RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The Quintessential English Ideal

A Little Cottage Garden

At least for Americans, the effervescence of billowing roses over a simple archway entrance, a mound of snowy shasta daisies peeking out from a prim picket fence, and all the other pictures we hold of the old fashioned Cottage gardens, is an ideal flower garden.

As beloved and admired as this style may be,it isn’t for everyone.

It is dependent on intensively improved soil to support the growth of exuberant flowers. Such closely planted perennials need regular care, which then give their utmost bloom. This is both a style and growing method which results in one of the most attractive effects for flower gardens.

If you find yourself drawn to this style, as I have always been, here are some beginning tips, background history, and descriptions by a few famous gardeners to help you create this garden of your dreams.

Creating a Cottage Style Garden:

The design and plantings


The cottage style of gardening is a way of bringing the country into the city, and is right at home in country vistas. I’ve always loved this style and it has variations to suit a number of situations.

First some history and definitions:

Although the English form is well-known, cottage gardening is indigenous to any culture where people had small plots of their own and a need and interest in growing stands of useful plants.

The look is abundant and informal. English cottage gardens, and their American counterparts, have a profusion of plants for cutting, herbs for cooking and areas or interspersion of vegetables. Fruit trees and roses usually find a place as well.
The original makers of such gardens were hardworking people, and they were sometimes hard-pressed to make ends meet.

Cottage rose

Rosa ‘Leander’ by Kristine Paulus on Flickr

The roses were for medicinal use rather than simply aa landscape beauty, other medicinal and household herbs were grown for usefulness. A remainder of the cottagers economy is the quality of covering every square inch of soil with something of purpose, either plant or structure or feature, without crowding or sacrificing plant health.

Hardy Roses

During the Arts and Crafts Movement of late Victorian times, the cottage gardens took on a more romantic mantle that remains to this day. Flowers are more prominent and grown for their ornamental value, and the medical uses are forgotten: remember that foxglove is digitalis and Delphinium and Valerian have strong physical effects! They are also gorgeous flowers with spires of graceful form and color.
Many impressionist paintings portray the beauty of the cottage garden and in Giverny Monet’s garden is an extant example.

While anyone who wants it may grow a cottage style, its profusion best counters the plain or quaint facades of architecture rather than sleek contemporary looks. Any place that looks right with lace curtains in the windows is lovely with a cottage garden.
Of course, if you want a cottage garden, you may now be interested in plants and design ideas.

“What is the secret of the cottage garden’s charm? Cottage gardeners are good to their plots, and in the course of years they make them fertile … But there is something more and it is the absence of any pretentious ‘plan,’ which lets the flowers tell their story to the heart.” -William Robinson, 1883


Plant Material for the Cottage Garden

Nineteenth Century cottage gardeners were the “unwitting conservationists of their day. They had neither the money nor the opportunity to join the craze for plant hunting that was sweeping the Western world, so they carried on cultivating and nurturing the old-fashioned flowers that were rapidly losing popularity. ~Jackie Bennett in “Cottage Garden Journal.”
Victorian vision of cottage gardens

Flowers in a Cottage Garden many times are old-fashioned types and they are planted in billowing drifting groups. Think of puffy summer clouds, and wafting mists.


Malus- any dwarf apples, well-pruned Standard apples, crabapples, and espaliered forms.
Ornamental trees- any small to medium flowering trees, interesting formssuch as the twisted forms of willow and hazelnut (Corylus).
Roses described as shrub types, Lilacs, Mock oranges, Viburnum carlesii, sweetshrub (Calycanthus), those that grow full, can be pruned, and preferably flower.
Spire and Tall flowers
Foxgloves, Delphiniums, Meadowsweet, Dames Rocket, Aruncus, Lilies (all forms), Balloon flowers, Sunflowers, Hollyhocks, these give height and visual variation to the garden.
Mounds of Flowers
Phlox, Dianthus (carnations), Sweet William, daisies of all kinds, Iberis, Columbines, Lavender, Marjoram, Sages, Calendulas, Monardas, and many, many others.
Creeping and filler plants
flowers of small proportions such as Campanula carpatica or pusilla, violets, pansies, herbs of Thyme, Parsley, sedums, many diminutive annuals such as Linaria, Dahlberg daisies, and others listed on my annuals page all packed in so that every inch of ground is put to good use. Remember this is a trait of the cottage garden.
Vining and Weaving plants
Essential for the loosely laced design of cottage gardens is the interweaving of climbing rose, clematis, or honeysuckle. Depending on the amount of room and strength of supports, your choice of cultivars is wide. If you have constricted space choose a climber with polite habits: Nelly Moser rather than Jackmanni clematis; The Alchemist rather than Paul’s Himalayan climbing rose; and Belgica rather than Hall’s honeysuckle.
A potter’s garden

Useful Advice for Cottage Gardens:

from various designers and writers

William Lawson, … thought that a kitchen gardenshould have “comely borders” with herbs and “an abundance of roses and lavender” which “yield much profit, and comfort to the senses”.

Russell Page, that doyen of twentieth-century garden designers, explained to me that as you walked from your house the garden must invite you on, you should not feel there is a clutter of plants impeding your progress. Every garden needs an open space for you to walk into, a place where you can take a deep breath, contemplate your surroundings, and enjoy the moment.” –Rosemary Verey

“It is pleasant to know each one of your plants intimately because you have chosen and planted every one of them.”
“Nowhere in the world is there anything like the English cottage garden. In every village and hamlet in the land, there are these little gardens, always gay and never garish, and so obviously loved. There are not so many now, alas, as those cottages of cob or brick … are disappearing to make way for council houses and modern bungalows, but the flowers remain, flowers that have come to be known as cottage flowers because of their simple, steadfast qualities.” –Margery Fish

Lilies are indispensable, in particular the beautiful Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), which seems to always grow in the traditional Cottage gardens in rows.

“A strong garden plan will always be weakened by the “liquorice- all sorts” effect caused by the one-of-this-one-of-that type of planting”
-John Brookes




“Cottage-garden style has been deeply rooted in our philosophy through many centuries. It was first written about by William Lawson in the ‘Country Housewife’s Garden,’ published in 1617, banished by the 18th-century landscape movement and revived by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll more than a hundred years ago.” ~Rosemary Verey, “The Cottage Gardener’s Companion.”

The path runs straight between the flowering rows,
A moonlit path, hemmed in by beds of bloom,
Where phlox and marigolds dispute for room
With tall, red dahlias and the briar rose.
‘T is reckless prodigality which throws
Into the night these wafts of rich perfume
Which sweep across the garden like a plume.
Over the trees a single bright star glows.
Dear garden of my childhood, here my years
Have run away like little grains of sand;
The moments of my life, its hopes and fears
Have all found utterance here, where now I stand;

My eyes ache with the weight of unshed tears,
You are my home, do you not understand?

~Amy Lowell

Monet's garden

Quicklist: hints and tips

  • Create drifts of plants in groups of three to five
  • Leave annuals to self-seed, they will sprout in random ways that is really charming.
  • Look best in naturalistic drifts
  • Contrast edgings of one plant with the seeming unplanned jumble of flowers
  • Remember that fragrance and simple flowers add to the ambiance of a garden

Cottage Garden Accessories, Next

Once planted, add accessories that complete the picture.

Cottage Garden Accents