The modern cottage garden

This interpretation of a traditional cottage garden combines old-fashioned charm and modern building materials, to meet the needs of a typical young family.

The qualities that characterize a traditional cottage garden – modesty, informality, practicality, natural construction materials and an unpretentious mix of old-fashioned flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables are as pleasing now as they were in Victorian times, when cottage gardens were in their heyday. Traditional cottage gardens ranged from tiny to substantial, and evolved individually to meet cottagers’ needs rather than being a preconceived, formal design imposed on the landscape. An infinite number of variations is possible, and this garden shows how easy it is to combine the spirit of cottage garden style with modern materials and building techniques, to achieve an authentic, attractive and practical result.

The existing site

When the family moved in, the garden was basically a dull, neglected rectangle, with a few short paths leading directly from a reproduction wrought iron gate to the house.

The brief

The family wanted an informal, traditional setting for their home, and a garden planted for year-round colour and interest hut capable of standing up to the wear and tear of young children, and, once established, easy to maintain.

A sitting area where the family could enjoy the afternoon sun and a safe, level, dry place for the children to play – within easy view of the kitchen windows – were high on their list.

Reinforcing the boundary to in-crease the sense of privacy, making more of the tucked-awav front door and drawing attention to the original cottage, with its lovely old bay windows, were also important. On a practical level, a utility area for a drying line, a compost area and camouflage for the oil tank formed part of the brief.

The basic framework

The new layout has a central, broad, paved area separating two rectangular lawns. Perimeter planting along the boundaries, narrow beds next to the house and two island beds, each punctuated by a tree, soften the geometric lines. The trees, and those along the perimeter, add a sense of depth and variation in height, and pre-vent the garden being instantly visible in its entirety – a sense of surprise is an important element of a cottage garden.

The central paved area extends to form paths parallel and close to the house, leading to a paved herb garden in one direction, and a sitting area and pergola feature in the other. To draw the eye towards the original period cottage, the visual thrust of the new paving is diagonally towards it, but near the house, the path branches off to the actual front door, tucked away in the recent extension.

The magnolia was retained as a pivotal focal point. The weeping willow, with its greedy, wide-spreading roots, was too close to the house and would eventually grow too big, so it was removed.

The masrerplan was a complete composition but designed to be developed in phases, starting from the central paved area, as finances allowed; an auxiliary planting plan suggested infill options as seasonal gaps appeared.

Hard landscaping

To save time and back-breaking labour, a mini-digger was rented to level the garden and dig out a sunken area for the lawn and seating area. Lowering these, while retaining the original levels around the magnolia and beds near the house, helped create a sense of privacy and shelter. The topsoil and subsoil (usually lighter in colour) were stored separately, so the top-soil could be used in the beds. Instead of prohibitively expensive natural stone, reproduction York stone paving slabs made of concrete (from a mould taken of real stone) were used. Other new ma-terials with a timeless, well-estab-lished look include bricks and broad, square, terracotta tiles.

Most of the paved area is slab paving with brick infill; the herb garden is laid with terracotta tiles, and a side path with brick.

Brick edging, mowing strips, dwarf walls and retaining walls add a sense of continuity; dark-coloured mortar and recessed joints were used, to avoid the jarring contrast between dark bricks and white mortar that often marsnot in use, is a framework for the new brickwork. To emphasize thechildren’s wigwam – another place bay windows, new brickedgedto hide, which children love.

Beds beneath the windows mirror their curves; the low brick wallPlants surrounding the magnolia ‘minitypical old-fashioned species and garden* opposite is curved in re-varieties – cottage-garden annuals, spouse, and contains a seat facing the old cottage.

A place to play

The layout offers plenty to keep children happy, without the domi-nating presence of large pieces of play equipment. The central paved area, with its various paved Tributaries’, ramp and island beds, creates a wide choice of cycle routes. The sand pit is surrounded by plants, so the children can dig away in semi-privacy. Once they have outgrown the pit, it is earmarked for use as a pond.

A picnic table for eating out, colouring on or playing board games is tucked into the herb garden and painted a soft blue, a pleasant alternative to bold, primary hues often associated with children’s toys and furniture. In the utility area next to the herb garden, the washing line, when biennials, bulbs, alpines and perennials – were chosen, with a heavy emphasis on fragrance and resilience. Floppy or mound-forming plants were sited to overhang and visually soften the straight lines o the paving. Sun-loving, silverleaved perennials, such as artemisia, and aromatic shrubs, such as lavender, cotton lavender, catmint and rosemary, thrive on this sunny site.

Ground covers such as hostas, lady’s mantle, with its starry flowers and attractive soft green leaves, daylilies and hardy geraniums form the base planting. Geranium ‘Russell Pritchard’, Geranium sanguineum and Geranium sanguineum striatum were especially favoured. Lady’s mantle also self-seeds, quickly enveloping individual clumps of plants in a yellow-green haze.

Annuals such as white busy Lizzies and tobacco plants were used to fill the gaps left between permanent plants, allowing them to reach their eventual full spread. Gaps between paving slabs were sown with alpine seeds such as alyssum, which can become estab-lished in the shallow soil above the mortar. Low, wide-spreading alpines such as Antenuaria dioicia ‘Rosea’ were planted along the sides of the paths.

Vegetables and herbs formed an integral part of the traditional cottage garden and here, courgettes were planted to fill temporal’}’ gaps in the planting. Quick growing, they soon produce boldly sculptured leaves and brilliant yellow blooms, as well as their tasty crops. (With their large seeds and sturdy seedlings, courgettes are excellent ‘starter’ plants for children to grow.)

Near the main door, and benefiting from the sun’s heat in the wall and paving, herbs fill raised plant- ing troughs, within easy reach of the kitchen.

A willow-leaved pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’), with its weeping habit and smaller scale than traditional weeping willows, was planted opposite the magnolia, to frame the view of the house, seen from the gate.

Formal and informal lawns

A hard-wearing grass mixture was used for the two formal lawns, at the rate of 25g (loz) – roughly a handful – per sq m/yd. To ensure that the lawns did not sink below the level of the surrounding brick mowing strip before any seed was sown, vertical planks were weighted down with bricks along the edging strip. Soil was banked against it and compacted to 2cm (/tin) above the surrounding soil. Two old apple trees became the focal point for a small wildflower meadow. Small, rooted plugs of wild flowers, such as meadow cranesbill and yarrow, available from garden centres, were planted first, to give them a two-week head start before wild meadow-grass seed was sown.

Trellis detail

To create a sense of enclosure and privacy, a wooden, pointed gate and trellis arch (available in kit form, in three easy-toerect sections), replaced the wrought iron gate. Painted white in keeping with the white cottage, each forms a focal point for the other.

The small-scale, carefully de-tailed structure, with the arch’s exposed dowels and the gate’s curved outline, helps to create a feeling of a unified design between house and garden.

The main front door is framed in dark-painted trellis, the squares reflecting the square pattern of the window. The trellis also has the effect of reducing the cavernous scale of the entrance.

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