Reminiscent of English country gardens, cottage gardens have an undeniable charm and are well adapted for today’s smaller urban gardens.
The practice of cottage gardening dates back to medieval Europe, where serfs cultivated fruits, vegetables, medicinal herbs and perennials in one enclosed garden space surrounding their cottages.
Our understanding of the cottage garden has evolved over time to reference smaller gardens which combine a variety of plants to allow for a succession of blooms and colour year-long.
In this article, we take a look at what constitutes a cottage garden and how you could incorporate elements of cottage garden design to transform your outdoor space.
What makes a cottage garden?
The first step, when trying to bring an English cottage feel to your garden, is to try and visualize how the end result should look. Then you, or your landscape designer, would work to keep to your theme and achieve your vision.
To help you get started, read on for a few classic elements of English cottage garden design you could easily incorporate in your garden.
Benches and sitting spaces
A common observation from friends and family of many a backyard garden is that other than an outdoor table, there are few places to sit, relax and enjoy one’s garden.
This is a simple fix. All it takes is a well-placed bench, or a small table and chair for the visitor to rest, read a book and contemplate the garden. A bench can also create interest and give a purpose to an otherwise forgotten corner of the garden.
Flowers such as lavender or rosemary growing underneath and through the bench will add extra “wow” effect. You could also frame your bench with large pots to make it even more unique!
Use vertical structures in your garden: wigwams, obelisks, arches, lobster cages, plant supports…the list goes on! Cottage gardens maximize vertical space and incorporate natural elements such as wood for a more rustic look. This allows you to combine climbers such as sweet peas, roses or clematis with shrubs and perennials and helps create ‘garden rooms’ by splitting your garden into separate vertical spaces — creating interest even in a smaller space.
Mix plants and flowers (and food!)
Traditional cottage garden plants include climbers such as scented climbing roses and sweet peas, and spillers — Alchemilla mollis, geraniums, violas or nasturtiums. As well, when choosing plants, be sure to include vertical flowers like hollyhocks, foxgloves, and lupins. And don’t forget pollinator-friendly flowers such as lavender, phlox, verbena Bonariensis or daisies.
Lastly, add in your favourite dahlias or peonies as well as edible flowers and vegetables mixed into a border for extra bursts of colour and interest!
Garden paths to wander
Either in a straight line or one that meanders through spilling flowers, another cottage garden idea is the inclusion of paths. Cottage gardens pack in many plants by deliberately limiting the amount of free-circulating space, reducing it to narrow paths either made of grass or covered in gravel. This invites the visitor to pass under arches or leaning trees from one focal point to the other.
The diversity and amount of flowers planted in cottage gardens mean that bees, butterflies and other pollinators usually abound. When creating your cottage planting scheme, look for nectar-rich flowers that are most attractive to pollinators to transform your garden into a truly lively and enchanting space.
Creating a cottage garden in the city
In most gardens, adding the elements above will suffice to give an outdoor space a definitive ‘cottage look’.
In city gardens, space for benches and meandering paths will be more limited. But, the good news is that the limited space of small front yard or back yard gardens is also a common feature of the cottage garden, which resort to packed planting to maximize the effect.
For those of you city gardeners looking to add a touch of whimsical to your urban patch, think about your garden as a succession of vignettes. Your objective will be to create multiple points of interest, so that a walk across your garden becomes a constant discovery. Also keep in mind all the possibilities of smaller details such as adding garden cloches or terracotta pots for a more rustic Victorian look.
Your yard may be paved, or covered in concrete. If that’s the case, use raised beds to re-create the lushness of a cottage garden. You can also use a succession of pots to mimic the meandering pathways of a cottage garden.
When using pots, combine pot size and heights to re-create a ‘mass planting’ effect, with the tallest plants in the middle or at the back. You can also cheat with pot heights by adding bricks underneath the smaller pots. This will help bring your favourite flower to the same height as the rest. It can also make a smaller pot more visible from up high in your overall ‘plant theatre’.
Finally, you will find plenty of inspiration across social media and online sources. However, in my experience, the best sources of inspiration can be found in person by visiting your local cottage gardens, public parks as well as garden centres where you will find like-minded gardeners to help you get started!