This is Our Ultimate Guide to the History of and How to Create a Perfect Cottage Garden

The cottage garden is one of the most popular of all garden styles. Today’s versions are particularly well suited to modest plots, and depend on the selection of plants and the careful choice of appropriate and authentic materials for their quaintly old-fashioned look.

Originally, cottage gardens were primarily functional and practical, with fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers and shrubs crammed into a very small area. Cottage gardening tends to be labour-intensive, relying on good husbandry rather than modern chemical sprays; the garden itself can also look unattractively dreary and bare in the winter, as a large proportion of the plants are annual or herbaceous.

However, when in bloom, the cottage garden can be very pleasing to the eye, and a perfect remedy to the man-made environment, and the style has devotees in country and city locations all over the world.

The Principles of the Cottage Garden Style

The seeds of the modern cottage garden movement were sown in late nineteenth-century English nostalgia. Influential garden writers of the time extolled the virtues of the unpretentious gardens that they saw cultivated by rural cottage owners, as a reaction to the artificiality of large-scale country house gardens. They wanted to return to what they considered to be native small-scale gardening.

The cottage garden was closely and abundantly planted with hardy flowers and bulbs, fruit bushes, herbs and vegetables. Whilst hedges (some trimmed into shapes) were important, shrubs were not.

The planting was lush as the soil was kept in good condition by quantities of manure. A great variety of plants, often highly scented, were grown, such as old roses billowing over cabbages, Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) next to marigolds (Calendula), or towering hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) framing the doorway. However, little thought was given to colour harmonisation or geometry.

Lawns were rare, as it was thought that any spare ground was better used for growing more plants. The garden was characteristically divided by paths of trodden earth edged with stones, tiles, shells, or clumps of flowers such as pansies (Viola x wittrockiana).

Recreating the Style Today

Whilst it is possible to recreate a traditional cottage garden successfully, the characteristic plants do not usually provide much interest in autumn and winter, and the maintenance demands are high. However, many of the cottage garden principles are valuable ideas for modern gardens, and may be borrowed or modified to suit individual sites, whilst certain typical features and plants are often used today to create a rural and relaxed effect in a scheme.

The design of cottage gardens can be surprisingly formal, with symmetrically arranged beds for produce and flowers and straight paths edged with hedges of lavender or box. However, it is the careless abundance of the planting, tumbling over the paths and hedges and softening the hard edges, that gives cottage gardens their characteristic appearance of informality. It is this factor of controlled casualness that gives the true spirit of the cottage garden style.

The right choice of plants is the key to success with a cottage garden. The large beds should be planted with good examples of old-fashioned flowers (particularly hardy perennials), and a few shrubs to give structure. A wide assortment of herbs, vegetables and fruits should be grown either amongst (to produce what is known as ‘integrated’ gardening) or alongside the flowers. Scented plants are an especially good choice, particularly those that attract bees. One or two favourites may be used repeatedly as ‘key’ plants to produce a consistent effect.

Paths made from bricks, cobbles or gravel are practical as well as fitting in style, whilst an edging of lavender (Lavandula) provides scented flowers outdoors and for drying, as well as attractive evergreen foliage. A rustic, wooden arch is an excellent feature for supporting scented climbing plants such as honeysuckle (Lonicera) or roses, and borders overflowing with lupins (Lupinus), peonies (Paeonia), pinks (Dianthus) and wall-flowers (Cheiranthus) recreate the feeling of unrestrained profusion.

Advice on Creating a Cottage Garden

The romantic ideal and lush planting style of cottage gardens, combined with the rustic charm of features made out of recycled materials, has beguiled successive generations of gardeners. Making your own cottage garden allows you to give full rein to your creativity, especially if you give things a contemporary twist.

This article offers some hints on creating your own idyllic cottage garden, whether it’s the whole of your garden, or just one section.

  • The original cottage gardeners did not have a lot of leisure time, nor money to buy paving materials for features such as patios. If you want to have a patio, make it out of a mixture of materials laid in a random pattern for a more authentic look. Use recycled or salvaged materials to achieve an instant worn look.
    • Riven slabs look convincingly like stone – lay in a random pattern.
    • Bricks – use basketweave or herringbone bonds.
    • Tiles – use terracotta or concrete look-alikes.
    • Consider using broken pieces of old paving slabs laid with thymes and gravel in the joints, rather than mortar.
  • Originally, paths may have been little more than well trampled soil with cinders and odd bits of stone. Repeat the materials used for your patio.
  • Real cottage gardens did not waste valuable crop space with lawns. Large borders enabled enough food to be grown amongst ornamentals to help feed the gardener and their family. However, if you can’t bear to be without a lawn, make sure it fits into the cottage garden picture – leave grass a little longer and allow daisies to remain. If you have space, go for a wild flower meadow look, with minimal mowing control from you.
  • Arches were used to support climbing plants; try to make them look as rustic as possible. Use unstripped rustic treated posts for real authenticity, or machine rounded timbers for a contemporary twist.
  • Recycled beams and timbers can be a good find for your cottage garden, too. Make your own simple arches, panels for dividing areas, border edges and plant supports out of woven willow or dogwoods, or buy these ready made.
  • Choose garden seats and other furniture in rustic looking timber, or make your own simple items.
  • Water features didn’t appear in the original cottage gardens, apart from naturally occurring duck ponds, animal troughs and water butts. Make water features look as though they are useful, such as pools to dip watering cans in, for example.
  • The original cottage gardeners would have had a real muckheap, with food scraps going to family pigs. Make compost bins look like bee hives, and cordon off utility areas using hurdles.
    Accessories were not something original cottage gardeners had time or money to worry about. Style grew out of necessity, things put to use for functions other than their original ones. Try using:

    • half barrels, terracotta pots or old crockery for planted containers,
    • old baskets to cover plastic pots,
    • scarecrows and forcing pots as border features.
  • True cottage gardens included a high proportion of herbaceous plants, which were not low maintenance and did not provide year round interest. Incorporate the following ideas in your cottage garden, to create the essence of cottage style:
    • Grow fruit and vegetable crops amongst your ornamental plants, for example, runner beans, blackberries, apples, salad crops or ruby chard.
    • Pack plants close together – cottage gardeners did this to maximise space. It also helps to keep down weeds.
    • Include low growing plants at the front of borders to grow over the edge of paving and hide edges.
    • Grow climbing and scrambling plants through hedges, shrubs and trees. Clematis Viticella is a good choice for this. Climbing roses and honeysuckles can revitalise a dead tree stump, or fruit tree which is past its prime.
    • Plant topiary shapes or make your own for true individuality, use faster growing plants for quick results.