Cottage Gardens and Swept Yards: Recreating a Vernacular Horticulture

At first glance, swept yards, derived from Africa, at one time traditional in the south and now mostly the province of a few, aging African-American southerners; and Cottage Gardens, invented in Britain under the feudal system and now evolved into a trendy " flower garden style" meaning mostly a mix of abundant plants and mulched paths as seen in any supermarket magazine, have nothing to do with one another.

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But looking past the obvious, the two of them have a great deal in common indeed. Both emerged from the need to make good use of a comparatively smaller piece of land for a family with subsistence needs. Both responded to climate and culture and evolved over time in keeping with their climate and the needs of the people that grew them. Both allowed for a substantial variety of activities and plant life in a small space. Both made use of what was available, valuable and abundant, offering a sense of plenty and abundance. Both responded to inadequate housing by transforming outdoor spaces into living spaces. And perhaps most importantly, both took pragmatic traditions and made them respond to two equally important needs - the need for food and medicine and subsistence from one's garden, but also the need for beauty, peace, and respite and a place to express one's artfulness.

In his superb history _African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South_, Richard Westmacott tracks the origin of the swept yard back to West Africa, and explores how it changed over centuries, from slave yard to a now-dying way of life in the rural south. Instead of attempting to grow grass or other ground covers in the hot south often on red clay, rural southerners would sweep and tamp down that clay until it baked hard as a rock, reducing dust tracking and making the space suitable for yard work. Houses, hot during the day, were abandoned and people moved outside to shaded yards where they could do the washing, cook, eat, butcher animals, and do other heavy work in the shade of trees. The gardens, a separate but often connected space, contain the crops - and the pig area, the chickens and other livestock. The yard was seperate from the garden, often marked by an enclosure, and as Westmacott observed had originally been marked by medicinal herbs and dooryard plants, but gradually transitioned to largely ornamental flowers. Westmacott observes of the sustainability of the whole of traditional southern rural yards and gardens:

"It might be argued that a vernaculture garden must also be sustainable. Gardening is an adaptation of nature, and for gardening to become indigenous to an society, it must be sustainable. In most African societies, sustainability is intricately associated with religious beliefs. As has been shown, most of the gardeners in this study expressed alarm at the changes they saw occurring in the environment, and many lifestyles were remarkably self-sufficient and sustainable."

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A yard swept bare of plant life may not sound very pretty, but in reality, it made wise use of what there was - it allowed housekeepers to manage the clay and dirt, while transforming the dooryard into the "outdoor rooms" that ornamental garden books like to praise but rarely actually succeed in creating. And it wasn't an empty space - containers and marginal areas were planted with trees and shrubs, where water could be focused. Recycled materials and scavenged ones made a remarkably creative yard full of planters made from abandoned materials - themselves artful. Moreover, there is, in the photos in Westmacott, a seamlessness to the transition space between yard, garden, livestock and field. Indeed, although I refer to this as an African-American tradition, it was so successful that before the advent of warm weather grass traditions, the swept yard was the norm in much of the rural south in white and black households, regardless of class.

I recently emailed Aaron Newton, my co-author on _A Nation of Farmers_ and my guide through southern life. We've been working together for four years now, and over the years have spent a lot of time politely and not so politely explaining the realities of our respective regions to one another, so I wasn't surprised that my query about whether anyone still swept their yard in his region of North Carolina was responded to by "Does anyone still wear tricornered hats up by you?" I took that to be a no - it is, as Westmacott documents, a dying tradition - supplanted by warm weather landscape grasses, by people spending more time in air conditioning and less in their yards, but the homogenization of garden design and by the destructions of the informal economy and subsistence activities. But a lower energy, less wealthy society may yet find uses for some of the things that the swept yard did well.

Most interesting to me about the swept yard is how they made space for both ornamental and food gardening. Westmacott observes that traditional African-American yards were often a riot of flowers and plants - but not organized as most white gardens were. First of all, the emphasis was on vigorous and abundant production and self-seeders. Flowering plants, instead of being organized by color and form were interspersed with one another, with a preference for bright colors. Until recently, few shrubs were involved - because of the high cost of woody plants, most woodies were food producers, rather than purely ornamental. Medicinal herbs would have been mixed in with flowers grown for scent and beauty. Because of the high cost of plants, annuals and seed grown plants were preferred and were shared widely. In this sense, the vernacular traditions of the rural south sound very much like the cottage garden.

