herry Tree Cottage flower borderAn old Workhouse Yard has been turned into a showcase cottage garden of the 1930’s at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, Norfolk.

What is a cottage garden?

The words ‘cottage garden’ conjure up an idyllic image involving roses round the door of a picturesque thatch cottage with towering hollyhocks and delphiniums (or something similar) either side of a brick path that leads to a picket gate. It’s all very romantic, always spring or summer – and always sunny.’ (The Enduring Gardener)

Historically, cottage gardens date from medieval times and were where labourers living in tied cottages grew a lot of their own food to bolster their poor wages. Vegetables were grown – not only to feed the family but also to perhaps to feed a household pig and a few chickens. Fruit was grown – apples and pears for example – with wild strawberries being gathered from the hedgerows. Flowering plants would have been collected from the wild and it is possible that flowers like violets, primroses, cowslips, dog rose and wild honey suckle featured in some cottage gardens.

Monasteries grew herbs for medicinal purposes and vegetables for the monks’ food. Their knowledge was much sought after and this filtered through to the poorer classes.

The 18th and 19th centuries brought many changes – the Enclosure Acts meant that wealthy landowners could remove the peasants’ right to graze animals on common land. This forced many to grow food in their gardens to feed themselves. Gradually living conditions for the poor improved – they were able to use their gardens not just to grow vegetables for food but flowers too. Gardeners exchanged ideas and plants and soon flowers and shrubs that were only ever seen in ‘the big house’ appeared in cottage gardens. The Victorian period also saw many new varieties of bright colourful annuals used as bedding plants.In the late 19th and early 20th centuries  Gertrude Jekyll developed the cottage garden style on a grand scale.

The First and Second World Wars brought food shortages and so vegetables and fruit took priority over ornamental planting in every available garden space. Once food rationing finished after the 2nd WW, people could look to their gardens to provide visual interest and not just food, so flowers and shrubs were planted once more.

Today the cottage garden retains its popularity. One approach is the traditional, smaller scale artisan style – creating the garden as you go along, often dividing, collecting seed and gratefully receiving gifts of cuttings or plants from neighbours or friends. Others prefer the more designed approach, with carefully planned borders and precisely laid paths, perhaps in a larger scale setting.

Cherry Tree Cottage Garden

The Museum’s records show that Cherry Tree Cottage and its adjacent open space were created in the 1850’s, probably to house elderly couples (‘no longer of child-bearing age’) from the main Workhouse. It seems that it may have actually housed three couples with a shared kitchen/dining room. The open space was probably just a yard used for sitting or exercise and there is no evidence of it being planted with flowers or vegetables.  In 1932, the cottage housed Workhouse staff and it is during this period that possibly a garden was introduced.

The current garden was created in the 1980’s by a team of volunteer gardeners, some of whom are still volunteering today!  Mary Manning created the original design to demonstrate a typical cottage garden of the 1900’s, and this was based on extensive research, including the local Women’s Institute. Their members’ memories were used in the garden to reflect  the Cottage, which had been set out to resemble a 1912 interior. Later changes in the cottage were also reflected in the garden and today it aims to show how a typical 1930’s rural cottage garden would have looked and been gardened. It includes:

Flower borders – traditional cottage garden plants such as lupins, asters, rambling roses and Buddleja. The snowdrops (Galanthus plicatus) derive from bulbs brought back from the Crimean War in the 1850’s by a Captain Aldington who was from near Swaffham. His mother gave some to a friend in Warham where it is said the local rector, Charles Digby, grew them in the Church yard – they became known as the Warham Snowdrop. This variety is still available today. More recently some heritage daffodils from the 1800’s have been planted in the garden.

Cherry Tree Cottage and some of the vegetable growing area (left)

Vegetable Crops – the  early vegetable plots grew a wide range of crops and some old seed varieties of pea (‘Simpsons Special’) and broad beans (‘Big Penny’) ‘were acquired from celebrity gardener Percy Thrower and a local retired gardener respectively. The museum ha some old seed catalogues from two local seed merchants – Daniels and Taylors –  and these have been used to research the varieties that might have been grown in the 1930’s. Many of the varieties of fruit and vegetables that were grown in the 1930’s can be seen in the garden today. Garden Organic and The Heritage Seed Library have donated many of the seeds.

Herbs – a range of well known herbs are grown in the garden today. Herbs were used both for flavouring food and medicinal uses – for example a paste made from Comfrey leaves would be used to aid the healing of broken bones hence its common name of ‘Country Knit Joint’!

The garden also houses a chicken run, as it was common for many cottagers to keep chickens , which gave them a good supply of eggs. The chicken manure was also used as a fertiliser on the vegetable plot.

The garden paths were originally grass edged with flint. These were gradually replaced with bricks, local tiles (‘pamments’) and cinder;  traditional methods used in cottage gardens. Todays paths are a mix of brick, pamments and gravel – the latter is easier to maintain and is more accessible for wheelchair users.

The Potato Clamp and Scarecrow at Cherry Tree Cottage Garden

The Potato Clamp and Scarecrow at Cherry Tree Cottage Garden

Whilst the gardening volunteers are trying to follow gardening practices typical of the 1930’s, sometimes these have to be avoided (e.g avoiding the use of dangerous pesticides).  But some interesting examples of old techniques have been demonstrated – for example the creation of a ‘Potato clamp’ which was a method for storing potatoes during the winter months before indoor storage space became more readily available.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Kay Davis, Heritage Gardening Trainee 2011-12, for permission to use her article on Cherry Tree Cottage for most of the material used in this post.

Sources and further information:

Plantax 3: Sweet Peas- cottage garden favourite

Unique heritage gardens at Norfolk museum

Old Workhouse Garden a wildlife oasis at Norfolk Museum

The Cottage Garden Society


answers to the two in previous post  Transfer Window- 7 tips for successful seedlings

  • Set fire to Ms Allen – Torch lily
  • Mythical creature that enjoys a game of cards – Snapdragon

Here are a couple of gardening ditties….

Snowdrops keep falling on my head

Theme tune from The Lone Hydrangea

(with thanks to Les Palmer)

Old School Gardener

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