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The Myth of the Cottage Garden Inspired the Perennial Border in Victorian America

Something about the expression ‘cottage garden’ creates a warm feeling and even a sense of nostalgia among gardeners.

Cottage gardens became popular in both England and America when late nineteenth century writer and horticulturist William Robinson and landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll wrote that cottage gardens provided a sensible way to garden in a small space.  Gardeners, they concluded, could learn from the cottage garden style.

Allison Kyle Leopold in her book The Victorian Garden writes: “Cottage gardens seemed enchantingly simple, their colors soothing rather than stirring, their only structure a hedge, a picket fence, a tumbledown stone wall, along which randomly planted borders of blooms and vines grew in seductive fashion.”

Growing your favorite plants in a small space seemed the essence of the English cottage garden.

But then Leopold wonders whether the cottage garden was not really a myth.

She writes, “Of  course the romantically untidy cottage gardens for which 19th century Americans longed, while popular in England, were little more than a fantasy…Beginning in the 1870s, however, nostalgia for sentimentalized cottage gardens that never really existed helped reintroduce late Victorians to the charms of the herbaceous borders.”

It was, after all, Robinson who complained that planting annuals in carpet beds was a waste of time. Gardeners ought to plant perennials and thus avoid the maintenance of such carpet beds that each year needed to be set in the lawn.

And so after the 1870s once again perennial borders played an important role in the garden first in England and later in America.  Such borders had been popular once as New York seedsman Peter Henderson wrote in his book Gardening for Pleasure, published in 1883, “The old-fashioned mixed borders of four or six feet wide along the walks of the fruit or vegetable garden, were usually planted with hardy herbaceous plants, the tall growing at the back, with the lower growing sorts in the front…But the more modern style of flower borders has quite displaced such collections. and they are now but little seen.”

The cottage garden ideal provided a renewed interest in the perennial border.

Today a garden near the nursery at White Flower Farm in Connecticut provides a wonderful example of an English border of perennials [below]. Notice the variety of plants with the short in the front and the tall in the back.

The perennial border at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.
The perennial border at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.




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