The unruly country cottage garden was devised by the Edwardians in rebellion against Victorian formality, and came to represent quintessential Englishness. Its natural biodiversity is just as relevant today, says Kim Wilde.
No one has had more influence over the English country garden than the Edwardian writer Gertrude Jekyll. Together with the architect Edwin Lutyens, she had a hand in guiding some of our most famous gardens, including Lawrence Johnston's Hidcote, in Gloucestershire, and Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst, in Kent - home to the often imitated white garden. The Edwardian garden, in many ways, is the quintessential English country garden: a combination of naturalistic, cottage-style planting within a strong structural layout of either hard landscaping or evergreen hedges. Jekyll, in turn, like many of today's gardening gurus, was influenced by the father of the English flower garden - William Robinson. He was a key figure in the revolt against the formal style so loved by the Victorians, especially their obsession with brightly coloured bedding plants.
Robinson championed a more natural style of gardening. He wanted plants to spill across pathways and self-seed, creating schemes where nature seemed to have the upper hand. He encouraged mixed planting of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs with an emphasis on "right plant, right place" - the gardening mantra of our age. Traditional plants such as heartsease, poppies and violets would seed themselves among herbs, fruit and vegetables, while planting was naturalistic and abundant.
This approach is perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been, given the emphasis on biodiversity and organic cultivation. The key is to choose plants that will thrive in your particular situation, rather than starting a battle with nature. Understanding soil conditions, aspect and local climate will not only keep maintenance to a minimum, it will produce a garden that fits with its surroundings.
Establishing a framework for your planting is especially important in an informal or semi-wild garden. This can be achieved with shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous. They will also help protect plants from harsh winds or intense sunlight, as well as providing year-round interest after perennials and annuals have performed. Evergreen topiary, a speciality of the cottage gardener, can add flair to your permanent backdrop. It can be witty (think of Christopher Lloyd's giant coffee pots), abstract, formal or informal, using box, yew, holly, bay or the tiny-leaved privet Ligustrum delavayanum. Most (except yew) will be happy in containers if planted in loam-based compost and top-dressed in spring with compost containing a slow-release fertiliser. Yew, however, is best planted in the ground with plenty of well-rotted manure.
For a quick fix, try a small-leaved ivy or the box-leaved honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold', grown in wire topiary frames with the foliage gradually teased through.
The artless informality of the cottage garden could not be achieved without self-seeders. Those that thrive in a sunny, well-drained position include Linaria purpurea (toadflax), a perennial that produces elegant, tall stems with purple flower spikes throughout summer. A group of purple, pink (L. p. 'Canon Went') and white flowering toadflax (L. p. 'Springside White') looks very romantic. Lychnis coronaria is biennial and a prolific self-seeder, with silver-grey foliage and magenta flowers from mid-summer. It looks lovely with the glaucous, blue/grey evergreen foliage of Parahebe perfoliata, which flowers violet-blue at the same time.
Verbena bonariensis is a devoted self-seeder, with clusters of purple, scented flowers on statuesque, 1.5m stems from midsummer to early autumn. Wherever they end up, they never look out of place, partly because the thin, branching stems have a see-through quality. Hardy annuals include Eschscholzia californica, with finely divided blue/grey foliage and bright poppy-like flowers. It looks stunning self-seeded among catmint.
Nigella damascena (love-in-a-mist) is another cottage-garden favourite, with blue or white species flowers, and varieties in shades of rose, pink, purple and carmine. These can be sown in autumn or spring, in good soil in a sunny position, and will happily take up permanent residence thereafter.
Where would the English country garden be without scented plants? Honeysuckle will clamber through hedges, up walls, over trees and shrubs with its twining woody stems, delivering a powerful evening scent that attracts moths visiting at night. Take care when choosing one, as not all species are scented. Go for the highly perfumed Lonicera japonica, L. periclymenum, or the intense Italian honeysuckle L. caprifolium .
For a mass of scented roses evocative of Sissinghurst, where they are encouraged to cascade over everything, choose ramblers, climbers or species roses. Although ramblers only flower once, they can play host to other climbers such as Clematis viticella, and their showy flowers look so romantic. These roses are robust and ideal for covering large areas, winding through bushes and into trees, or hiding unsightly objects. Try R. 'Paul's Himalayan Musk', with very fragrant, blush pink rosettes, or R. 'Kew Rambler', also strongly scented, with single, rose-pink flowers followed by small orange hips.
Spectacular scented climbers include R. 'Madame Grgoire Staechelin' with blowsy, clear-pink blooms, and the long-flowering R. 'Madame Alfred Carrire', with white flowers, tinted pink. Grow them on pillars, obelisks or rustic arches and pergolas, training and twisting all new shoots in as many different directions as possible, especially laterally, to encourage flowering at all levels.
Herbs were among the first plants to be cultivated in cottage gardens for medicinal and culinary purposes, as well as to scent homes. Fennel, angelica and cardoon add height and architectural form, too. Herbs attract beneficial insects and, on sunny days, release aromatic oils. Intersperse them in your planting, as much for their often beautiful foliage and rangy habits, as anything else.
How to look after your cottage-style garden? Overcrowded perennials will often flower poorly or not at all, so dividing them gives them a boost as well as providing plants for friends. Spring - and early summer - flowering perennials, such as peonies and delphiniums, can generally be divided in autumn when the foliage has died down. Those that flower from mid-to late summer, such as asters and echinacea, can be divided in spring before growth begins. Regular deadheading of spent flowers, especially annuals, will divert the energy used to produce seed into producing more flowers. Some early-flowering perennials, such as Alchemilla mollis, can have the tired foliage cut right back to the ground to encourage new growth.
Traditional herbaceous border regulars, such as asters, lupins, delphiniums and phlox, need deeply cultivated, fertile, moisture-retentive soil and will not adapt well to our increasingly dry summers. Choosing drought-tolerant perennials, such as linaria, acanthus, achillea, kniphofia and phlomis, might save a lot of time and frustration for future gardeners. It will change the look, but not the principle, of our beloved English country garden
Readers can order one plant each of Lychnis coronaria, Linaria purpurea 'Canon Went' and Verbena bonariensis (pictured left), for 11.95 (inc p&p). Or order three collections for the price of two (23.90). Call 0870 066 7986, quoting ref GOCG1. All plants are supplied in 9cm pots.