop and rue were grown for their orange scent. The dried stems of lavender and sage were burned like incense. Mock orange and white lilac provide sweet blossoms in the garden.

Other cottage flowers were used for distilling into sweet waters, which were used as perfumes and for medicinal uses. Candidates for such treatment included borage, columbine, bugloss, sorrel, English primrose, wild scabious, tansy, wormwood, sage and dandelion. The sweet waters were given as presents on saints days and birthdays.

Through the fifteenth century and into the mid-sixteenth century, the cottage garden maintained its form of wild disarray. New utilitarian plants were added as often as possible.

The mid-sixteenth century, however, brought change. Increased trading brought new flowers to England. Plants came to be grown for the beauty of their flowers. Flowers were separated from vegetables and fruits, marking the last death knell of England's early cottage gardens.

You can recreate an early cottage garden in your own landscape by following a few, basic principles: Mix together useful flowers, fruits and vegetables in abandoned disarray, fill all spaces in your yard with useful plants, such as those for culinary or fragrant purposes, and use early English cottage garden plants where possible. Improve soil with aged manures or compost, and use dead leaves, bark or twig mulches on the soil surface to retain soil moisture. Early English gardeners knew what they were doing -- these soil management practices used then are the recommended practices of today.

Photo: Judy Sedbrook

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010