The concept of the cottage garden has evolved into the prettiness of a rural idyll we think of today – a garden bursting with colourful blowsy blooms, all growing in an apparently glorious muddle. This style of garden design has come a long way from its origins of British peasants planting around their humble dwellings to supply the family with food and medicine.
Typically the cottage garden surrounds a quaint home adorned in scented roses and climbers, is a confined space with no lawn, and intersected with paths. However, whether you want to evoke a chocolate box image or just draw on elements of the flower-filled cottage style in a border, the appeal is popular for both country and urban dwellers and any garden size.
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Where to start with cottage garden design
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Cottage gardens are romantic, relaxed, free-flowering and fun; they can be planted with pastel tones or brighter hues that you love.
Part of the ethos of a cottage garden is imbuing it with your own personality; there are no rules, just plant what you love to create a garden that appeals to you.
Start small so that it doesn’t get out of control; learn how to keep the plants fed and looking abundant, then gradually increase the size.
As with all gardening, ensure the soil is good, rich in organic matter, and that the plants you choose suit your conditions and are good performers.
Generally cottage gardens suit sunny rather than shady spots. Apart from the visual prettiness, there is the added bonus of bio-diversity, with plants rarely suffering from diseases and pests due to the wide choice available, and many varieties ideal for attracting beneficial insects and wildlife to your garden.
This is not, however, a low-maintenance style. Keeping a cottage garden blooming takes effort. You will be kept very busy mulching, watering, feeding, deadheading, cutting back, dividing, planting and tweaking the design.
Although cottage gardens look haphazard, some thought needs to be given to planning the effect. You are aiming for a succession of blooms that give a tapestry of colour. The best plants to use are simple varieties that haven’t been overly bred, and are high performance while being tough and reliable.
Think old-fashioned favourites, including geraniums, roses and foxgloves, to create an informal, casual atmosphere, and plant them close together, ignoring standard spacing. Let plants flop over and weave through each other. Voluptuous, effervescent, fragrant and self-seeding choices will help you create the look. Multi-petalled flowers will give that romantic feel, such as blowsy peonies and old roses.
You don’t need to be confined to only authentic plants, though, as a colourful mix of bulbs, perennials, annuals and flowering shrubs will give a year-round vision with more structure.
Consider the height and spread of the plants. Although the usual arrangement is to put the tallest plants at the back and the shortest at the front, why not try some taller plants in the middle? Climbers scrambling up supports give background and can also be used among the profusion on rustic obelisks, while perennials, such as delphiniums, aquilegia, phlox and pinks planted in clumps, are the backbone, popping up year after year.
Traditionally hollyhocks were planted against the cottage wall, as before houses had damp courses the plants helped draw moisture out of the wall and keep the foundations dry. Today they immediately give the feel of a cottage garden, whether against the wall or towering out of a border.
Sow easy-to-grow long-lasting annuals and wildflowers, including calendula, cornflowers, nigella and biennial foxgloves, to fill any gaps. Over time self-seeding plants will pop up randomly in unexpected spots, giving an interwoven lightness and artlessness to the design.
Include some evergreens among the herbaceous in your cottage garden design, for interest through winter, and for a nod to the past incorporate edibles; step-over-apples could be used as boundaries, chives to edge the paths, medicinal and aromatic herbs interspersed, or chard nestled in among the flowers.
Expert cottage garden planning tips
Nick Hamilton, president of the Cottage Garden Society and owner of Barnsdale Gardens, offers his expert advice:
- Cottage gardens are all about the flowers, so fill your beds and borders. Many of the popular plants are easily propagated from seed, cuttings or division, so you can fill your garden cheaply.
- By using seed heads you will add aesthetic interest to the borders, with the added benefit that they will seed around.
- Keep plants under control, so that stronger growers don’t swamp the smaller or slower-growing varieties. A discreetly placed piece of soft twine generally helps to keep the stronger ones under control.
- As a feature in a small garden, a mirror can be very effective.
- My favourite plants include: Astrantia major – grows anywhere, is good as a cut flower and is great in any border; Erigeron ‘Profusion’ – the name says it all, it provides a non-stop display of small daisy flowers; Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ – enjoy a late season burst of colour from the tall, white flowers.
Cottage garden ideas – features and structures
There should be harmony between landscaping and the architecture of the house. Use materials in keeping with the look, such as weathered bricks, flagstone, wood chips, gravel or stepping-stones, for paths and paving. Allow the paths to meander, avoiding straight lines or defined patterns, and soften them with billowing plants that spill over, blurring the edges – Alchemilla mollis or erigeron are ideal for path edges.
Consider enclosing a small cottage garden with traditional garden fencing, such as shabby chic painted timber pickets, woven willow or recycled timbers, to set off the effect and give order to the visual effervescence. Tall structures, including arbours, pergolas, obelisks or trellis, can be used as supports for roses, honeysuckle, wisteria, jasmine and other scented climbers, while traditional, weathered benches can help to divide the garden into rooms.
