“A garden is the best alternative therapy.”

– Germaine Greer, Australian-born author, scholar, and feminist

I enter my secret garden through an arbored white gate and follow a meandering overgrown stone path through drifts of old English roses, delphinium, foxglove, and phlox—all thriving in an organized chaos that offers a serenely beautiful escape. In times like these, one needs a romantic diversion and this one is mine. Over the next 12 weeks, I’m going to delve into the English cottage garden, from developing a design to choosing plants to creating experiential features. You’re invited on the journey to share your ideas and photos. By June, some of us may actually have turned our dreams into real gardens.  

The Perfect Project For Those Who Love a Lack of Discipline

The English cottage garden as we know it today emerged in late 19th century England as part of the broader Arts & Crafts movement, and was later popularized in America and France. As Impressionist painter Claude Monet famously said, “What I need most of all are flowers, always, always.” His painting of his own garden in Giverny evokes the untamed beauty of the cottage garden.

Monet Family painted by Manet
Monet Family in Their Garden, painted by Manet

Famed for its casual grace and charm, English country gardens also offered a practical alternative to the structured, high maintenance designs that framed castles and estate homes with formality and a sense of order. Gertrude Jekyll popularized the style, designing gardens for some of England’s most prestigious country houses. Her concept of color-themed borders and drifts of diagonal swaths of plantings are hallmarks of today’s English cottage garden. Jekyll’s book, Colour in the Flower Garden (1908) is still in print today. 

Lindisfarne Garden
Gertrude Jekyll’s garden on Lindisfarne

Features of an English Cottage Garden

Castle Combe Chippenham
Castle Combe, Chippenham

The English cottage garden frequently uses local flowers and materials, using every inch of space to create an effortless appearance. But there’s a method to the madness, and that look of organized chaos integrates some key elements: 

  • An abundance of plants—Jekyll invented the concept of drifts of grouped plants intermingled throughout the design
  • Accessories that say “come and sit a while”—welcoming gates, pathways, arbors, benches, bird baths, and other accessories that convey a quaint and comforting feeling
  • Heirloom plant varieties with movement—Old roses vining up a wall, ground covers creeping around and through other plants, twisting vines, untamed perennials
  • Integration with architecture—an arbor of climbing roses framing a door, vines twisting around a gate, a perennial border 

You Don’t Have to Be a Pro to Create Your Own Little Piece of Heaven

There’s hope for us all. Just look at English novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West. When she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, adopted the decaying Elizabethan Sissinghurst Castle in the 1930s, they were admittedly amateur gardeners. Today their 5-acre garden attracts 200,000 visitors a year. Comprised of a series of “garden rooms,” doors and entrances afford enticing glimpses of the adjoining spaces. While Sackville-West described her planting style as “Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny,” it is said that her gardening style reflected the romantic intimacy of her writings with great romantic profusions of flowers. Their first planting was the early-summer-flowering rose Mme Alfred Carriere in what was to become the cottage garden on the property. Their color theme for the cottage garden was a hot profusion of red, orange, and yellow—unusual for the time. 

Cottage Garden at Sissinghirst

Inspired to design your own English cottage garden? In future posts, we’ll learn how to do it!

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