So Many Herbs, so Little Space

Gardening in small places made easy

| December/January 1999


  • Illustration by Gayle Ford

  • ROSE

My bronze fennel is waving its green-gold hands in the air above my lavender bed. A surf of pastel yarrow surges at its feet. Across the way, in my Xeriscape bed, penstemons, gaura, false indigo, and poppy mallow bask complacently in the sun’s wide glare. Behind them looms ‘Comte de Chambord’, a Portland-China rose introduced in 1860 that hugely resents the dry, alkaline site into which I have placed it. Several times a year, it lobs a few dense rose-pink tennis balls of blossom. They never quite open, thanks to the thrips, so I open them by hand to release their astonishing scent. Nearby, my tall orange pot marigolds crane their necks like partygoers leaning over a balustrade to watch a spectacle in the street.

This is my cottage garden, a more or less rustic garden in which edibles, ornamentals, and a maximum of toads are arranged, with affection but no show of wealth, near my dwelling.

Herbs—aromatic, culinary, or medicinal plants not ordinarily grown as food staples—have a definite place in cottage gardens, not only for their usefulness but also for their history as cultivated plants. For a picture of the earliest known cottage gardens, turn to Thomas Tusser’s One Hundred Good Points of Husbandry. In this practical farming manual in bad verse, first published in England in 1557, Tusser recommends plants for the farmer’s wife to grow in her personal garden. Several are mentioned repeatedly: roses, sweet violets, fennel, and mints. The roses would have been Rosa alba, R. canina, R. damascena, R. gallica, and/or R. rubiginosa (eglantine); tea roses had not yet been imported from the East, and the hybrid perpetuals had not yet been developed. In the same century, relying on Tusser’s guide, Mary Barton, a Kentish farmer’s wife, was starting her own cottage garden. Records show that it included borage, chamomile, chervil, chives, coriander, cumin, dill, eyebright, fennel, flax, foxgloves, hops, marjoram, mints, parsley, pennyroyal, poppies, pot marigold, primroses, purslane, roses, rue, sage, savory, thyme, and violets, as well as vegetables, fruit trees, and bramble fruits. All the plants were useful in medicine, cosmetics, or cooking. Although they were most likely chosen for their utility rather than their looks, many obviously were also pretty, something garden historians seem to forget.

Cottage Gardens in the New World

Many European cottage garden plants crossed the Atlantic with the earliest European invaders of the New World or were imported soon afterward. By 1672, according to John ­Josselyn in his New England’s Rarities ­Discovered, one might find asparagus, carnations, hollyhocks, honesty, and roses growing alongside white-flowered comfrey, coriander, dill, elecampane, “featherfew” (feverfew, Tanacetum parthenium), santolina, pennyroyal, smallage (Apium graveolens, the wild precursor to celery), and spearmint. Ten years later, European colonists in South Carolina were growing carnations, lilies, roses, and the then fabulously fashionable tulips. In the North American Southwest, the Spanish cultivated their apricots, grapevines, lemons, lilacs, limes, oranges, peaches, plums, and roses. In the Deep South, African slaves tended edibles and medicinals they had known at home: bananas, millet, okra, rice, sorghum, yams, pomegranates, wormseed (epazote, Chenopodium ambrosioides), and chinaberry (Melia azederach).

The cottage garden remained basically a subsistence garden until the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s began replacing the muscle power of humans and domestic animals with that of machines. As country people flooded the cities seeking work in the new factories, a nostalgia for the country ways they had left behind arose in the new urbanites and their descendants. Books and periodicals on country life and home gardening proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic. Societies were formed to search out and cultivate old flowers that had become scarce. All these activities set the stage for the revival of cottage gardening, with a heavy emphasis on planting herbs, in the early twentieth century. This interest was marked by the publication of Lady Rosalind Northcote’s Book of Herbs in 1902 and Louise Beebe Wilder’s treasure trove of cottage gardening lore, The Fragrant Path, in 1932. Cottage gardening had come to stay.

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