The Cottage Garden Way

The English cottage garden of the past was a world of color, flavor, taste and scent. Traditionally, the gardens were filled with every flower, tree, vine, rose, herb and vegetable one wanted to grow. It was a seemingly impossible hodge-podge jungle, because space was at a premium. The traditional cottage garden was small, perhaps only a side yard at the end of row of terraced houses, so empty corners didn't stay empty long. It was chaos and confusion en masse and sweetly sentimental. A pink rose may have been seen climbing up through the branches of an apple tree. Cabbages and sprouts fought for space with basil, poppies and tomatoes. Most plants in the cottage garden were there for the sustenance - pretty plants, only if space allowed.

The early cottager was wise and that garden wisdom was as much an art as a means to a perfect harvest. They knew much more about the merits of the dung heap than we care to know. They knew how to make it go further and how to keep it. If it wasn't protected from the rain, all the nutrients in the manure would dissipate. Manure was essential to the cottager. They treasured it.

In their wisdom, the cottagers did some strange things gardeners today would never consider. For example, they would would bury their old leather boots in the dirt. As the boots rotted down, the decaying leather added a constant source of nutrients to the soil. This was considered especially good when planted at the base of a peach tree.

When sowing beans, they would add a generous quantity of horsehair to the soil, removed from old mattresses. The hair contains many nutrients and trace elements essential for the greedy, needy bean. They might lay down thick strips of newspaper padding before planting the beans. Newspaper holds the moisture below the soil, much like peat moss. For the cottager, nothing was wasted, even the dead or dried up leaves from the bottom of the beans would be dug back into the soil as the they grew. It was instant compost.

For space saving, the cottage gardener would sow runner beans and sunflower seeds together. The stem of the sunflower is quite straight, sturdy and tall. Planted side-by-side, the beans had support as they grew up together - a very charming method. Cottage gardeners liked plants to grow up, rather than out, so tomatoes and cucumbers would grow up a tall trellis. It was a more efficient use of space.

We still practice some of those skills today and have learned much from the cottage gardener of old England. But these days, the cottage garden is more abundant with flowers than fruit. Roses clamor up the walls and hollyhocks line the fence. The modern cottage garden is still full of color and scent, but with a little order to the chaos.

author: Lorraine Syratt

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