Episode 139: Cottage Gardens with Andrew Sankey

This episode features garden designer, grower, speaker and writer Andrew Sankey. Andrew specialises in English cottage gardens and has meticulously researched the subject for decades, becoming an expert on this style of gardening. He’s recently released a book called The English Cottage Garden and in the interview, we talk about what defines a cottage garden, both in the past and now, the plants and features most commonly found in one and tips if you’re looking to create your own. 

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What we cover

What was a cottage garden historically and what is it now?

How big is a cottage garden?

What hard landscaping elements characterise a cottage garden?

Which planting techniques stand out as most cottage garden-like?

Where does the winter interest come from in a cottage garden?

Using plants as supports for other plants

Cottage gardens and wildlife

Andrew’s 3 essential plants

Edibles in a modern cottage garden

About Andrew Sankey

Andrew left teaching (Head of Graphics/Design) in 1989 to start a Garden Design & Landscaping business in Lincolnshire. He discovered it was very difficult to obtain plants required for designs so started a specialist nursery stocking plants for dry shade/ dry sun.

He went on to organise Plant Fairs in Lincolnshire, Cambs and Norfolk & produced a booklet called the Plant Fair Guide for a number of years.

Andrew moved to a cottage near Woodhall Spa, Lincs in 1992 and created a cottage garden which was opened twice a year for the NGS and other groups.

He became Chairman of the Lincolnshire branch of the Cottage Garden Society and began lecturing on cottage gardens and related subjects (including lecture tours to Minnesota and Wisconsin in the USA).

He’s written booklets on Companion Planting, Cottage Favourites and Sayings and Superstitions and he continues to design gardens and lecture widely on a range of gardening topics.


The English Cottage Garden by Andrew Sankey – The Crowood Press Ltd, 2021

Episode 62 – The Living Jigsaw with Val Bourne

The Cottage Garden Society

Andrew Sankey 0:02

Historically, a cottage garden was a peasant’s plot or a peasant garden. The peasants the Saxons, the Normans had these little plots attached to cottages, which provided extra food, which they required. They might have worked for the local lord as a labourer, or might have worked in the field surrounding the village, but they needed to provide extra food in their own little plot to survive, basically. So it was a combination of basic vegetables, basic herbs and a few animals to supplement their basic sufficiency. They also had large families and lots of children to feed and that so it, what it basically gave them was what we call bread and pottage, which was the basic diet and into the pottage went any vegetables, any herb that you could grow and manage. So that’s the old, traditional cottage garden. The modern has totally moved away from that. Simply because people go to the supermarket and buy all their own food now, they don’t necessarily grow it. They don’t have animals or such. I have not yet come across a person even in the cottage garden society who keeps still keeps pigs which was a staple diet. So we’ve moved away from self sufficient small plot holding, if you will, to a more floriferous garden, but using more of the cottage herbs more of the cottage flowers and a few of the old cottage trees to create sort of oasis in the cottage style. The cottage garden uses a lot of native plants. A lot of early introductions, and those are the things that come through particularly roses, climbers, and pretty spring flowers like primroses and foxgloves. So those are still in the modern cottage garden, but we supplement it with lots and lots of other flowers and as the season is far longer, we have a greater flowering season than ever the cottage garden did have.


Sarah Wilson 2:18

The other thing that I was interested in terms of categorising a cottage garden is how big can a cottage garden be?


Andrew Sankey 2:26

Ah, now that is fascinating. Yeah, so the old cottage gardens were quite the size. And in the Elizabethan period Queen Elizabeth the first set down a basic standard for peasants labourers garden and that was two acres. Sounds enormous today. But of course you have to remember they were growing all their own herbs for all the different reasons medicinal, for going into the pot and herbs for strewing on the floor. Then they had a small maybe a small orchard and then they might have had a bean field or something at the end so two acres sounds a lot it wasn’t. Today you can do a cottage garden on tiny plots because you’re taking out the the idea of never an inch of the garden was ever wasted. So you can use every part of the garden. Cottage gardens, from the beginning didn’t have lawns because it was a waste. So you’d be taking out the lawn and you’ve got far more space for flowers and herbs and the odd trees or shrubs. And they also use companion planting where they grew one thing through another. So on a small scale today, it’s the ideal garden for a lot of people.


Sarah Wilson  3:39

Yeah, it definitely is. And thinking about the elements that make up a cottage garden obviously you said they’re quite floriferous. Now are there any hard landscaping elements that categorise or characterise a cottage garden?


