Despite the name, cottage gardens aren't just for period cottages. You can have a cottage garden even if you live in a modern home in a town or city. Cottage gardens don't require a lot of space, and are as well suited to urban back gardens as they are to pretty village or country plots.
Cottage gardens may look natural, but they are always a product of careful planning and year-round care. They key to the harmonious, 'as nature intended' look, is knowing what plants grow well together and being prepared to experiment.
One thing you may need to reconcile yourself with, though, is possibly giving up on a lot of lawn space, as a cottage garden scheme requires dense planting. However, it's a small sacrifice to make in exchange for all of those gorgeous flowers you'll enjoy.
Love the look? Keep scrolling for our cottage garden ideas and design information. Then for more garden ideas you can visit our gallery.
- Starting from scratch? Take a look at our garden landscaping advice and ideas page for all the information you need.
Designing a cottage garden: where to start
Cottage gardens are romantic, relaxed, free-flowering and fun. They can be planted with pastel tones or brighter hues that you love. Take a look at our garden design guide to get you started.
Apart from the visual prettiness, there is the added bonus with cottage gardens 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. Find advice on on eco-friendly gardening or how to create a wildlife garden in our separate guides.
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. There are, however a few starter tips to remember:
- Start small: you don't want your cottage garden getting out of control; learn how to keep the plants fed and looking abundant, then gradually increase the size.
- Good soil: 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.
- Sun loving: Generally cottage gardens suit sunny rather than shady spots.
- Maintenance: This is not 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.
- Mix heights: it's all about creating a layered look, and it doesn't have to have the traditional structure of tall plants at the back, lower-growing ones in the front.
- Weed regularly: cottage gardens may look free-growing, but this is far from reality. Keep a close lookout for intruders that could soon colonise your planting scheme.
- Keep to traditional materials: to create a harmonious look, stick to traditional materials such as gravel, natural stone patio paving, and wooden or metal garden furniture. Add focal points: an arch or pergola will add extra interest and show off your climbing roses even more.
Planting a cottage garden: what to include
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 favourite cottage flowers, 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 blousy 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. For more on cottage garden plants and flowers, take a look at our feature.
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.
Find out how to build a pergola to provide support for climbers.
- 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 evergreen shrubs for your cottage garden design among the herbaceous, 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.
Cottage garden ideas
These are our favourite cottage garden ideas – use them as inspiration... or just enjoy browsing. We were delighted to see that one of our favourite gardeners and broadcasters Alan Titchmarsh has been sharing his advice on how to create a cottage garden, so we've added those in, too.
1. Mix annuals and perennials
For the colour a cottage garden should have, Alan advises a mixture of annuals and perennials. Annuals only last a year, but they’ll put on a great show, he says. Try plants such as clary sage, marigolds, and cornflowers.
You can put them in this autumn, but they could also be planted in spring, and the good news is that they’ll sprinkle their seeds so you don’t have to re-sew them, Alan says.
When it comes to perennials, there’s plenty to choose from but you might include scabious, which Alan advises, last for years and get bigger and bigger.
2. Sow the seeds of hardy annuals
Growing annuals from seed isn’t tricky even for inexperienced gardeners with Alan’s advice to follow. He prepares a patch of sunny soil by raking until it’s smooth and even. Then he turns the rake over to make furrows for the seeds between around 1.3 to 0.6cm deep and 7.5cm apart.
Sprinkle the seeds in and rake over the soil, Alan advises, then water if there’s no rain on its way.
3. Plant perennials
You’re likely to be planting perennials you’ll find in pots at the garden centre, Alan says. One of his favourites is penstemon, and that’s all the recommendation we need to add these to our cottage garden selection.
You’ll just need to dig holes for these then tap out of the pot and plant in the soil, says Alan. Fill around them, and give them a good watering once they’re in, he advises.
4. Show off blooms
A cottage garden needs plants at a mixture of heights in a layered effect. You can put tall plants at the back of beds with lower-growing ones towards the front for a classic look. Alternatively, you could try the pyramid structure. Alan explains that this would have tall grasses and evergreens in the middle of a bed with smaller flowers in front, then low plants and those that form a carpet nearest to the bed’s edges.
