New American Cottage Garden

A friend of mine was visiting and blithely called my front garden “cottage style.”

It was one of those “Duhh” moments. I specialize in designing small, urban residential properties where clients cram in as many native plants, organic veggies and herbs, and places for everyone to play–children, adults, and the dogs–as they can. My design heroes are John Brookes, Darrel Morrison, A.E. Bye and Oehme Van Sweden, and I wrote my thesis on their work and different types of “wild gardens,” including cottage and native-plant.

And yet, until that moment, I had never thought about my prevailing style as “cottage.”
Why is that?

Because the cottage gardens I imagine from pre-Industrial United Kingdom, popularized later by Gertrude Jekyll, were not conscious attempts to incorporate native plant and wildlife communities. They were the small plots associated with laborers’ cottages, in which the owners tried to grow what they needed for the home–herbs for cooking, medicine, dying–veggies for eating–perhaps a small area for pigs or chickens–and a few plants for pleasure. They didn’t include turf–that was for herbivores–but they might include plants that especially charmed them, perhaps a double-petaled form they found growing along the side of the road or something new from a neighboring estate.

Cottagers were far more likely to spend time hoeing the weeds, which would likely have been native. They did not need to incorporate whole patches of meadow or forest, as many are trying to do today, because those plant communities were all around them, with their associated wildlife. The garden wall kept wild nature out.

Our relationship with the wild, or native, landscape has changed here in the U.S. When the European settlers began to clear it, their aim–like the cottagers–was to create agricultural spaces. The native landscape–like the buffalo and old-growth forests–seemed endless. There was no reason to incorporate whole plant communities into their gardens. It seemed wild nature would always exist outside the garden wall.

Later, with the advent of the English Landscape Style and its emphasis on English native grasses, U.S. sites were mostly turned over to turf, without the sheep.

Now that so much of wild nature is gone, many of us are moving what we can inside the garden wall, replacing unsustainable turf with meadow and forest communities. These patches of meadow, woodland, and waterside are becoming an important addition to the old-fashioned cottage garden. I would call that a New American Cottage Style.