Andrew Sankey 3:56

The hard landscaping elements would have varied from region to region simply because they made use of the local materials. So if you go up to the Cotswolds, which is very attractive, of course, look at Cotswolds cottages, you’ve got the stone cottages, and often instead of a hedge, they’ve got a wall made of Cotswold stone to define the size of the garden and you normally find the front of the garden has quite a nice wall with a gate in it. If you went to Lincolnshire you often found they had brick paths from the gate to the cottage door because there was a lot of brick making and they would have got the bricks very, very cheaply, as seconds and they would use those. So it varies area to area. Most of the time the main paths were basically just soil, compacted soil with ash or or later on clinker thrown on to create some sort of dry system but the the central path could be the local material. So the materials would have been local, even up in Yorkshire, they used Yorkstone, which is highly expensive today, but was the cheap local material when cottages used it. So a lot of the Yorkshire cottage gardens got these huge, great slabs of Yorkstone as their paths running down to the cottage. So it was all local, you just bought in from local.


Sarah Wilson  5:48

As you were speaking about the different sort of heights of paths and edging, it made me think, actually, and this might be a really silly question, that I tend to think of a cottage garden as being very flat. Was that a feature of the garden? Or would it have been? Would that have kind of naturally followed on from the sites that were chosen for these places? Or would they have been levelled? Or is that just a complete misnomer? So are some of them not flat?


Andrew Sankey 6:11

No, some of them aren’t flat. I’ve visited many, many cottage gardens. And again, it just depends on the part of the country, the cottage or labour was living in. So if you’re in Lincolnshire, yes, flat if you go up into the Yorkshire Dales, they’re not going to be. And so what they tended to do then was terrace the gardens. So you’d have the the outside near the back door on one level of maybe yard and then you go up a level, to the next section, and so on. So they just work with what they were, what they were given within the village. So if you’ve got hills all around, of course, your cottage is going to have to be on a slope, but the garden itself, they would level off and then have steps up from one level to the other. So they worked with what they were given.


Sarah Wilson  7:04

It sounds like they’re more relevant than ever, you know, in terms of how we’re trying to garden today, because they’re using local materials. They’re growing vegetables for the family. I think they make a really good blueprint for how we probably should be gardening more in this day and age.


Andrew Sankey 7:21

I totally agree. Yes, they are. But I think they’re the idea of blueprints. I was thinking of writing an article on this, that the cottage garden is probably the garden that can be accommodated in all the new builds of houses that are going on because the gardens are shrunk. Of course, they’re getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And I feel with a small garden, you might as well just dispense with the lawn. You can have an area obviously for like a patio for enjoying. But you could then move into a more cottage garden beyond that. And utilise the space ideally. And it works beautifully in any part of the country, of course. So yeah, if I was to give this a name, I would say it’s in the form of a cottage garden, but with a modern twist, obviously because we have a far greater range of plants than they ever did to utilise and use. But yeah, it’s a brilliant design for small gardens and in fact, in the book I try to emphasise the fact that you could get things for small gardens and utilise small gardens more effectively.


Sarah Wilson  8:39

So you just mentioned plants in terms of planting techniques; which stand out as most cottage garden like I know we have a much bigger range now. Are there particular things that characterise the plants in a cottage style garden?


Andrew Sankey 8:55

Yes. The cottagers particularly loved spring flowers. And we still do today. So a lot of people think the spring is the best time of the year because you’ve gone through the winter. And then you’ve got nice bright flowers coming up. And it’s a joy to see what’s coming up each day. So a lot of spring flowers were loved by cottagers and a lot of the ones that are part woodland but can still be grown in all gardens, like the foxglove. And some of the roses. They can be grown in small spaces, and they can go virtually anywhere. So those sorts of plants are ideal even for the modern gardens today. And there’s lots of those. The garden went on into late spring and into summer. Of course, the roses took over and then by the time you got to late summer. In the late period of Elizabeth the first there were new plant introductions coming from Europe, which then started to extend the season. I always say to people, plant for when you when you use the garden most so if you like the spring, put more spring plants in. I always encourage people not to plant when they’re, you know, if you take a holiday in July in August, don’t have plants that actually flowering your work your your planting schemes, and your ideas around when you’re most using the garden.


Sarah Wilson 10:47

And historically, would those cottage gardens have been essentially fairly empty and unproductive during the winter months?


