Cottage-style gardens are the definition of traditional and romantic. When properly put together they can evoke impressionist paintings as well as classic, rural images of Britain.
Unlike some of its modern counterparts, the cottage-style garden doesn’t focus too closely on structure and organisation. Instead, it’s more suited to homeowners and gardeners that want a project to add to for years to come.
If any of this sounds appealing to you, or if you’re here from our garden landscaping design article, then you may be interested in having a cottage garden of your own. If that’s the case, then this guide has everything you could want to know.
- What is a cottage-style garden?
- Benefits of a cottage-style garden
- Drawbacks of a cottage-style garden
- What are the ideal plants to have in a cottage-style garden?
What is a cottage-style garden?
Some garden designs are self-explanatory. An in-ground garden focuses on planting lots of flowers in the soil for a classic, natural look. A Mediterranean garden, by comparison, is one that evokes the colours and atmosphere that you’d find in the Med. Yet while a cottage-style garden sounds just as self-descriptive, you quickly realise that “cottage-style” is a nebulous term.
Because of this, it makes sense to break down where this name comes from and what it entails.
Given how stereotypical this design is of rural England, you may be wondering where cottage-style gardens originated from and why.
The earliest versions of these gardens came about in the 17th century, when poor labourers tended to their cottage dwellings. After a hard day’s toil, likely working on a nearby farm, workers would come home to their rural cottages. They owned little land, and what land they did have couldn’t be wasted on frivolous things like flower beds. Instead, these early labourers would plant crops, fruit and vegetables, as well as more medicinally minded herbs. Their focus was on providing food for their families or preparing for illness, especially during the winter months.
As the years rolled into the 18th century however, wealthier Britons started to take notice of these idyllic, humble homes. They quickly began to romanticise their lifestyle and set out to recreate the aesthetic for themselves.
Because members of the gentry had no need to harvest their own fruit and veg though, they made alterations. Instead of growing plants out of necessity, they grew them to create a visually appealing space. As a result, the fruit, veg and crops were replaced with more beautiful plants.
It is this stylised version of the classic British cottage that we model our gardens on today – hence “cottage-style”.
By far the most important part of a cottage garden. This garden design focuses on cultivating a space with a wide diversity of flowers – of different colours, sizes and textures.
A collection of lupins, geraniums, foxgloves and lavender can create a bold set of visuals and intoxicating fragrances. Additionally, every cottage-style garden should have a sprinkling of roses. These can either be the traditional flowerbed type, or climbers that grow up a trellis.
The key colours you want to focus on are anything that can contribute to a romantic, pastoral image. This includes whites, creams, pinks and reds, with a smattering of lilacs and blues in a few spots.
If you’d like an idea of the ideal types of flowers to plant in a cottage-style garden, check out this section below.
In order to fully capture the idyllic style of a cottage garden, many homeowners build picket fences. Not only does this look great, it also helps provide a small level of structure to an otherwise unruly design.
Two things to bear in mind when installing picket fences though are size and colour.
While picket fences famously come in white, you don’t have to paint them this colour yourself. Your garden might have an abundance of white foxgloves or other similar plants. Adding more of the same colour could therefore become visually overwhelming.
Think instead about painting them green, or grey-blue. This won’t seem incongruent with the natural colours of a garden, while also complimenting the existing aesthetic.
As for size, we’re referring more specifically to the size of the garden. Lots of cottage-style gardens are relatively small, so installing a tall fence would look odd. Always consider the scale that you’re working with.
If this doesn’t work for you, or you think it all looks too flat, why not add a trellis? By constructing something like this and then running climbing plants along it, you can increase the height and introduce a sense of verticality to your garden.
You may be considering installing new fencing, but are worried about the fencing cost. If so, check out Quotatis’ dedicated fencing cost guide, updated for 2020.
Paving and pathways
Pathways have been a staple of the cottage garden since the very beginning. Going as far back as the original British labourers, cottage gardens were typically very small. Their gardens often either had pathways surrounding them or running through them.
In modern versions however, we can use pathways to add style and personality to the space. You can hire a landscape gardener to create a nice short route through your garden with curved paving. This can be relaxing, visually interesting and even help evoke one of the many paths you can meander down throughout the British countryside.
Alternatively, you can use paving to divide up sections of your garden. Cottage-style gardens are by their nature unstructured, but you may decide that a complete lack of organisation is too much. Clever placement of pathways can help section off certain flowerbeds, making them seem more special.
