ISSUE 27  |  Country House

10 Ideas to Steal from English Cottage Gardens

September 27, 2016 2:00 AM

BY Michelle Slatalla

The best cottage gardens look like they planted themselves. They didn’t, of course. But the design principles they follow are simple.

The English invented the cottage garden, probably in the 1400s when even the humblest plots of land were pressed into service to produce food for families. Every inch of earth counted–with herbs, fruit trees, and flowers (which attracted bees to pollinate crops) jammed close together. Aside from being practical, the effect was charming.

Today’s modern cottage gardens look just as charming–a spill of color as edible and ornamental plants mingle and flop over the edge of a walkway. Roses engulf a trellis. Hollyhocks lean casually against a brick wall. Here are 10 ideas to steal from English cottage gardens:

Crash Course: Gertrude Jekyll 101


Above: From David Austin, Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ (Ausboard) is $27.95 in the US and £16.50 in the UK; here is it planted alongside Epilobium and Geranium ‘Brookside’. Photograph courtesy of David Austin Roses.

English gardener Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) is the patron saint of modern cottage gardens, having popularized the informal, blowsy herbaceous borders we associate with country houses (in England) and picket fences (in the US).

In reaction to the fussy, formal plantings the Victorians championed, she advocated a more natural look, with plants arranged by color, height, and flowering season. For more of Jekyll’s ideas and advice, see Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden ($32.22 from Amazon).

Breach Boundaries


Above: William Robinson, a Victorian iconoclast who invented the idea of the “wild garden,” developed his naturalistic approach at Gravetye Manor. For more, see The Ultimate UK Getaway: An Hour from London and a World Away. Photograph courtesy of Gravetye Manor.

To create the quintessential cottage garden, plant flowers at the edge of garden beds and allow them to spill over onto paths. Bonus points for fragrant flowers that brush against visitors’ ankles as they pass by.

Add Arbors


Above: Photograph by Justine Hand. For more, see 10 Easy Pieces: Perennials for a Seaside Garden.

Install sturdy arbors and trellises so you can train vines and climbers (particularly fragrant roses) to grow into billowy shapes against walls, next to gates, and above doorways.

Bench Logic


Above: Sarah’s sister installed a bench to make it easier to regard the garden at eye level. For more of her English cottage garden, see Ruth’s Garden: Playing Wildflower Roulette. Photograph by Sarah Lonsdale.

Place benches, chairs, and chaises strategically in the garden to lure visitors to spend time sitting among the bees and the blossoms. Consider adding seats to a hidden corner, a knoll with a view, or smack in the middle of an especially pretty flower bed (provide stepping stones to guide the way).

Consider Climate


Above: Hollyhocks grow against a wall in a cottage garden in Germany. For more of this garden, see Garden Visit: At Home with Katrin Scharl in Brandenburg, Germany. Photograph by Justine Hand.

In the earliest English cottage gardens, there was no room for error. Tried-and-tested plants known to thrive locally were favored because they produced the best crops. In England–or a similar climate–common cottage garden flowers include hollyhock (shown), nicotiana, poppy, foxglove, nasturtium, and cosmos. If you live in a different sort of climate, you can plant native wildflowers to get a similar effect.

Punctuation Marks


Above:  For more, see Dream Landscapes: 10 Perennial Garden Designs Inspired by Piet Oudolf. Photograph by Sophia Moreno-Bunge for Gardenista

Plant shrubs and small trees among the flowers to add height, structure, and visual interest to garden beds.

Lure Pollinators


Above: If you have fruit trees, berry bushes, or vegetables, you need pollinators to produce a harvest. When planting flowers, choose varieties bees can’t resist: lavender, yarrow, black-eyed Susans, and asters are good choices. For more ideas, see Helping Bees Survive, One Garden at a Time. Photograph by Jim Powell for Gardenista.

Plant a Little of a Lot


Above: Photograph by Clare Coulson for Gardenista. For more, see Garden Visit: Colorful Flower Borders in an English Garden, Tattenhall Edition.

Cottage gardens often are a dense mix-and-match jumble for a practical reason: if you have small clumps of many kinds of plants, you will limit loss to pests and diseases.

Informal Design


Above: Photograph by Clare Coulson for Gardenista.

Lay out irregularly shaped garden beds and allow paths to define perimeters and spaces in the garden. A meandering walkway is better than a straight one because it will force passersby to slow down and see more of the cottage garden.



Above: A pairing of Echinacea Purpurea ‘White Swan’ ($10.95 apiece from White Flower Farm) and Stipa Tenuissima in my own garden.

Don’t be afraid to mix old-fashioned flowers with other varieties–depending on your climate, your cottage garden could have succulents, jasmine, or perennial grasses growing in it. For more, see Leaves of Grass: 9 Ways to Create Curb Appeal with Perennial Grasses.

For more of our favorite English gardens, see: