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The Cottage Garden

There are many books which purport to describe the classic English cottage garden, but they are only vehicles for handsome photographs of landscape designers’ misguided efforts. Roy Genders, an English expert on horticulture, approached this topic with exemplary historical skill.

Roy Genders was an English expert on horticulture who wrote dozens of books about the individual varieties of flowers, as well as books about whole classes plants. Scented Flowers of the World stands out as a striking example. When it came to the cottage garden he approached the topic with exemplary historical skill. There are many books which purport to describe the classic English cottage garden, but they are only vehicles for handsome photographs of landscape designers’ misguided efforts.

One of the basic tenets of a cottage garden is its lack of artificiality, its not having been designed in advance. The average workingman or labourer in early England had no rights to any land and had to make do with a minute scrap of ground next to his cottage. The most important need was for vegetables to extend their meagre supplies of food.

Flowers were not the first thing that came to their minds. Gradually they brought wild plants from the edge of the forest. For years, only local, native plants were grown. These did well because, perforce, the cottagers provided the same conditions as the original habitat.

With improving prosperity, the people began to obtain the new, exotic plants which entered England over a couple of centuries. We are talking hollyhocks, delphiniums, antirrhinums, carnations, and violas, all very early immigrants. Later there would be “geraniums” (pelargoniums), lilies, bugloss, sweet peas and various sorts of roses.

There was still no idea of a design. Everything was stuffed in close together. Workers were seriously exploited in those days and had almost no time or energy for gardening after working a long day. Once in a while, they would give the plants some manure and rake away the worst of the dead leaves and detritus. Otherwise, the plants were on their own.

This benign neglect resulted in many types of flower surviving undisturbed in old cottage gardens long after they were thought to have disappeared. It is striking that the majority of flowers we associate with cottage gardens nowadays are in fact of foreign origin (“exotic”).

Fierce floristic competition ruled among certain classes of artisan in the nineteenth century. These tradesmen worked at home in their cottages and devoted themselves to one or two kinds of flower. Because land was so scarce, most of the flowers were grown in pots.

The lace weavers of Paisley bred carnations selectively. The cotton workers in Lancashire doted on primulas, and in Scotland, polyanthus was supreme. They competed for prizes at annual fairs. Collectively, these workers were known as “florists”.

Copyright © Judith M. Taylor MD   November 2006

The Cottage Garden and the old-fashioned flowers
Roy Genders
London, Pelham Books - 1969 (re-issued 1987)

Review by Judith M. Taylor, M. D.
www.horthistoria.com
The San Francisco Garden Club
Member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society

About the Massachusetts Horticultural Society

Mass Hort logo newFounded in 1829, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society is dedicated to encouraging the science and practice of horticulture and developing the public's enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of plants and the environment.

2018 Calendar & Courses

2018 Masshort Courses

Mass Hort Classes & Events

Sat Apr 21 @10:00AM - 02:00PM
Grafting Fruit Trees
Tue Apr 24 @ 9:00AM - 12:00PM
Improve Your Watercolor Skills - Morning Course
Tue Apr 24 @12:30PM - 03:30PM
Improve Your Watercolor Skills - Afternoon Course
Thu Apr 26 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Landscaping and Planting Design
Thu May 03 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Foodscaping
Sun May 06 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
Early Season Gardening Workshop
Thu May 17 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Greenhouse Growing
Tue May 22 @ 1:00PM - 05:00PM
Landscaping for Watershed Health
Wed May 30 @ 9:00AM - 03:00PM
Spring Landscape Tour
Wed Jun 06 @ 7:00PM - 09:00PM
Hands-On Floral Design
Thu Jun 07 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Bio-control of Lily Leaf Beetles
Tue Jun 12 @ 1:00PM - 04:30PM
Eco Printing: Fiber art workshop
Tue Jun 26 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
Explore the Teaching Herb Garden
Wed Jul 11 @10:00AM - 02:00PM
The Art of Planting Design
Wed Jul 18 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Summer Stroll: Garden tour
Sun Jul 22 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
What's Buggin' Me?
Sat Aug 04 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
Fall Planting Workshop
Thu Aug 09 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
A Summer Stroll: Garden Tour
Sun Aug 12 @10:00AM - 04:00PM
Meditations in Ink with Bruce Iverson