No Pig in my House Thanks!
The Art of "Cottage" Gardening
With the recent spotlight on being responsibly self sufficient, growing all your own veggies even if your yard is only a 3rd floor balcony and being green, green, green…I shudder at the loss of practicality and yes, pleasure. Over the recent “Snow Holidays” as a gardener, I contentedly curled up inside by the woodstove and read …gardening books of course…No snow in those pages that I needed to dress for or shovel off my greenhouses & such!
Forget too those shiny pictured seed catalogues promising Spring and Summer glories…One eager girlfriend even called to ask what I might want her to seed for me to replace any losses, as she seeded her Tomato seeds in her light room in her basement Christmas eve.
The view from my window is solidly white and true Winter. A bare palette of possibilities, even before the emergence of any death from under the white mantle in my outside gardens…
No; this year’s thinking was beyond the next largest pumpkin variety, what colour of heritage potato to try or even the seduction of the latest hybrid Lavender. For one thing, this last dump of snow clearly illuminated how tied I was to the farm for snow maintenance; especially for my out buildings, the farm kitties water bowl and the hummingbirds nectar bottles. And yet more than once did almost midnight find me, janitors broom in hand, happily tending my hoop houses in the silent snow light. Or bewitched at the kitchen window predawn, coffee in hand, watching the tiniest of feathered friends chirping away, having their morning sip undaunted by how much white stuff did fall over night…My fat cats more fluffed hairballs than true muscle fat chasing the latest tasteless flake just for the fun of it… And where is that pig you ask?
This all ties into my book of the season: “The Cottage Garden” by Anne Scott-James, a 50p bargain from my in-laws from the old country. A practical yet historical look at the romance of The Cottage Garden; when there was flowers and yes, fun in the veggie patch…minus that pig in my living room!
For most of us, English Cottage gardens conjures up visions of a sweet thatched cottage with a double sided bed of cutting flowers lining the path to the front door…with Momma perhaps holding a cutting basket over her arm perusing her available selection. Wildflowers like violets, primroses and poppies were nudges aside for dianthus, roses, lavender, stocks, mignonette, hollyhocks, columbines, sweet peas, wallflowers, nigella, sweet rocket, sweet woodruff, marigolds and even sunflowers. Vegetables, the orchard and sheds were set out back…and the pigs! Gooseberries became the number one fruit…Miserable sour things adds dear Michael. Potatoes and Tomatoes had arrived on the acceptable menu… Set that vision at the height of Cottage Gardening in the mid Victorian era of 1850’s.
Annuals as bedding plants didn’t arrive until the modern gardens of the 19th century. Allotments were also 19th century; trades people, working class factory workers and mechanics from the towns that had no land at all could rent a produce-pleasure garden. These were larger than mere strips, most were a quarter acre in size called a “rood” and it was not uncommon to accommodate a rustic hut or even a “summerhouse”. The upper and middle class had arrived and “gardeners” were hired!
Step back into the 12th century and the picture of “Cottage Gardening” was quite bleak and pure survival. If you had a fore sighted, and generous, lord of the manor or “landlord”~ your cottage was better than a leaky hovel. Your “cottage garden” was little more than a wattle fenced yard for your pig with a vegetable patch with beans, peas, onions, cabbage and turnips on the side: period. If you had the luxury of a cow: add milk and cheese. Herbs and fruits were foraged from the wild by wife and children. And yes, that pig lived with you: and maybe a few hens if you had grain to spare after feeding the pig and making bread. Bread included ground acorns if it was a poor harvest of grains…Eggs were available only if your hens were fat and happy; and not eaten in the soup pot first. For centuries soup or cereal gruel was the main, and at times, the only meal for the poor…Cookbooks written for the poor didn’t appear until after 1800~ meal choices were a luxury.
Between these two extremes lies a practical and enjoyable Cottage era in the Elizabethan 16th century, where survival loosened up a little to allow firstly, a husband home from civil wars and working for the lord plus land for himself. A wide variety of vegetables became fashionable, a delicacy even…not just pig food. With an abundance of vegetables, the staple cottage soup became more of a puree or “porridge”. “Pease soup” included adding (unfortunate for the pig…) “harvested” pig’s bits. The cottage housewife had herbs and flowers by her back door now. The men grew the vegetables and tended the fruit trees. You needed bees for pollination, so with the golden era of bees and honey~ there was wonderful mead. Not forgetting your barley beers!
“Fences” were woven thickets of living green shrubbery; hawthorn, holly, honey locusts, privet, yew, boxwood and even lilac...though thorny choices were preferred to keep young boys from robbing the orchards! Honeysuckle or “woodbine” climbed one side of the door or archway entrance…tumbling roses the other.
This was Shakespeare’s palette! Art was in the garden and the art of gardening had arrived. Garden design was born. There was time for toil and play. I wonder what the peasants of those times would comment on our daily lives. Would they be envious? Would the wife be content with her “career” in that era compared to the pressures on the modern woman now? Would their idea of a good life match our romantic version of returning to the land?
With a view back on garden history; ideally we have the chance to balance and choose the bits we wish to retrieve, honour those modern amenities we have the privilege to enjoy in our time, and create a personal little oasis in tomorrow’s time.
My news year’s resolution offering to you: take a glass of mead and look at your blank palette of the back yard, your present “allotment”. Plant pleasure with your potatoes; mix flowers and herbs willy-nilly between your broccoli and beans, and toast your tomatoes under an old apple tree with a painted wooden table and chairs. Add friends, neighbours even and return to the simple pleasures of the seasons. Be practical with your 3rd floor balcony, sitting and share the view at the end of the day. Meanwhile help out a local gardening pal with their weeds, indulge getting your hands in the dirt and sunshine! Find the flush of joy in the miracle of a tiny seed providing food for your plate…
And please build the pig his/her own house!
Originally published in the February 2009 edition of the Metchosin Muse