Andrew Sankey 10:55

No, they would have been fairly empty of flowering plants but they wouldn’t have been empty of vegetables. Because a lot of the the vegetables of course, run through the winter. So cabbages, leeks, brussels sprouts, the late pumpkins and gourds they all run through the late winter period. So although the flowers might be going over, they had lots of vegetables that could work. They also had the the late fruit on the fruit trees, which they would gather and store. And one of the early introductions, well they’re sort of early to medium introductions, that the cottagers loved were Michaelmas daisies and the reason was, they extended their season in the garden, gave them a lot of colour for a long period at the end. So there are just a few plants that they felt were wonderful for the end of the year, hydrangeas and Michalemas daisies have been favourites late season cottage garden plants.


Sarah Wilson 11:59

And thinking about the trees again, I think probably a lot of people would think fruit trees in a cottage garden. Would it be limited to fruit trees? What might we replace fruit trees with? Or what would make a suitable tree for us in today’s cottage garden?


Andrew Sankey 12:16

Oh, that’s right. Yeah, most people assimilate as they say cottage garden with fruit trees. And of course, they originally were very large growing. So it was mainly apples and pears to begin with. People often ask me about the Victoria plum. But the name says it all it was introduced during the reign of Victoria. So it’s quite a late entrant. But you don’t have to have to fruit tree of course if we want a more good looking garden and you can buy fruits quite easily. So a better thing to do would be go for a small tree within the garden and there are a number of small trees which would ideally suit the cottage garden style; a rowan which was a traditional cottage garden tree, particularly up in Scotland. If you go to Scotland and go around some of the small villages, you’ll often still see two rowan trees standing either side of a cottage garden gate. That ties into the fact that trees kept evil and witches out of your garden. There’s lots of superstition wrapped up into some of the early cottage garden plants. The Holly was very, very popular. And again, that was more in England, you often find lots of cottages called Holly cottage, because they often had a holly tree or holly bush or even a hedge around the cottage itself. But you can add to that other different ones today. One of my favourites is the Amalanchier. They are wonderful small tree for a cottage garden, they stay at about 20-25 feet, which is actually small, have the most amazing flowers in the spring covering the whole of the tree. You can then if you wish train a climber to come up through in the summertime, maybe a clematis and then in the autumn, the leaves turn a gorgeous autumn colour as well. So you really get two bites at the cherry; the flowers and the autumn colour. And then if you grow something up it you can have a flower during the summer as well. So something like that is ideal. There are other smaller trees that can be looked into as well. But that those are really good for cottages.


Sarah Wilson 14:37

You make some planting recommendations in your book. And one of the things that really interested me was when you spoke about using plants or support for other plants. You’ve obviously just said about the clematis going up through the tree. I wondered if you could also mention another couple of examples of that because I thought that was a really good use of space.


Andrew Sankey 14:58

Yeah, any vertical space in gardens is highly useful for the climbers. So in previous times, of course, they used to let the honeysuckles ramble up the front and over the top. I wouldn’t recommend it but ivy is also grown on cottages. Their philosophy was growing one thing through another. This was also emphasised by Gertrude Jekyll. When she worked with Lutyens and they had a big scheme, she often had a large perennial or plant, and then she had put something else up through it. So, not always perennial climber sometimes annual climbers, sometimes you put peas through, sweet peas, or possibly an everlasting pea or another short climber, which went through a large plant, or through some of the big perennials that she put into gardens. One of the things I keep telling people is to use runner beans. When it first came into the country, was known as the arbour bean, because they grew it for it’s rich, pretty lovely flowers. They didn’t actually eat the runner beans, for about, I think about 150 years before they got to taste the beans themselves. And they grew it because it went up and over an arbour and gave us a nice shaded area, plus had these lovely pretty flowers. And often so you know, if you’ve got a piece of trellis or you’ve got a tripod, there’s no reason why you can’t use the runner beans in the garden as both a pretty flower and vegetable at the same time. And that really is cottage garden companion planting, putting two plants together for the benefit of one another, growing one up through the other. So you can you can use that or possibly even some squashes or gourds. They don’t have to grow on the ground, people assume they grow on the ground, you can actually train them up. You could grow squashes or gourds up through and over a structure and then the the lovely fruits hang down the trellis or the arch, which keeps them off the ground, keeps them dry, and they look good as well.


Sarah Wilson 17:28

Yes, good. It’s really good ideas that you’ve got in the book. And given the lack of space in many modern gardens, would you advocate for growing edibles in them? And if so, obviously, you’ve mentioned that the beans can grow up thing and there’s spaces-saving ideas around that. Is there anything else that you think is worth growing, given as well the fact that you said you know obviously you can go to the supermarket and buy your fruit you don’t need to be growing that?


