Recreate history with a cottage garden

Recreate history with a cottage garden

by Ellen Goff

As we celebrate our nation's 234th birthday, we can honor our forefathers' resilience and dedication to working the land by recreating a garden commonly seen in 1776. However, gardening in the American colonies was not the activity we think of today.

Preventing starvation and illness was the focus of most daily activities for the early colonists. The typical farmhouse was small, with a single door. The area around it, sparse and practical. Settlers needed an area, protected from livestock and wildlife, in which to raise fruits, vegetables and herbs for the family. This fenced plot led to the creation of the dooryard.

To enter the early garden, a centered path of packed earth or stones led from the fence's gate straight to the front door. Several side paths ran between raised rectangular planting beds that were densely sowed with a mix of edible and medicinal plants.

Fruit trees and berry shrubs lined the outer perimeter. Vining plants were attached to the side of the house and to fences. This style of garden came to be known as the cottage garden. It's characterized by a diminutive footprint and limited scale, contrasted with a great diversity of plants that are attractive but serviceable.

Eastern colonial gardens were planted with seeds that settlers brought from their home country and knew were reliable. As a result, many cottage garden plants self-sow freely. Abundant seed production was an advantage along with extra plants sprouting up.

You may imagine the cottage garden as a tangled hodgepodge of plants. Actually, it's quite the opposite — a blend of many varieties in a neat and orderly display based on size and growth habit. Raised beds are edged in lavender or dianthus; tall hollyhocks are placed against a wall or fence; and fruit trees anchor the outer corners.

European settlements elsewhere in the New World had similar features of the dooryard garden. In Florida and southern California, Spanish influences created the entrance courtyard. Protected by stucco walls, these gardens contained many crops introduced by Spanish voyagers, including the first citrus fruit. Many of these elements can be seen today in gardens across the country.

An 18th century cottage garden

You can assemble your own dooryard garden with traditional plants, listed here by use and height. Choose your favorites based on local climate conditions.

Plant Type & Hype

Edible Medicinal
Flowers low to med. Marigold, Nasturtium,

Pansies, Violets
Chamomile, Dianthus, Poppies
Flowers high Mint Butterfly weed, Feverfew,

Foxglove, Hollyhocks, Anise

Hyssop, Purple Coneflower
Veggies low to med. Beets, Bush green beans, Leaf

lettuce, Radishes
Veggies high Pole green beans, Cucumbers,

Peas, Tomatoes*
Herbs low to med. Chives Garlic, Winter marjoram, Rue,

Sage, Thyme
Herbs high Dill Fennel, Rosemary
Fruits low to med. Blueberry, Current, Elderberry,

Fruits high Apple, Citrus, Fig, Peach, Plum  
  *Not considered traditional yet popular today in a cottage garden

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.

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