My Design Tips for a Cottage Garden

A traditional English cottage garden is a popular garden style—not only in the U.K. but in North America and around the world. Dense and layered planting of flowering plants, providing blooms over a large proportion of the year, and a quaint, informal, and charming feel characterize gardens of this type.

As a garden designer, I have been asked on a number of occasions to create plans with a cottage garden feel. You don’t have to live in a cottage to create one. Here are some design tips that can work wherever you live:

Plant Densely for Aesthetic Appeal and Food Production

In a cottage garden, you might expect to see plenty of climbing and shrub roses, other pretty flowers, both annual (self-seeding), biennial, and perennial plants. In the earliest cottage gardens, these attractive flowers were often interspersed with numerous herbs and other edible crops—functional as well as pleasing in form. 

Traditionally, cottage gardens were first and foremost productive spaces, which later evolved into more decorative or ornamental style. Originally, it would have been created primarily to provide for those who lived in the cottage with food and medicine and more. 

It is important to remember that a cottage garden style can blend the ideas of both aesthetics and productivity. The space should be both beautiful and useful, with little separation, if any, between ornamental and edible plants. Be sure to use every inch of space. And don’t be afraid to plant some perennial vegetables among your herbs and flowers.

Add Features Which Give a Naturalistic and Artless Look

Cottage gardens are often very carefully tended and can be underpinned by a rather precise and formal structure. But the idea is to appear artless, and to keep things looking as natural and unfeigned as possible, with plants and flowers spilling from every direction and an emphasis on curving, organic shapes and few straight lines.

Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

As well as thinking about the planting itself, creating a cottage garden look can also include the addition of other features. These add to this natural and traditional feel—items such as wooden fences and gates, trellises and arches, terracotta pots, reclaimed materials combined in creative and functional ways, stone or brick pathways, etc.

These are just some features which can help you create a space that looks as though it has grown up organically around a traditional home. The idea is that anything goes and, in this style, you can be free to express your personality and “break the rules,” with a riot of color and form and quirky decorative features.

Choose Cottage Garden Plants for Your Specific Location

An English or European cottage garden would often include old rose varieties, apple and pear trees, crab apples, European hazels and elderberries. There would likely be a hedgerow around the garden, with hawthorn, holly, and climbers like European honeysuckle, ivy, and native clematis. 

Calendula, pansies, stocks, hollyhocks, marigolds, carnations, sweet Williams, primroses, daisies, foxgloves, primroses, lavender, and many culinary herbs are some examples of traditional cottage garden plants.

Thomas H. Mitchell / Getty Images

Creating the perfect space, however, is not about mimicking the precise planting of a cottage garden in rural Europe. The useful and often native species used in the informal, dense, and layered plantings were chosen because they were useful, and also because they created a relatively low-maintenance yet cheerful scene around vegetables plots and potagers (traditional kitchen gardens).

Trying to recreate a cottage garden feel does not necessarily mean choosing the same plants as would traditionally have been used. The best idea is to create a garden with a similar look and feel using plants which are native to your location and best suited to the conditions where you live. 

For example, rather than choosing a European rose variety, in the U.S. you might consider a native American rose instead. Instead of adding European or Asian honeysuckle, you might include some native climbers. 

You should be able to find plenty of useful and beautiful native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants to include in your garden. For every traditional nonnative cottage garden plant that you are considering, there is likely a native alternative worth considering. 

Creating a cottage garden with native plants can allow you to explore the beauty and uses of a range of plants which are native to, and ideally suited to, where you live.

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