There’s Nothing Like a Cottage Garden

Traveling the back roads in England during early summer, one will see charming gardens in the little towns. Over and over, one will witness a phenomenon almost unknown here in the states. It’s called a “cottage garden.”

Cottage gardens are traditional across the pond, but not so here. It’s a shame, not only for the loss of utter charm of these spots, but because our failure to copy these appealing areas is also a missed opportunity to help Mother Nature.

What makes a cottage garden a cottage garden? Cottage gardens originally were created because the homeowner didn’t have a whole lot of land, and very much wanted/needed vegetable crops for their own dinners. All sorts of vegetables were grown, right by the house, where they’d be easy to grab for dinner. Often the whole front yard was used for a garden because chickens were kept in the back yard.

Of course, it’s hard not to love that great flower…so, why not tuck some in right here? Might crowd the cucumbers, but, oh well. As it turns out, both did very well, snuggled right up to each other. And so, it began.

Nowadays we call a cottage garden one that has both vegetables and flowers all packed tightly together in one spot. Tightly packed is key here. Nature doesn’t segregate her plants, if something can grow here, let it grow. If it doesn’t, something else will. Cottage gardens, with their tightly planted acreage, mimic Mother Nature’s grand plan – that no land should go to waste (or it might be the plant kingdom’s grand plan, but that’s quibbling).

Cottage gardens work well in an urban setting (seen here) or more suburban. Look at all the hiding places for butterflies, lightning bugs, and toads.

Okay, so cottage gardens are attractive and all that, but what are the benefits, to us, and to our fellow creatures?

Benefits to us – crowding plants together leaves much less room for weeds. In fact, all those plants, crowded together, create a type of mulch called “green mulch.” Together, all those plants accomplish all of the goals of mulch, while providing food for the table as well as food for small creatures (who are the basis of entire food webs).

Since much less weeding is involved, small creatures can enjoy a nice spot where they can do their thing unmolested. Wait, did I say much less weeding is involved? Indeed, I did say that. Cottage gardens do need weeding, light weeding, perhaps three to four times a year. Compared to a typical American garden of equal size, we’re talking a fraction of the time spent pulling weeds. And no glyphosate, that terrible killer of plants and humans, is needed. Send up balloons!

That alone is worth turning your garden into a cottage garden. You don’t actually need to put your veggies in it, but it’s certainly recommended. You are likely to find you’re getting more vegetables out of fewer plants if you pop them into your “flower” garden. The reason for that is simple – all those flowers, packed up close to each other, are irresistible to pollinators, who are looking for nectar and pollen. They stay right in the vicinity of that smorgasbord, and, if your veggies are right there, too, they’ll get all the pollination they can handle. Which means more veggies for you.

That’s how a cottage garden helps us. How does it help the small creatures, the basis of food webs that sustain us all?

Small creatures are, well, small. Remember how vulnerable you felt as a tiny child, lost in a sea of grown-ups, traffic, and other scary, “you have no power” situations? That’s the life of tiny creatures, like butterflies and lightning bugs. They have no power. All they can do is hide, and hope beyond hope that no hungry bird, toad, frog – whatever – finds them.

No wonder the itty-bitty creatures are much fonder of large groupings of plants, wherein they can move undetected by scary birds, etc., than they are of wide-open spaces where they are intrinsically visible. Sadly, our wood mulch (etc.) infested gardens, where each plant is separate, absolutely no place near, any other (even a weed), is a scary place for most minute creatures that are the basis of food webs.

Of course, birds and toads and frogs are fond of cottage gardens, too, because they just know they’ll get dinner. This still works great for pollinators – since there are so many more nearby, the odds they’ll get eaten are reduced (this is rather like you don’t have to be the fastest runner to escape the bear. You just have to be faster than somebody else). It’s a good system.  

Maureen Rice is a naturalist/gardener living in Talbot County. She is the author of “Not! Your Granny’s Garden.” Email to receive the blog straight to your inbox.

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