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Cottage Gardens

"English" or Otherwise, What Defines This Style?

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Picture of cottage garden. 2 elements make this a cottage garden: plant profusion, picket gate.

Picket-style fences and gates lend the landscape a homey feel.

David Beaulieu

Anyone even remotely interested in landscape design styles has heard of cottage gardens. But just what do we mean by referring to this design style? You may have a vague image in your mind of what constitutes such a planting without ever having put your finger on what it is that separates this particular design style from the rest.

Well, there is both a technical definition and a working definition of the term (you'll sometimes see the design style in question given as "English cottage gardens"). In this article, I am mainly interested in the working definition, as it is less restrictive -- making it more relevant to a greater number of readers. But I will deal first, in passing, with the technical definition.

English Cottage Gardens

It is in dealing with the technical definition that it makes the most sense to use the terminology "English cottage gardens," specifically. For the technical definition relies heavily on history, which locates this style in England, in a wooded environment. Thought to be a phenomenon of the peasantry originally, this type of planting would be found literally on the grounds of a country cottage (that is, a humble, rustic dwelling). In addition to ornamental flowers, the peasants would grow plants that served practical purposes, such as:

In a separate article, I list traditional cottage-garden plants.

A hedge would surround the yard (or at least a good portion of it) to keep livestock out (originally), or perhaps a rustic wooden fence.

There would obviously have been neither the need nor the ability, under such circumstances, to adhere to the sort of formal garden design style practiced by the wealthy. This style, rather, is informal; and it is this informality that unites the technical definition with the working definition....

Cottage Gardens: Privacy, Informal Design

In discussing such a design nowadays, people often grade on a sliding scale, if you will. Thus the need for a working definition of the terminology.

Yes, we may have an image in mind of the ideal cottage garden, as described above; but we are also willing to admit examples into the ranks of this design style that are lacking one or more elements found in authentic English cottage gardens. If you don't live in a cottage, for example, can you still have a cottage garden? Or what if you don't want to grow fruit on your property: Do you still need to plant fruit trees to qualify? We tend to be forgiving in these matters.

So what are the essential elements of this venerated style, transplanted into the 21st century? I would focus on two things, broadly speaking:

  1. Informal design style
  2. A sense of privacy

But this style is only one example of an informal design. Wildflower meadows are another example of the informal design style and are quite distinct from cottage gardens. Furthermore, creating a sense of privacy with a planting isn't enough to make it a cottage garden, regardless of design style. So we'll have to explore these elements further, on Page 2, in order to arrive at a better sense of what constitutes a modern-day cottage garden....

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