Cottage Gardens

English or Otherwise, What Defines This Style?

cottage style garden
Picket-style fences and gates lend the landscape a homey feel. David Beaulieu

Anyone even remotely interested in landscape design styles has heard of cottage gardens. But just what do we mean by referring to this design style? You may have a vague image in your mind of what constitutes such a planting without ever having put your finger on what it is that separates this particular design style from the rest.

Well, there is both a technical definition and a working definition of the term (you'll sometimes see the design style in question given as "English cottage gardens"). In this article, I am mainly interested in the working definition, as it is less restrictive -- making it more relevant to a greater number of readers. But I will deal first, in passing, with the technical definition.

English Cottage Gardens

It is in dealing with the technical definition that it makes the most sense to use the terminology "English cottage gardens," specifically. For the technical definition relies heavily on history, which locates this style in England, in a wooded environment. Thought to be a phenomenon of the peasantry originally, this type of planting would be found literally on the grounds of a country cottage (that is, a humble, rustic dwelling). In addition to ornamental flowers, the peasants would grow plants that served practical purposes, such as:

In a separate article, I list traditional cottage-garden plants.

A hedge would surround the yard (or at least a good portion of it) to keep livestock out (originally), or perhaps a rustic wooden fence.

There would obviously have been neither the need nor the ability, under such circumstances, to adhere to the sort of formal garden design style practiced by the wealthy. This style, rather, is informal; and it is this informality that unites the technical definition with the working definition.

Cottage Gardens: Privacy, Informal Design

In discussing such a design nowadays, people often grade on a sliding scale, if you will. Thus the need for a working definition of the terminology.

Yes, we may have an image in mind of the ideal cottage garden, as described above; but we are also willing to admit examples into the ranks of this design style that are lacking one or more elements found in authentic English cottage gardens. If you don't live in a cottage, for example, can you still have a cottage garden? Or what if you don't want to grow fruit on your property: Do you still need to plant fruit trees to qualify? We tend to be forgiving in these matters.

So what are the essential elements of this venerated style, transplanted into the 21st century? I would focus on two things, broadly speaking:

  1. Informal design style
  2. A sense of privacy

But this style is only one example of an informal design. Wildflower meadows are another example of the informal design style and are quite distinct from cottage gardens. Furthermore, creating a sense of privacy with planting isn't enough to make it a cottage garden, regardless of design style. 

This style is still used in the 21st century, even if we have to abandon some of the components found in classic cottage garden planting beds. Inspired by the likes of Claude Monet, Thomas Kinkade and Gertrude Jekyll, we have come to seize upon -- as a practical matter -- certain essential elements of the style and made it our own. All of which begs the question (which I started to answer on Page 1): what are the essential elements of this design style?

I began by listing an informal design style and a sense of privacy as two components that must be present for a planting to qualify as a cottage garden. These are necessary but not sufficient; we'll need to explore further to arrive at a better understanding of this design style.

Cottage Garden Style

To distinguish this style from other examples of informal landscape design, just think of the words we tend to use when describing cottage garden planting beds:

  • "sprawling"
  • "riot of color"
  • "seemingly haphazard"
  • "plants bubbling up from everywhere"
  • "densely planted"
  • "refined rusticity"

The cottage garden style, then, is not just any informal style. It is, rather, specifically a style exuberant in its use of a diversity of plants of varying heights, forms, and textures, arranged so as to give an impression of abundance -- with a touch of whimsey.

Planting beds will be wide, irregular in shape, and densely planted with a variety of plant forms and textures. Annuals will supplement perennialsflowering shrubs, and flowering trees to ensure optimal color display. Most people stop at using 3 or 4 dominant colors, to avoid overdoing it.

At least one of the flower beds will be placed along a house wall, replacing the more typical foundation planting. Make use of vine-covered trellises here, which will soften the look of the wall.

Although the plants will seem to have been situated at random, there is significant artistry involved in such an arrangement. This is why it qualifies as a design style: Not just anything goes, although this design style is less restrictive than a formal design style. Landscape design tricks, such as repetition (using the same plant types in more than one bed) and planting in 3s and 5s, will be employed initially to achieve unity. Symmetry will be avoided.

Plants of varying heights will be used and casually layered (tallest in back, shortest in front, the rest loosely in between) in a south-facing planting bed of sun-loving flowers (so as not to deprive the shortest of necessary sunlight). But avoid an overly stiff layering that would suggest formalness; "break ranks" here and there by moving a group of taller plants closer to the front. Where sunlight deprivation is not an issue, you will have even freer reign to break the layering "rule" of formal garden design. Of course, even in the cottage garden style, there's no point in burying short plants behind tall ones, where the viewer can't appreciate them.

Perennials with tall flower spikes are especially prized in the cottage garden style. But don't rely on plant height, alone to vary eye level. Install a garden arbor to enable vines such as clematis to reach for the sky. Vines can also be allowed to ramble over hedges and stone walls.

While plants are the stars of the cottage garden style, hardscape plays an important supporting role.

Any design as plant-heavy as the cottage garden style can profit from some well-placed hardscape features. A gated picket fence covered with morning glory vines is useful either as a backdrop or as a foreground for tall flowers in a cottage garden design. Just remember that cottage gardens are supposed to invoke a feeling of hominess, if not rusticity. Plan your hardscape accordingly, avoiding ultra-modern styles. If you can't find a fence style that is right for your cottage garden while complementing your house, substitute a short hedge for a fence, perhaps a holly.

I offer a full article on fence line landscaping if you wish to pursue that topic further (outside the context of cottage gardens, specifically).

Along the same lines, informal pathways, perhaps even stepping stones, are preferable to formal walkways. Even if you have to compromise on a selection of pathway material so that it is in keeping with your house style, make sure that the pathway curves its way in and out between your trees, hardscape and planting beds, so that viewers can't take in everything all at once. A cottage garden should be full of surprises. Keep the viewer guessing what might be revealed around the next bend in the pathway.

It's important to achieve a sense of privacy in a cottage garden. But as mentioned earlier, not just any privacy will do. The idea is to re-create the sense of serene privacy felt in a bucolic setting. So a vinyl fence just won't do here as a privacy screen: the material is too modern. And while a picket fence is in keeping with the cottage garden style and has its uses (see above), it isn't tall enough to offer privacy. If you can't find suitable hardscaping material for screening, remember that "privacy fence" needn't be taken literally -- a "living wall" is an option.

Finally, we expect enchantment from a cottage garden, so don't forget to include a hardscape feature of a whimsical nature, such as a wishing well. Such a structure can serve as a focal point.