The term “cottage garden” evokes an image of annual and perennial flowers, bulbs, fruits, berries, herbs, vegetables, and shrubs in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes, all tucked into a small front yard that leads to a Thomas Kinkade–style storybook cottage with a thatched roof. Fortunately, cottage gardens can also look lovely around more modern homes.
Although cottage gardens exist all over the world, the British have elevated them to an art form. The skill of these inveterate gardeners makes what could be an unsightly hodgepodge a beautiful and productive display instead. Cottage gardens are usually small but they can approach an acre in size. Such plantings are not as common in North America, where we are conditioned to the sight of well-groomed lawns in front of our homes and where, in some suburbs, zoning regulations forbid anything so unconventional. Nevertheless, in front and backyards in many places, colorful, charming American cottage gardens thrive. It is convenient and fun to grow a variety of plants in a small space near the house, and the bonus is that there is no lawn to mow.
The basic requirement for this sort of garden is a sunny spot with well-defined boundaries, such as walls, fences, hedges, or buildings. The soil should be rich and deeply tilled to encourage plant roots to grow downward rather than outward. Pathways that meander through each section help you reach all parts easily, and plants fill every nook and cranny. Usually such a garden comprises the entire front or backyard, and sometimes both.
Although you should grow whatever appeals to you, the plants in a bona fide cottage garden are traditionally old-fashioned and informal, including native species and near-wild cultivars that are the very antithesis of modern hybrids. Vintage plants like hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), primroses, and pansies (Viola × wittrockiana) are ideal. A clump of staked Pacific hybrid delphiniums or a group of hybrid tea roses would be considered “flora non grata,” but their predecessors, roses would be considered “flora non grata,” but their predecessors, larkspur (Consolida ajacis) and species roses, would be very much at home. Many old-fashioned cottage garden flowers have a delicious fragrance, unlike most of their modern descendants.