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At home with a Cottage Garden

A cottage garden is not an excuse for a mess. Structure is still important and a cottage garden needs some backbone to hold it together just as much as any other garden.

A cottage garden is not an excuse for a mess. Structure is still important and a cottage garden needs some backbone to hold it together just as much as any other garden.

Cottage gardens embrace charm and character, but they rely on the same basic principles as any other style of garden. Start by creating a basic shape of hard landscaping, then add ‘core’ trees, shrubs and perennials that give the garden its personality. Leave the fine detail until last.

Cottage gardens are all about plants. Hard landscaping (such as paths, seating, ponds, trellises, arbors and containers) is just there to provide a basic framework, but more importantly to help you enjoy the plantings. Hard surfaces contrast well with plants so use them to break up large areas of planting. It is best to keep the number of different hardscape materials and textures low. The cottage garden highlights the wealth of plant material in our world and should be accented, not overwhelmed, by the materials used to define its space.

Cottage gardens conjure up small gardens full to the brim of plants, so much so that the plants dominate the garden — and why not? Mix every colour and shape and pack them all into a small space to create a sense of fun.

These gardens offer somewhere to potter about in and lose yourself for a while. All those little nooks and crannies to hide gardening objects, like those that you see in the small Flower Show gardens. Objects like old bikes, wheelbarrows, bird baths and terracotta pots can add fun and personalise your garden.


Grouping. The grouping of the same or like plant materials gives them more visual impact than if they are all scattered in the design. A traditional rule of thumb is to use odd numbers such as three or five in order to create better visual balance, but this need not be done if you are using large numbers of small plants, or if the plants are likely to grow together to create one visual mass. Single plants should generally be avoided unless they are larger specimen plants and are being used for balance or to create a focal point. The “collector’s garden” will often be filled with single specimens and, though intrinsically a wonderful garden because of its precious plant gems, it often lacks good overall design because design principles such as rhythm and harmony not carried out.

Colour. This design principle should be used to enhance the other principles of design. It should create harmony and balance, can create or accent a focal point, and can also be used to effectively create rhythm and line in a design. Repetition of a single or multiple colours in a design can help to tie the often-discordant planting style of a cottage garden together.

Texture. This can also be use to enhance the other design principles. Mixing plants of various textures can add depth and rhythm while also enhancing unity.

Repetition. The repeating of a particular plant or group of plants throughout a design can also help to crate harmony and add visual line to draw the eye through a design.

cottage-compwc-loresTHE PLANTS

The cottage garden should contain a diverse mixture of plants that displays the wealth of plants in the world. There should be annuals, perennials, small shrubs (deciduous and evergreen), vines, and small trees — especially fruiting ones. Including herbs and vegetables will make the mixture even more diverse and useful.

Annuals will give the garden long-lasting colour and seasonality.

Bulbs enable you to get so much more flower power from your garden space. Underplanting and interleaving will really expand the planting. Tulips and daffodils in spring are almost a given. Annuals, emerging perennials and deciduous shrubs will cover dying foliage and provide shade for the bulbs.

Perennials will give the garden long-lasting stability, seasonality, and careful selection can give you colour or interest all year long or a great abundance all in one season.

Shrubs will give the garden a structural backbone. Evergreen shrubs can add stability to the ever-changing plant palette of the cottage garden and deciduous shrubs can add even more colour and seasonality. Old-fashioned roses are truly excellent cottage garden plants.

Small Trees, especially those that flower prolifically and produce fruit, add structural height and seasonality to the garden. Trees such as crape myrtles, redbuds, pomegranates, peaches, apples, and so on, are great trees for the cottage garden since they usually don’t create a lot of shade and can be thinned if they do. Espaliered and trained fruit trees (pears and apples are especially suitable) will provide screens and are in keeping with your theme.

Vines help to soften the hardscape and can add visual height and privacy. They can smooth out the harsh lines of a fence or arbor and can add visual interest to a blank wall. They are the good excuse to add more structures to the garden, which will add spatial definition, visual interest, and a greater sense of enclosure.

Herbs and Vegetables. Herbs are not only great in the kitchen they are decorative, and wonderful plants in the border. The culinary sages, rosemary, thyme and other herbs add fragrance and look great in the border. Vegetables were fundamental to the traditional cottage garden. You can easily include these, but intermingle them or, without straying too far into formality, make a potager.