In the early 1950s, Eudora Welty introduced the writer Elizabeth Lawrence to market bulletins published throughout Mississippi where gardeners sold perennials, herbs and ornamental sto one another. Lawrence took up a correspondence with dozens of women and men (mostly women) who divided and shared seeds and plants for a small fee, and generously offered advice and told stories of their origins. In their gardens were plants that were otherwise lost to the seed trade, being spread about and preserved in household gardens, and shared for pennies among men and women who valued them for the art and expression they could create. In _Gardening for Love_ Lawrence observes that these gardeners were minimally compensated for the considerable time and effort they spent in preparing and shiping plants, and explaining how to grow them - and most of them worked long hours doing other work. The compensation was the spread, the abundance, the increase in beauty and the preservation of the plants.

In contrast to the swept yard, at least superficially, the cottage garden is booming. Googling "cottage garden" got me a bazillion entries. The problem is that all of them are a watered down version of the cottage garden - but very few of them have anything to do with the cottage garden as it existed before it was taken over by the affluent who had no reason to grow anything but flowers. I have a fondness for Gertrude Jekyll too, but for those of us interested in vernacular gardens, she did everyone a disservice by taking up the cottage garden. Yes, they are very beautiful - but their beauty in reality lay in the way they combined aesthetics and subsistence - and the subsistence has been erased.


But the history of the cottage garden has as much to do with bees and pigs and vegetables as it does with wisteria and foxgloves. The recasting of cottage gardens as an intentionally informal style to be propagated by comparatively affluent ornamental gardeners obscures the fact that the cottage garden grew up among people just as poor as many of the rural African-Americans who preserved the swept yard.

Christopher Lloyd's and Richard Bird's _The Cottage Garden_ offers a concise history and at least an attempt to draw us back to the mixed use garden with a heavy emphasis on food plants and herbs. He observes that John Claudius Loudon in the 18th century attempted to help cottagers with reduced land access (as a result of the destructive enclosure laws) to use cottage style gardening to be able to feed a famly of five on 600 square yards of garden. Pigs, chickens and bees were essential to this project. They track back the ornamental elements of the kitchen garden to the Elizabethan dooryard and the herbs that lived in it. As in the African-American yards in the South, at first medicinal and other functional herbs predominated but they too had ornamental value, and it was hard to tell if tall spires of hollyhock were central because of their medicinal or ornamental utility.

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The presumptions of the cottage garden were much the same as the African-American yard despite the radical difference in climate and culture - that much had to be gotten out of small space, that one needed a place to live and work outside when the weather permitted, that the ornament and utility were not incompatible, and that the best plants were abundant self-seeders or easily grown annuals. It had the additional virtue of using vertical space well - which some African-American gardens had as well, particularly in the use of scavenged articles as trellises. The ubiquitous cottage garden image, of course, is of a cottage covered with ivy or wisteria.

As the cottage garden was adopted by more affluent people, and transferred away from the real cottages of low income farmers and workers in Britain, the cottage garden changed, and became what we see today - a garden style, more heavily invested in perennials, with more shrubs and almost no emphasis on plant utility. The romanticization of the cottage in both gardens and literature worked to the detriment of the actual cottager - now that people longed to live in them, admired them, they became harder to actually live in for most working people. In _Sense and Sensibility_ Jane Austen's romantic Willoughby jesting threatens to tear down his estate and replace it with a cottage. But the cottage imagined in the romantic imagination was erased of subsistence functions, because, they were unromantic. In Georgette Heyer's superb _A Civil Contract_ the overly romantic, affluent Julia declares she would be delighted to live in a cottage, but her mother clarifies (in a terrifically funny passage) this fantasy for what it is - a sanitized dream.

em>"Could you be happy in a cottage? I could! How often I have longed to live in one - with white walls and a thatcheed roof and a neat little garden! We'll have a cow and I'll learn to milk and make butter and cheese. And some hens and a bee-hive, and some pigs."