This will show off plants to their best effect if your cottage garden has paths that meander around the beds, and paths are important, too, Alan says. Read on for why...
5. Add structure to a cottage garden with pathways
A network of paths is important for a cottage garden, Alan advises. 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 garden path edges.
What to use for them? In your cottage garden design, there should be harmony between landscaping and the architecture of the house. Use materials in keeping with the look of the property; for instance, if it is a period home, consider weathered bricks, flagstone, wood chips, gravel or stepping-stones, for paths and paving.
Alan recommends pea shingle. You can lay it straight on to firmed and levelled earth that’s weed-free or put down a weed-proof membrane to suppress them, he explains.
As well as looking the cottage-garden part, a pea shingle path also allows the seeds that fall on to it to germinate, he says, so you’ll have even more plants.
See more tips in Alan's cottage garden design video for Waitrose.
6. Cottage garden fencing: make it pretty, too
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.
7. Create focal points in a cottage garden
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 as not to complicate the overall feel of the cottage garden.
8. Opt for a natural planting scheme
Try to maintain a free-flowing cottage look with your planting, especially if you are opting for a lawn as part of your cottage garden. Look to break it up with natural-looking borders or islands of plants.
Choose a mix of colours, shapes and heights to create a rich tapestry. The idea is for it to be relaxed, free-flowering, joyous and fun.
Learn more about choosing plants for traditional gardens.
9. Add height with vertical planting in cottage garden borders
Create height and structure at the backs of borders with busty shrubs like philadelphus, and the elegant spires of delphiniums, lupins, foxgloves and hollyhocks. At the foreground, choose pretty and fragrant perennials such as rose bushes, lavender and wild geraniums mixed with the invigorating and vibrant green of lady’s mantle.
Opting for perennial plants which flower year after year will save on maintenance. Of course no cottage garden should be without pretty spring bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and crocus; plant these in October and November for guaranteed spring colour.
10. Include a secluded seating spot
Well-positioned seating is essential in a garden so that you can sit back and admire your work and really enjoy the beautiful and peaceful surroundings. Avoid anything cumbersome; instead opt for wrought iron garden furniture for a romantic and traditional look.
After all, there’s no better way to really make the most of your lovingly tended garden than dining al fresco on a balmy summer's evening. Vintage, ornate wrought iron bistro sets and curvaceous mellowed wood designs will best complement the romantic ambience.
Take a look of our pick of the best bistro sets to find one like the below.
11. Choose scented plants to line walkways
Walkways – simple herringbone paths and gravel paths snaking through flowerbeds – are a perfect way to be immersed in the colours and scents of the garden, but they are also practical, allowing easy access for tending to plants and garden maintenance. Choose traditional cottage plants that release scent when you brush past. Find tons of ideas for garden borders in our guide.
12. Add a summer house to your cottage garden
Cottage gardens are all about capturing a wild, romantic, playful and whimsical atmosphere, so what could be a better addition than a secret summer house or garden room hideaway? The perfect place to pen a novel or paint a masterpiece.
13. Add traditional looking garden accessories
Choose vintage garden ephemera and invest in garden equipment created using heritage techniques, such as old iron watering cans and classic handmade Sussex trugs. Not only do they guarantee quality, they also make for pretty displays, and distract from the structure of the shed.
Remember, you'll then need somewhere to store your tools and gardening essentials in your cottage garden, but be sure to make any garden shed as individual and characterful as possible. Add some vintage or rustic elements to the exterior, and consider painting it in a complementary colour to soften its impact. Painting the shed in a pale, pastel hue will help it blend in with the surrounding frothy planting, whereas a darker tone will act as a backdrop to the bright, cottage garden flowers.
Then organise your beautiful tools with the help of our garden shed storage ideas.
14. Keep it classic with climbing roses
You can’t beat traditional climbing roses to inject a touch of English charm into a cottage garden. The perfect foil to weathered brickwork and masonry, roses are essential for completing the chocolate box look.
Find out about planting roses in our guide.
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.