Invite wildlife. Create a haven for birds and other animals by including some type of water element and plantings that provide sources of food.

Gardens now provide vital habitats for wildlife, as a result of changes in farming methods, increased use of chemicals, and the destruction of orchards, hedges and ponds. By growing simpler, traditional cottage garden flowers such as lavender, thyme and other herbs, foxgloves, pinks and single varieties of flowers, rather than modern, double-flowered varieties, we can help to maintain a variety of birds, butterflies, insects and so on. Modern hybrid flowers are often sterile and produce no nectar for insects, that have an important role in pollinating fruit and flowers. Bees in particular need gardeners help in providing nectar-rich flowers — bumble bees are especially affected by the loss of food plants, and their numbers have declined. Other beneficial insects, birds, frogs, toads, hedgehogs also contribute to our gardens in helping to keep down insect pests, slugs and snails. By encouraging biodiversity in our gardens, we can help maintain the precarious balance of nature.


Enclosure. The fence, especially of wooden pickets, is often associated with the cottage garden. This is most likely because of the necessity to protect plants in bygone days when farm animals were common and roamed freely and horses were used for transportation. The fences and gates will create a defined space that should be in proportion (scale) to the cottage and also of a style that complements it.

Arches, Trellises, and Arbors. Such structures can be used to accent doorways, gates, seating areas, and other elements and are a great excuse, especially in combination with fencing, to give a vertical aspect to the garden. Again, they should be of a style and material to complement the main structure. They should have a purpose for being and should not float freely, which will detract from the focal point and overall harmony in the design.

Walkways. Walkways need to be in proportion to the size of the main structure and garden. Cottage gardens are most often small and intimate, so narrow walkways are acceptable. If you enjoy sharing your garden or if it is open to the public, you would be better off making walkways wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The wider path is more social and the narrower more personal. It is also best to take into consideration any needs for maintenance (cart or wheelbarrow access) and possibly handicap accessibility. The size of the walkway(s) will definitely influence how the space of your garden is perceived. Materials for walkways are numerous and your choice should blend in with the materials and character of the other elements in the garden.

Beds. The size of planting beds will depend on the size of the cottage and any defined garden space around it. You are sure to find that beds over 3m in depth are harder to maintain since you will have to step over and around plants in the front to get to the back for maintenance. If beds can be approached from all sides (not against a wall of fence), then they can be deeper. If it is necessary to make really deep beds due to keeping proper scale, it is best to plant lower maintenance materials toward the back and space them well apart. Higher maintenance plants can then be placed toward the front and can be more tightly spaced because of easier maintenance access. Another option is to make smaller maintenance walkways into the beds for access.


Anyone who has ever attempted to create a cottage garden has probably already discovered that the concept is somewhat hard to define in an exact and precise manner.  While there are many elements that may be present in the majority of cottage gardens, as the term is more widely applied, it is also true that some ambiguity applies as to whether certain items and design characteristics are required as essential features.

The cottage garden is an adaptable style and one can easily venture away from the mould of the traditional. One could easily create a cottage garden of only native plants or use only the new and exotic. This style is especially suited to the plantaholic that is continually searching out the rare and unusual and would definitely lead to the creation of a non-traditional cottage garden.

Cottage gardens generally accommodate a large variety of plant materials, so it is crucial that the beds be well prepared with organic material before planting. The mixture of plant types (annuals, perennials, etc.) means that it will not be easy to amend later. Compost can be tilled in between cycles of annuals or spread around perennials, allowing nature to incorporate with the soil over time.

Mulch is also a great key to lowering maintenance and keeping plants and gardener happy. Good organic gardening principles will be essential for keeping the cottage garden healthy and bountiful. Spraying harsh chemicals should be avoided, as it will make it hard to use any vegetables or herbs from the garden.

A long list of plants, shrubs, trees, vines and groundcovers suitable for use in cottage gardens, will form a separate post on this site. Already, there are many plant profiles here that represent excellent examples of plant material for cottage gardens. For easy reference you will now find a Cottage Garden category on the front page that will allow you to quickly identify some of the most appropriate plants.