"Oh, won't you?" struck in her unappreciative brother. Well, if you mean to cook the meals, Lynton will precious soon want something more and who is to kill the pigs and muck out the henhouse."

..."Lady Oversly, having removed Julia's hat, had clasped her in her arms and was tenderly wiping the tears from her face, but she looked up at this and expalined: "Live in a cottage? Oh, no, dearest you would be very ill-advicsed to do that! Particularly a thatched one, for I believe that thatch harbors rats, though nothing, of course, is more picturesque, and I perfectly understand why you should have a fancy for it! But you would find it sadly uncomfortable: it wouldn't do for you at all, or for Adam either, I daresay, since you have both of you been accustomed to live in a very different style. And as for hens, I would not on any account rear such dispiriting birds! You know how it is whenever an extra number of eggs is needed in the kitchen: the hen woman is never able to supply them and always says it is because the creatures are broody. Yes, and they make sad noises whic you, my love, with your exquisite sensibility would find quite insupportable. And pigs,"concluded her ladyship with a shudder, "have a most unpleasant odour!"

The beauty of the cottage garden in many ways was its success, and thus its downfall - while beauty was always part of the project of creating the garden, always intertwined with utility, its very success at being lovely made it ripe for the erasure of its utility. But it is possible to come back to the cottage garden - to the yard as proximate space that extends the kitchen and the household outwards, brings us outside and into a riot of color and forms that are both beautiful and useful. There is still a place for the herb garden, and the cottage garden and the traditional African-American yard remind us to value plants that may be both ornamental and useful, that are vigorous and energetic.

The swept yard and other southern vernacular garden elements don't much suit my climate, but for thousands of my readers, they could be useful. This publication by cooperative extension suggests strategies for implementing some of the traditional design elements of African-American yards

In my wet climate, the cottage garden model makes a lot of sense. I may have 27 acres, but I also have a yard - a space outside my kitchen door that I have gradually been converting to herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruiting trees. Looking at the cottage garden model, I can think of ways of better integrating aesthetics and practicality.

The reality is that a shift to subsistence in a densely populated world will require us to draw upon all of the things we have learned about how to meet our needs - for food and beauty - in smaller spaces. There are thousands of traditions to draw upon from all over the world, and all of them will have things we can take and make use of. As we cast back upon our collective history, the answers to how we will feed ourselves - and feed our souls - is contained in part in stories from our past.


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It would be interesting to compare these two styles of garden/yard with the classic French potager.

I am old enough to recall dirt yards in eastern North Carolina, where the soil was too sandy to pack but easy to rake. A distinctive feature of many homes there was the ring of enormous trees, often pecan, planted around the house for shade.

Swept yards are still found in my neighborhood in North Carolina. I live in a neighborhood with many older black folks, and about half of the front yards are swept by cars parking on the front "lawn". The space is enclosed by shrubs to form a room with plenty of space for socializing. Pecan trees are somewhat common, and all of the swept yards have some kind of shade tree.

When my Chinese host did me the honor of inviting me to "his home", the experience was deeply memorable.

His home was actually in the house of his father-in-law; which was home to about 10 people, as far as I could tell. His father in law had been a General; for Mao. "First Cadre", is what they whispered. Later he'd been Vice Governor of a major province. He was retired now, and living in a housing development for retired officials of about that status.

It looked much like any suburb in the US midwest; lower middle class. Paved roads, new houses. With outhouses in the back yard, and chickens. Each house was two stories, about 20' by 30'.

And as we drove up; here was the General. Hunkered down in the front yard, all 5'1" of him, without his shirt, tending his melons, which were up on poles. There were also climbing beans, and several other things I didn't recognize. The front yard was for food.

He and his family were extremely gracious; my host's wife cooked and served the meal, which was totally astonishing, both in taste and appearance (there was a phoenix made out of carved vegetables, which any professional would be lucky to equal). Chicken from the backyard, and probably half the veggies, as well as purchased delicacies like candied water buffalo strips (they only eat them when they die of old age...).

Of course he grew his own food. In the front yard. And had an outhouse in back, with chickens. By local standards, he was very well to do, of course, but there was nothing excessive about it. And they seemed to be maintaining civilization just fine.

Other countries also have tons of excellent traditions we should be investigating.