Andrew Sankey 17:54

Yeah, it depends on your, your tastes, of course. But even in limited space, you can grow a lot of vegetables. That will take up very little spaceand can be interplanted, amongst other things. There’s nothing better. Although you can go and buy things, there’s nothing better than picking it fresh. So there’s no reason why you couldn’t put things into the border. One of the first things I ever did when I got into cottage gardening was to put some rhubarb into my borders. And we had the rhubarb through in the early part of the year obviously for the the crumbles and other things. And then I left the large leaves as a foil for other plants that surrounded it. And with things like chard as well, because of the bright colours you can get, you can actually plant them and use them in the borders and use them as focal points but at the same time crop from them and take them into the kitchen. And there’s lots of other examples where you can grow certain vegetables within the the actual garden and they they go in nicely. A lot of them have lovely foliage, which is worth eating at the same time.


Sarah Wilson 19:17

Yeah, they definitely do, there’s some really pretty cultivars out there. Thinking about ornamental flowering plants, I’m sure again, everybody can conjure up their typical cottage garden flowers. What’s three would you not be without if you were designing a cottage garden?


Andrew Sankey 19:35

That’s a very, very… that’s the worst question! As plant I wouldn’t be without, early on in the beginning of the year, for me it would be primroses. The primrose is obviously a native flower of the woods, but you can grow it in a little bit of shade anywhere and it’s such an early, lovely flower that brings in spring with it. Primrose comes from the Latin prima Rosa meaning first rose of the season. And it’s just a wonderful thing that brightens up your year as you go ahead. So that will be I think one of my first. Epimediums are another one, which I really love. They’re not as well known. But a lot of cottages are growing them now. They’re a really good ground cover. And they have two bonuses again, early spring flowers, a lovely foliage, which is heart shaped. They cover the ground at about a foot high. And then the colour of the leaf turns gorgeous colours within the sort of mid to late autumn. So you’ve got a bonus and then when the leaves dry, they turn a bronzy colour, like a beech hedge, and you can leave them on all the way through to February the following year before cutting them down. And by the time you’ve cut them down in early February, within a few weeks flowers are emerging again. So it’s an all year round, sort of flower and perennial. And possibly the other favourite cottage flower for me is is the foxglove. There’s a huge range now you can grow. I particularly like the whites, as opposed to the purple, because it lights up it gives more light. And I always if I’m going to put foxgloves in I have a drift of them. So you get this wonderful drift of lovely white flowers. And they’re brilliant for bees as well. So they do a number of different jobs. But they will probably be my top three.


Sarah Wilson 21:52

And talking of bees. Should cottage gardens be good for wildlife? Do you think?


Andrew Sankey 21:59

Yeah, if you have a cottage garden, the garden is immediately beneficial to all wildlife. And the reason is you’ve got this great mix of plants. And that’s what’s the insects like. And not only that a lot of the cottage flowers have these open flowers that bees and other insects can get into and get the pollen and nectar from a lot of the modern varieties and the double grasses don’t have that they’re no good for bees and insects. But a lot of the old cottage flowers are far, far superior. And if you mix up groundcover and perennials and cottage flowers and the odd tree and shrub, you’ve got the ideal situation for bringing wildlife birds, bees, butterflies all into the garden. They’re brilliant for that.


Sarah Wilson 22:48

Given that they are perhaps more modest in size, the typical cottage garden, where might people go and see good examples of them that are open to the public?


Andrew Sankey 22:59

Ah, yeah, my first choice would be to go to National Garden schemes, gardens, you’d have to get a copy of the yellow book or the leaflet for your particular county and look through it and there will always be a number of good individual cottage gardens that ordinary people have created. And that is a good start. Often, they also have a few plants for sale. So that’s an excellent way to go. The The other really good cottage garden that got me started is Marjorie Fish’s cottage garden, which is East Lambrook Manor down in Somerset. And her garden is is still there as a great example of a cottage garden a little bit bigger than most, but it splits up into smaller areas. And there’s a really lovely nursery attached to it as well. So that’s where I’d start. Yeah.


Sarah Wilson 23:58

Perfect. And if people wanted to find out more about your work, where would they find you?


Andrew Sankey 24:05

Basically, if they wanted to find out more about my work, they would have to probably email me or I think they went and googled my name, I’m sure they’d find. I do lots of talks and courses across the country and they could probably find somewhere where I’m going to lecture or talk on one another of the subjects related to cottage gardens. I’m also a member of the Cottage Garden Society which is a fantastic society and I can be contacted through that as well.

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