Creating a Cottage Garden

Creating a Look of Abandon While Staying in Control

Mixed Summer flowers
Ron Evans / Getty Images

When done well, cottage gardens seamlessly blend colors, textures, forms, and fragrance. There's no concern for spacing, no worry about planting in odd numbers, no graduations in height. A cottage garden's greatest appeal is that it seems to lack any conscious design. But even a cottage garden needs to be controlled. Some of the most successful cottage gardens start with a formal structure and soften the framework with the lavishness of cottage plants.

If there's a failing in cottage gardening, it's the idea that the garden can take care of itself. That is definitely not the case. In fact, a cottage garden can be high maintenance. Some flowers will become thugs, squeezing out others. Self-sowers can quickly get out of hand. Perennials will still need periodic dividing, or they will die out. With so many flowers, deadheading becomes time-consuming, but the alternative is a lot of past-prime flowers.

Advantages of a Cottage Garden

If you're still deciding whether or not you're ready to embrace the serendipity of a cottage-style garden, consider these advantages:

  • Cottage gardens are personal: No two gardens will be the same. Indeed, no cottage garden will be the same two years in a row. The plants will keep moving around and the balance between them will ebb and flow.
  • A cottage garden is less expensive than its more formal counterparts: Although you won't get an immediate impact, you can start a cottage garden with a few packs of seeds and some patience. Even if you splurge on some anchor plants, like rose bushes or flowering shrubs, you can temporarily fill in with less pricy plants. Self-sowers will quickly fill in and you can divide and multiply perennials each year. Find a friend or two with similar tastes and swap plants to expand your palette.
  • Cottage gardens don't have to be perfectly maintained: While you will want some order in your garden, it does not need to be immaculate. There is less chance of anyone noticing a couple of weeds or a plant that needs staking.

Cottage Garden Ideas and Tips

The appeal of a cottage garden is apparent: an abundance of flowers and fragrance welcomes you home and greets you every time you open your door. If you'd like to surround your home with a cottage feel, you can start simply by putting a small bed on either side of the path or drive to your house and continue to expand it over the years. From there you can add additional paths and seating areas and other personal touches.

Although the whole point of a cottage garden is that there are no rules or guidelines, these tips can help as you get started:

  1. Start small. An expansive cottage garden can look like an untended garden; you can always add more later if you decide to. Keep a bit of lawn to break things up and avoid straight lines in planning your garden plot.
  2. Use a good mix of plants, including a variety of fragrant flowers, and start by planting large clumps so it's not just a jumble. If you live in a hot, dry climate, don't be afraid to substitute Mediterranean plants or succulents.
  3. Repeat both plants and colors to create a sense of flow and harmony. Don't forget to add tall plants for visual interest. You don't need to worry about putting them in the back, as you might in a border, but you do want the eye to move up and around, rather than viewing one flat plane.
  4. Add some paths for access and weeding. Choose path material to complement your garden and home. Traditional materials include brick, stone, gravel, or dirt. Let plants spill over each other and onto the walkways.
  5. Add some structure with small trees, shrubs or obelisks covered in vines. Strong feature plants, like shrub roses, flowering trees, and shrubs will prevent the look from becoming blurred and gauzy. Evergreens give any garden a sense of structure.
  6. As a finishing touch, give the garden a backdrop and add decorative touches. Hedges, rustic fences or even a wall, will serve as a background that brings the garden into focus. Because of the informality of a cottage garden you can decorate with all kinds of found objects and garden accents, including trellising, vine-covered arbors, antiques, rockers, and birdbaths.

Finally, don't expect your cottage garden to look the same year after year. Allow the plants to be active partners in the creation of your garden.