If I were GreenPeace- or something similar - I would launch a New Peace Corps. Whose job would be to go to all the surviving simple corners of the world; hunker down with the village elders, and ask them: "How do you do this?"

Then listen for 4 or 5 years; and bring it back home.

The original Peace Corps was out to export our great knowledge and wisdom... well, I'm not going there at the moment. Sure, there was tons we COULD teach, that made their lives better; sanitation, wells, medical stuff.

Most returned Peace Corp volunteers I know DID learn a huge amount from the local folks- but there's no coordinated way to teach it back here; and gathering the info was very hit or miss.

once again you come up with the coolest ideas! I can't tell you how many times I read an interesting comment and get to the bottom and go "oh, Greenpa, of course!" The last one was your theory of why women are pack mules in traditional societies. I'm sure you're right. This idea, a kind of reverse peace core, is a great idea. I've been sying to go stay with my husband's grandmother in Oaxaca and let her teach me how to cook, make cheese, keep her animals, tend her trees, brew her medicines, etc etc. I'm not sure of the scope of her skills, but they are vast.

And I've discovered that when you sweep the loose sand away from the door there's less tracked in. Especially with me and two dogs traipsing in and out. I'm definitely exploring the swept yard idea more....

My experience with this type of garden was in Hawaii where I grew up. When I was a child my sister and I would spend our summer vacation with my dad who was a salesman. He would take us with him to all of his appointments which were at clients homes. Many of these homes were the tropical version of the cottage garden you describe. My father sold pools and/or satellite dishes so most of the time was spent out in the yard. He made sure to point out any plants he recognized and we often got a tour of the highly productive average sized yard. Usually there was a large fruit or nut tree, like a mango or avocado. Below that would be things like bananas, guavas, and ginger. Sometimes there would be a garden plot, but mostly food plants were clustered in with ornamentals. Like the cottage garden there would be grass paths, but instead of chickens there was usually a flock of geese roaming free. We almost always walked away with a bag of fruit.

A while back I read a paper on this type of gardening. Some of the findings were interesting. One was that overall yield was extremely high per square foot of land. But once you exceeded about a quarter of an acre, the per square foot yield slowly went down till it evened out with the average. They had agricultural "specialists" scratching their heads wondering how this overcrowded unfertilized land could be yielding so much for so long (sometimes generations) without depleting the soil. That part made me chuckle.

One of my neighbors hates tracking in dirt, so whenever he finds a piece of carpet at the dump, he brings it home and attaches it to the yard with big nails. It's not real pretty, but it keeps the sand out. It's sort of a swept-yard notion.

By tom hodgson (not verified) on 02 Feb 2010 #permalink

Swept yards - not just a form of the African-American landscaping, but really a part of Southern landscaping. I am European-American. (I find it very arrogant that we "label" people of African-, Native-, Asian- descent as _____-American, but somehow those of us of mostly European descent are not labeled. Of course I believe that is a reflection of who was in power at the time that all this labeling began.)Anyway, back to the subject at hand. My mother, born in 1923, and raised in central Virgina, remembers several aunts & uncles who had swept yards and the tradtional type of cottage gardens that you describe - with chickens, pigs, vegetables, herbs, and some flowers. I have often thought as I tend the yard (cut grass, seed, fertilize) - why am I doing this "non-value" added activity? Wouldn't it be more practical to grow something edible or fence it in for the chickens? In time I probably will find a way to use it for more practical purposes, but keep it aesthetically pleasing. Thank you, Sharon for bringing this idea back to the forefront.

I had the privilege of renting a thatched cottage for six months in southern England. When I arrived, there was an envelope on the table with a single sheet of scribbled instructions marked "House".

There was also a large three ring binder with about 35 pages typed and indexed with ephemera stuffed side pockets marked "Garden".

She called me every Saturday for a full report.

I was terrified of failing her but she was thrilled with the addition of snail traps and coffee grounds to the roses yet rather perturbed that the herbs were doing so much better since I had 'tortured' them (pinch,bind drown).

I found out she died about two years later because after returning home I could not resist calling her every week for a garden report.