On a design note, most professionals recommend laying down curved or zig zag paths as opposed to straight ones. This style of landscaping is all about achieving that natural look, and nature rarely creates perfectly straight lines. Doing this prevents you from spending a fair amount of money just to undo the very aesthetic you’re trying to create.
If you’re worried that even curved paving is too rigid, border the edges with more plants. In having flowers growing over the sharp edges of the paths, you can soften the hard stone visuals. Even if you’re not worried about this, adding this little touch is a subtle way of tying everything together.
Rustic aesthetic features
A cottage-style garden isn’t complete until you’ve topped it off with a few charming accessories. These can be anything from old yet delightful watering cans, to classic cycles and even to wheelbarrows.
The aim with these items is to twofold. First, you want to add some final touches to your garden’s visual diversity. Cottage-style gardens are known for their abundance of flowers. But without anything to balance them out, they can look like they’re overwhelming the space. Adding some man-made, yet homespun features can help soften the effect.
Second, these features are great at solidifying that rustic, pastoral aesthetic. Remember, it’s not just about letting your garden run rampant – you’re trying to evoke a particular time and style. These charismatic, practical additions go a long way to achieving that.
Benefits of a cottage-style garden
It’s no accident that these garden designs are growing in popularity in rural areas. Aside from the obvious strengths, such as how visually impressive they are, though there are many other reasons to create one.
While the lack of traditional structure might seem daunting when it comes to designing your garden, it has its benefits. As you don’t have to maintain a rigid sense of form, there’s a much lower demand on you to keep it looking pristine. In fact, letting it overgrow just a little can help solidify that natural look.
Additionally, homeowners often have to worry about dealing with common weeds. The aesthetic of a formal or Mediterranean garden, for example, can be disrupted quite easily by a few weeds. However, a cottage-style garden isn’t as susceptible to these problems. Because it’s less important that you maintain a tight visual style, some new weeds are unlikely to be noticed.
Because of how wild and unstructured a cottage-style garden is, you can be sure that yours will be unique. Not only is it almost impossible for your garden to be the same as someone else’s, it’s equally as unlikely that it will be the same year to year.
Your plants will propagate themselves differently through various seeding patterns. As the seasons change, some plants will grow anew, while others will need replacing. This can create a real sense of a living garden that shifts and evolves over time.
This landscaping design is also ideal for those that want to express their own personality through their home. The lack of formal structure allows you to run wild with your creativity.
The initial cost of a garden of this style is very low. As it doesn’t require that much, if any, landscaping there are no large upfront costs. In fact, you can start off by spending no more than a few pounds buying a couple packs of seeds.
Cottage-style gardens aren’t intended to support an abundance of large, flashy plants. You might want to buy a couple of anchor plants, such as shrubs or rose bushes. But even then, the rest of the garden is likely to be made of inexpensive alternatives – filler plants.
Drawbacks of a cottage-style garden
With all that said, there are some areas in which cottage-style gardens don’t excel as well.
Didn’t we file this under the strengths of this garden landscaping design? Yes, we did – and those benefits remain true. However, there are elements of the maintenance involved that can also become time consuming.
For example, with a garden of this size the watering demands are intensive. Not only are there a lot of plants to look after, it can be tricky to make sure they all get given equal care.
Furthermore, cottage gardens can become quite large over time. When this happens, keeping track of what you’ve planted and where is difficult. This makes knowing which plants are reaching the end of their lifespan, and therefore need replacing, increasingly challenging.
This is entirely a matter of personal preference, so for you this may not be a drawback. However, the lack of structure can put a lot of homeowners off the design. Busy professionals are unlikely to have the time to design and maintain a garden of this nature. For them, something more logical and organised, such as a small in-ground garden, might be more appropriate.
What are the ideal plants to have in a cottage-style garden?
Cottage-style gardens are the ideal canvas to get creative with when it comes to the flowers you choose to plant. Given their lack of rigid structure and characteristic bursts of colour, you’ll want to make the most of the style by buying an assortment of different plants.
You could feasibly have anywhere up to 20 or 30 different species in your garden. However, even in a cottage-style garden, this can sometimes look a but messy. You want to create an aesthetic that looks dynamic and colourful, not random and nonsensical. As such, we’ve put together a list of 5 staple flowers that every cottage-style garden should have.
With these you can start to put together a solid base of flowers that you add to as you progress. This way when you plant something new, you can check back with this list to see if it would complement or clash with the core aesthetics.
A typical plant seen throughout Britain. Lavender shrubs consist of hundreds of tall stems topped with purple flowers, which give off a soft aroma. One of the most common species of lavender plant – the Hidcote – grows in small bushes at a height of up to 2ft.
