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View from our front door in summer
Mallow, phlox and
purple loosestrife

- summer

The roots of cottage gardening go back to the English Tudor period (1485 - 1603) and the potted history below is intended to explain the main developments over time since then.

The Dark Ages had ended and in this comparatively peaceful time, country folk were able to tend their gardens, outside the protection of the local castle walls, in the relative safety of the countryside.

Cottage (humble home, small dwelling) dwellers were usually poor peasants and had what we today politely call "an extremely limited budget" - they were dirt-poor and lived in abject poverty.

It was the time of the European Renaissance and new plants were arriving regularly from the Americas, China and Japan. But they were only of interest to rich people, and were beyond the reach of mere peasants.

Gardens for pleasure and appearance were only within the means of the wealthy - the landed gentry. The major gardens of the period were large and often laid out in the Renaissance style - e.g. Hampton Court - or the romantic (landscape) style - e.g. Chiswick House and Blenheim Palace.

The English Cottage Garden

A cottage gardener had a very small plot of land and every inch of ground available had to produce fruit, vegetables and herbs to help ensure family survival. As he had to watch the pennies, he kept his choice of plants limited to tried and trusted varieties of local, English origin.

These plants, hardy and simple all, always gave good results and are today known as "cottage garden plants".

Why were flowers, which aren't generally a source of food, so important in the cottage garden?

Simply because flowers attract bees, butterflies and other insects and they in turn pollinate fruit tree blossom, vegetables and flowering shrubs, e.g. apples and raspberries. Pollination is crucial for plant survival as it leads to the successful development of seed - fruit is, in effect, a pot of seeds.

Growing edible crops was the objective of cottage gardening and the flowers, with their colours, pollen and fragrance, were used as a lure - their beauty was of secondary importance.

Peak Flowering Season

Cottage gardening reached it's peak flowering season during the Victorian era (1837 - 1904). The emergence of the worker or artisan and middle classes meant that for the first time in human history, many people had the time, and a little spare cash, to indulge themselves in gardening and garden food production for their pleasure, instead of as a basic necessity of existence.

One factor hadn't changed though - the new middle classes, like the original cottage gardeners, all had small gardens.

Plant knowledge was widespread and gardeners were inspired by gardening writers like Irishman William Robinson (1838 - 1935, author of "The English Flower Garden".

Cottage garden design was influenced by the horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll (1843 - 1932, author of "Colour in the Flower Garden"), the creator of the colourful English garden border (or herbaceous border) we know so well, a grouping of plants by colour, height and flowering season.

With the rise of mass distribution of foodstuffs, fruit and vegetable production were no longer the main priority in the cottage garden. Flowers, often to the exclusion of everything else, took over the central role in the average working man's garden.

Relevance in the Modern Age - a Personal Learning Curve

We live in a time of accelerating climate change, the greenhouse effect, the "red lists of endangered species" of plants, animals, birds and insects and a polluted environment. We've also witnessed a rapid increase of many types of childhood and adult diseases, many of which were more or less unheard of when I was schoolboy.

As a teenager in the '60s, I read "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964, the earth mother of the environmental movement in my opinion), and my eyes were opened forever to the realization that we humans were - and are - destroying our planet. Her book led to the banning of the pesticide DDT: Rachel Carson had defeated big business and changed the policies of the WHO and national governments all over the world.

I've been a keen amateur gardener and designer all my life and in the '70s, while still working as a marketing manager, the ideas of E. F. Schumacher (1911 - 1977, in his book "Small is Beautiful", proved to me that "big" just doesn't work in organizations. The modern farming industry (usually based on one type of crop, be it animal or plant - mono-cultivation, awful word isn't it?) has had continuous problems with all kinds of diseases and pests for many years, and only exists by the profitable grace of the pesticide and fertilizer companies.

But cottage gardens are living proof that small is definitely beautiful: They rarely suffer from diseases and pests due to the wide variety of plants used in small numbers - I believe this is known as "bio-diversity" in modern-day "techno-speak."

The last stage in my discovery of cottage gardening was my first visit in 1985 to a nursery that advertised in my gardening magazine that:

If you want the usual assortment of pansies, petunias and marigolds, don't visit us as we cannot help you so and a visit will be a waste of your time.

If, however, you're looking for plants that will turn your garden into a romantic place filled with flowers, birds and insects, then we can help you.

That got to me - it takes guts to make such a statement in advertising. I had to go and visit the Stam family in Ochten (sorry, no link, today they live in a cottage in Ireland). At that time they were the only nursery in the Netherlands specialized in cottage garden plants, and I was converted from the first visit.

Points to Ponder - a Gardener's Practical Guide to Natural Cottage Gardening

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