Finally, add a touch of whimsy with decorative items as focal points, such as antique watering cans, old tools, flower-clothed obelisks, or sundials – but use restraint so not to complicate.
12 essential cottage garden plants
- Roses Scented old-fashioned English shrub and climbing roses are a classic choice. Plant among perennials, draped over arches and arbours, or against fences and walls. Plant bare-root plants from autumn to spring. Add slow-release fertiliser and mulch well to conserve water.
- Lavender A beautifully ornamental herb with fragrant summer blooms, plant lavender in full sun and well-drained soil in spring. Trim after flowering, and prune in early spring. The grey foliage works well with other plants and lavender is a great choice to plant along paths.
- Foxgloves A quintessential cottage garden favourite that produces spires of bell-shaped flowers in early summer. All kinds of bees love these flowers, and they were commonly grown in medieval gardens, despite being poisonous. They need light shade and protection from wind, in moist, well-drained soil.
- Aquilegia This clump-forming herbaceous perennial is easy to grow, with clouds of dancing blooms in a wide range of colours in spring and early summer. Grow in part shade in well-drained soil. Aquilegias have an old-fashioned charm, combine beautifully with hardy geraniums and will freely self-seed.
- Dianthus Fill your cottage garden with these deliciously scented blooms in spring and summer by choosing different varieties of these easy-care perennials and biennials. Use as edging plants, mixed in the cottage beds or in containers. Also known as pinks, they are drought tolerant and will thrive in sun or part sun in well-drained soil.
- Alchemilla mollis An indispensable foliage ground cover for fringing paths, scrambling over slopes, underplanting roses or growing in gravel. The plants produce sprays of tiny flowers and have rounded, velvety soft olive-green leaves, which catch and hold water drops making them sparkle in the sun in early summer. Grows in any soil in sun or part shade. Trim back from late summer.
- Hollyhocks A traditional choice with spires of open, saucer-shaped flowers in July, which are irresistible to bees and butterflies. Hollyhocks need well-drained reasonably fertile soil in full sun and can reach heights of 2m. Keeping up with the watering will help prevent their main problem – rust. Cut them back after flowering.
- Delphinium These tall beauties need good drainage, protection from wind, regular watering and prefer a sunny spot. Summer blooms appear in true blues, mauves, purple, pink and white. Deadheading the first blooms will give a second flush, and taller varieties may need staking.
- Campanula You can select from a range of perennial varieties that flower from spring to autumn. Fill in among the other cottage plants and this is another favourite for bees and butterflies. Grow in sun to part shade. They are drought tolerant once established and self-seed readily.
- Peony Sumptuous, romantic summer flowers in pink, red or white with a lovely fragrance. These herbaceous perennials are pest resistant and drought tolerant once established. Grow in a sunny spot in deep, rich, well-drained soil. If they are happy they can keep blooming for 100 years.
- Geranium Hardy geraniums are a brilliant filler plant or for fringing borders. Some varieties will keep flowering from June to October. They tolerate a wide range of soils, some prefer sun, others semi-shade, and are also drought tolerant. Combine with other herbaceous plants, roses and peonies.
- Daisy These cheerful, simple, unpretentious summer to autumn flowers work well in cottage gardens. Grow in full sun in moderately rich, well-drained soil. They are disease and problem free, but give them a boost by feeding them just before flowering and deadhead spent blooms to keep the show going.
Cottage gardens to visit
Barnsdale Gardens – a series of different styles of cottage gardens, including an artisan’s and a gentleman’s cottage garden, plus herb and kitchen gardens. Oakham, Rutland.
Fieldcrest Garden – an established cottage garden, with a programme of courses and workshops. Birkenhead, Wirral. Tel: 0151 3348878
Alfriston Clergy House – an Arts and Crafts cottage garden style. Alfriston, East Sussex. Tel: 01323 871961
Hidcote Manor Garden – early 20th-century garden that became a model for many others – a cottage garden on a glorified scale. Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. Tel: 01386 438333
A little bit of cottage garden history
- From Tudor times until the Victorian era, the cottage garden was functional rather than decorative, with an emphasis on productive culinary and medicinal plants, and flowers to aid pollination filling any spaces in between.
- The style began to change in the late 18th century, when members of the gentry romanticised rural cottage life and created their own cottage gardens with an abundant planting of flowers.
- Cottage gardening reached its peak during the Victorian era and, with the rise of mass production and distribution of food, the ornamentals became the focus in the garden.
- Prominent garden designers helped to popularise this more decorative version. William Robinson advocated wild, naturalistic gardens using a mix of native and exotic plants; Gertrude Jekyll took a painterly approach with her hardy flower borders, developing the principle of treating the garden as a whole, with sections flowing from one to another; and Vita Sackville-West’s romantic style saw abundant planting, self-seeding and artistically combined colours, but in an orchestrated, controlled way.