The cottage garden is still one of the most popular forms of garden. The undulating foliage and billowing flowers, the almost haphazard, shoe horned feel gives pleasure and reminds us of an England long gone. The cottage garden is a nostalgic garden. It makes us think of a slower time, a more relaxing time devoid of social media, rush hours and the rat race. No one has ever applauded someone for digging up a cottage garden for a car port. Though plenty have done it. Yet, the cottage garden has been done a disservice, romanticized by the Victorians into a chocolate box view of rural life and ways. The cottage garden is still a working garden. It is garden that balances flowers beside produce. It is a garden that is also about medicinal uses alongside culinary uses.
Produce is a generalised word in gardening, so let's break down what we have flowering at the moment in our cottage garden. The photo below is of Centaurea Montana - we suspect that many of you have it in your garden, you love the zing and vibrancy of the blue flowers - but in the past this wonderful flower was used as an infusion for dropsy and constipation. It could also be used as a mouthwash for bleeding gums and as an eye bath for conjunctivitis. We don't recommend that you do this but it's fascinating to realise that most cottage garden plants have a use and have a history. Many cottage garden plants are used as the basis of modern medicine.
The photo below is a Cirsium. This short lived and punchy perennial is an old plant. The Cirsium root can be eaten, the taste is supposed to be like Jerusalem Artichoke. Supposedly, young leaves can be soaked over night and then eaten. Cirsium, like all thistles, were an early edible green for lean months. A poultice can be made from the roots for sore jaws and other joints, it helps with rheumatism but more importantly was also associated with piles - ouch - a thistle up the bum is not a nice thought. The flowers are also reputed to be like small globe artichokes but again we would think twice about eating them or smearing them on our bum.
Take the cranesbill (known as geraniums, do not get them confused with pelargoniums) in the two photos below. We all grow different varieties in our cottage gardens but again the history of the plant is fascinating. The root is high in tannin more so than red wine. Again, it's linked to our digestive system and helps to stop diarrhea. They are still used today in herbal capsules that help with digestive problems.
Comfrey in the photo below is a proven aid to swelling, sprains and healing bones. Andrew can testify to this, when he was fifteen he badly sprained his ankle a week before his sister's wedding. His Mum wrapped his ankle in comfrey, known as knitbone, it brought out the bruising, lowered the swelling and helped in a speedy recovery. Comfrey reduces inflammation but it has more uses than that in the garden, which we will look at in the next few weeks.
Even traditionally grown crops in the cottage garden, including brassicas and in our case, garlic (see the photo below) has real uses beyond the culinary realm. Garlic has been with us since ancient times and even the English knew the benefits of garlic a thousand years ago. It was called 'Poor Man's Treacle,' derived from the Chaucerian word 'theric' meaning to 'heal all'. Alexander Neckam in the twelfth century believed it to be a palliative for the heat of the sun in field labour. Neckham believed a garden should be the archetypal idea of what is a cottage garden:
The garden should be adorned with roses and lilies, the turnsole or heliotrope, violets, and mandrake, there you should have parsley, cost, fennel, southernwood, coriander, sage, savery, hsyop, mint, rue, ditanny, smallage, pellitory, lettuce, garden cress, and peonies. There should also be beds planted with onions, leeks, garlic, pumpkins, shallots. The cucumber, poppy, the daffodil, and brank-ursine ought to be good in the garden. There should also be pottage herbs, such as beets, herb mercury, orach, sorrel, and mallows (taken from De Naturis Rerum),
This blows away the idea that garlic is a modern vegetable, so all those chefs that lauded it in the nineties came to the party late, it has certainly been in our vocabulary from the tenth century onward.
Take the humble chive crammed between nepeta, lady's mantle and lychnis below, it has not just a medicinal use but a religious one too. Chives where thought to ward off evil in many European and Arab cultures. Chives were also seen by the English as a cure for melancholy. We now know why, this wonderful herb is high in vitamin C, folic acid and potassium. All necessary for a healthy body and mind.
If you want to plant a cottage garden, remember that it is not just about shoe horning in plants, it is about shoe horning in useful plants.
What have we learnt? #saveourskills
- A cottage garden should be beautiful, practical and useful.
- That many plants have medical or herbal applications.
- That we should not use any plant without medical advice.
- That the cottage garden is more than the romantic idea.