I hope whoever wound up with the cottage also wound up with that three ring binder.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

Susan, in this case, I think it is a matter of giving credit - the practice came from Africa with the slaves, was shaped the slave houses and eventually adopted by white southerners because it made sense, as you note. But not to identify it with African-American cultures seems erase credit for something very wise.

Prometheus, what a great story - how wonderful!


@ Prometheus: Good heavens, please tell me that this was not in Devon and she didn't have a wooden leg and she didn't regale you with the story of how a Nazi plane crashed in her backyard during the blitz.

If I were GreenPeace- or something similar - I would launch a New Peace Corps. Whose job would be to go to all the surviving simple corners of the world; hunker down with the village elders, and ask them: "How do you do this?"

Then listen for 4 or 5 years; and bring it back home.

Yes, well, that is a beautiful thought for us, isn't it? But then I can't help thinking: sure, if there is anything that people around the globe living a life of subsistence need these days, it's to be teaching privileged Western folks how to survive the collapse after peak oil. So that, when all those quaint village folk in their simple corners die off, we can pick up and carry on with the knowledge we so providently extracted from them before the whirlwind took them away. What's in it for them? Maybe they get a new well, or a couple of goats, or some solar ovens or a water purification system, or whatever kinds of material goodies you want to list, in exchange for handing over their cultural knowledge to us. But if they are giving us skills to help us survive post-peak oil, what are they getting to help them survive post-peak oil? It's like anthropologists collecting information on dying languages - rapidly trying to get as much info as possible before the last speaker kicks off. The language is preserved, but not the people who spoke it. It's not that it isn't worth preserving that knowledge. But the knowledge isn't all that needs preserving. And that job, I think, is not only beyond the reach of an organization like Greenpeace, but will not be undertaken cooperatively the nation-states who would have to do it.


"@ Prometheus: Good heavens, please tell me that this was not in Devon and she didn't have a wooden leg and she didn't regale you with the story of how a Nazi plane crashed in her backyard during the blitz."

Little Hampton, never saw her leg or got to meet her in person. Never saw a Nazi plane in the back yard but apparently the garden Gnome was named Clarence. Her neighbor was a widower and a WWII vet with a glass eye a size too large (scared the hell out of me) if that helps.

The nearest shop was a Woolworth's. She was confused by why anyone needed more than one ice cube tray but thanked me for them.

Oh and she had an actual flit gun in the garden shed. I don't have any idea why anyone in England would need a flit gun. Even the flies are apologetic and end every statement with a question.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink

I really enjoyed this post. I didn't know about the swept garden tradition, but since I live in a hot summer climate (Missouri) I can see where it makes sense.

I find I'm creating something a bit like this as I go along. We live in an older house, from 1928, which has a patio just outside the kitchen door. The patio used to be shaded by a silver maple, a good tree for shade but not a good choice otherwise because our electric service line runs over the patio, under the tree. In 2006 a couple of severe thunderstorms broke large branches off the tree, dropping them on on the electric line, pulling it off the house. Silver maples are prone to such breakage during high winds. To avoid such (expensive) problems in the future, we had the tree cut down and didn't replace it because of the electric line. We did put up a frame over the patio so we can cover it with a tarp and get shade during the summer, otherwise it's too hot to sit there for much of the day.

We use the patio a lot during the spring, summer, and fall, as I suspect former residents did before AC became common. For that reason I have expanded on a garden that already existed at one end of the patio. I added an herb garden (culinary and medicinal herbs) to make good use of the sunlight now that the tree is gone. The already existing garden has a mix of flowers, some of which are edible, some are medicinal, some attract bees and beneficial insects, some are fragrant. I have pots with citrus trees and non-hardy herbs and flowers on part of the patio. The walkway from the driveway to this patio is lined with flowers and strawberry plants.

With all this going on, the patio is a pleasant place to sit and do simple tasks like pulling elderberries off their stems. I think we will be doing more cooking outside this summer (avoiding using the electric stove), and that will take place on or near the patio as well. When friends visit, as long as the mosquitoes aren't too bad, we sit on the patio whenever weather permits. The patio and the surrounding area function something like the swept yard you described. Maybe this is how we can make good use of all those patios and decks that seem to be common in these parts but don't seem to be used all that much (probably due to the mosquitoes as well as the summer heat).