If you’d like to grow lavender, you need to ensure that they are planted in full view of sunlight. Additionally, it grows at its best rates when placed in alkaline soil that’s free draining, perhaps even chalky.
Lavender is best matched with other similarly scented plants, such as rosemary.
Just be careful with the plants that you pair it with. The texture and size of the lavender can be dominating when put next to certain other types of shrubbery.
For many, the rose is considered a staple of cottage-style gardens. They capture the vibrancy, elegance and romance that the original cottage gardens had. Roses also fill the air with delightful aromas that will make you want to spend hours just appreciating the environment.
They are best added to gardens in such a way that allows them to fill out what you lack. Roses can be bought and cultivated to either be climbers, shrubs or groundcover roses, all of which have their merits.
Climbers are great for adding verticality to your cottage-style garden. Many flowers struggle to grow to exceptionally tall heights, and a batch of roses can help offset that.
Shrubs are ideal for bringing a pop of colour to that middle height that most flowers sit at.
Meanwhile, groundcover roses excel (unsurprisingly) at lining the ground with something much more visually interesting than exposed patches of soil. If you have any bushes that grow tall and leave an under area uncovered, these are the perfect remedy.
Roses are a resilient flower, but also one that requires a good deal of maintenance. Initially, they need to be planted in damp yet well drained soil. Constant sunlight during the day is also a must. After that they need to be fertilised every spring. Your reward for all this effort is a stunning flower that is surprisingly resistant to a variety of weather conditions.
Otherwise known by its Latin name Philadelphus, the mock orange blooms into pockets of cloud-like white flowers. Their height can vary wildly, with some strains growing up to 2.5ft tall, with others reaching over 12ft in size.
Like most flowers they grow most effectively in direct sunlight but can also grow reasonably well in partial sun too. Additionally, mock orange plants are adaptable to just about any type of soil.
Mock orange has a potent perfume-like scent.
The foxglove – or Digitalis – is one of a few flowers you would be hard pressed not to find in any cottage-style garden. It’s a tall, thin plant that grows into a spire-like shape. A series of bulbs sprouts from its stem, most commonly emerging in either a white or a deep pink.
Foxgloves bloom from late spring to mid-summer. There are many species too, including biennial and perennial variants.
They’re also what’s known as self-seeding plants, meaning that they spread their own seeds in the surrounding soil. This propagates another generation of foxgloves, that then repeat the process. Self-seeders are great for those that want to plant their flowers and then not have to worry about them.
If you want to grow some of your own, make sure you have moist but well-drained soil. It needs to be fertile and in direct sunlight. Also, plant these alongside low sprouting plants like groundcover roses or geraniums. Typical species of foxglove can grow up to 6ft tall, with plenty of empty space near the soil where no bulbs grow. Combining them with plants like geraniums helps fill out that empty space with some colour.
This is one of the more visually impressive options for a cottage-style garden. Delphinium plants come in a variety of cool yet bold colours – lots of navy blues, purples and blue-greys. They’re a great choice if you’re looking to counterbalance some of the warmer flowers in your garden, such as a bed of roses.
Delphiniums tend to grow into one of two cultivars. (A cultivar, for reference, is a type of plant grown through selective breeding). The first type is the Elatum group, in which the delphiniums grow up to 6.5ft tall. This cultivar is perfect for adding some verticality to your flowerbeds. Or you can plant them near the garden entrance to create an immediate impression.
The second cultivar is called the Belladonna group and is characterised with much smaller plants. These delphiniums also grow outward with branches, so their silhouette is vastly different.
As with nearly all the plants listed here, being planted in direct sunlight is ideal. However, you should be careful not to plant the delphinium somewhere that it can be affected by strong winds. Due to its combination of a tall but thin stem (at least with the Elatum cultivars), the plant can be easily damaged by powerful winds.
Additionally, the delphinium requires the extra care of being staked and then protected from wildlife. Slugs in particular cause problems for the plant.
Because of their height and relative width, delphiniums make excellent choices to fill out the back borders of a cottage-style garden.
Get a quote
At this point, you should be an expert on cottage-style gardens. From here it’s up to you to decide whether this type of garden is right for you. If it is, fill out the form below. Quotatis will put you in contact with a series of local, qualified tradespeople who can help you.
That said, cottage-style gardens may not fit the aesthetic or functions that you want out of your space. In that case we’d recommend exploring the benefits of another garden landscaping design.