Plants to Make an English Cottage Style Garden

Updated on July 21, 2018
Glenis Rix profile image

As a child, Glenis learned from her horticulturist family a love of gardening. Almost seventy years later, she continues to grow and learn.

History of the English Cottage Garden

The English love of gardens and gardening is legendary. It has been said that, by and large, we are a nation of gardeners.Functional gardens attached to workers cottages first made an appearance in England several centuries ago. They provided fruit, vegetables, and medicinal herbs for the family. Spaces that would otherwise be empty were filled with flowers, both for their beauty and to suppress weeds. Chickens roamed freely and there might even be a pig sty and a beehive on the small plot. As the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum many agricultural workers moved from rural villages to towns. A productive town garden was often not possible, though the people who remained in the countryside continued with the old ways. In the wake of Romanticism, the cottage garden became popular amongst more affluent members of society, undergoing a stylised reinvention. Flowers became the predominant feature.

Anne Hathaway's cottage garden at Shottery, Warwickshire, England
Anne Hathaway's cottage garden at Shottery, Warwickshire, England | Source

Characteristics of an English Cottage Style

An English cottage garden has a distinct style—an informal design, densely planted, with paths and hard structures constructed from traditional building materials. The overall effect is artless, romantic, and uncontrived.

Nowadays, English country cottages sell for a premium and are frequently the preserve of the more affluent members of society. A drive through any village in England will reveal of a wealth of cottage gardens, but they are not confined to rural areas. My own garden is on a 1960s housing development but my garden has evolved over the years into the distinctive cottage garden style. My lawn has largely been replaced by paths in traditional materials and raised vegetable beds.There are certain plants that are typical of this type of garden. Roses, of course, are predominant. Towering hollyhocks, planted in bygone days close to the walls of cottages to draw out damp, feature at the back of borders, cranesbill geranium provide ground cover under the shade of trees, and a wealth of other perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals provide a riot of colour throughout all but the coldest winter months.

A mixed border of shrubs, perennial, and annual plants. There is a lawn in my father's garden, though this is not a traditional component of a cottage garden
A mixed border of shrubs, perennial, and annual plants. There is a lawn in my father's garden, though this is not a traditional component of a cottage garden | Source
A sheltered garden in South West England during early September
A sheltered garden in South West England during early September | Source
A Springtime rockery behind a stone retaining wall fronting a modern bungalow in a Wiltshire village
A Springtime rockery behind a stone retaining wall fronting a modern bungalow in a Wiltshire village | Source

Choice of Plants for a Cottage Garden

There is a vast array of traditional cottage garden plants to choose from. Our choices will be restricted by the type of soil, the aspect of the borders, and colour preferences. If you are stuck for ideas, consult a beautifully written and photographed guide to English gardens, like this one by award-winning gardening author and journalist Ursula Buchan. I have one border that has been designed for romantic pink and blue plants and another for the hot reds, oranges, and yellows that arrive later in the summer season and the autumn here in England. Here are a few of my favourites.

1. Roses

You may not have a rose-covered porch framing an ancient oak door but a few feet of trellis or an obelisk provide great alternative support for climbing or rambling roses. The traditional roses for a cottage garden are the fragrant Old Garden Roses. Some varieties have self-supporting stems, whilst others need support.

David Austin has been breeding disease resistant roses since the 1950s and is still adding new varieties each year. His displays at the Chelsea Flower Show have won 23 Gold medals. I particularly like Gertrude Jekyll, which has his strongest fragrance and pink rosettes. It has been voted England's favourite rose in a Gardener's World poll. I have a couple of specimens which grow in mixed flower borders. Nepeta and the tall delicate spikes of Heuchera made a nice foil that doesn't detract from the beauty of the rose. Night Scented Stock is sown annually amongst the plants to provide another layer of perfume.

Bear in mind, though, that roses require a lot of attention. They need to be fed, pruned, dead-headed, and sprayed against insect infestation (greenfly) and fungal infection (usually black spot). They are hungry plants, so I incorporate well-rotted manure into the soil around the base of the bushes in the late autumn. To keep infestations at bay, I start to spray the plants with a specialist rose insect and fungus repellant at the end of April and then spray again at intervals until the end of August.


Gertrude Jekyll All roses thrive best if fed regularly, mulched, and sprayed to prevent greenfly and fungal disease
Gertrude Jekyll All roses thrive best if fed regularly, mulched, and sprayed to prevent greenfly and fungal disease | Source
Roses tumbling over my fence
Roses tumbling over my fence | Source

What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet (2.2.45-7)

Nepeta, Heuchera, and Pinks growing amongst rose bushes
Nepeta, Heuchera, and Pinks growing amongst rose bushes | Source

2. Hollyhocks

After roses, hollyhock is the flower that I most associate with a traditional cottage garden.Plant a few hollyhocks and they will last for several years, self-seeding if you don't remove the spent blooms, and growing to a height of up to 2.4 metres. I have double pinks masking a brick boundary wall and double maroon and double white in front of a trellis that screens a small raised vegetable bed. The only disadvantage of hollyhocks is that they are prone to powdery mildew. Regular spraying with fungicide keeps it in check.

Hollyhocks by Eastman Johnson 1876
Hollyhocks by Eastman Johnson 1876 | Source

3. English Lavender

What could be more evocative of an English garden than the scent of lavender? There are so many varieties that gardeners are spoilt for choice. The plants are tolerant of poor soil and of drought conditions - which makes them an ideal choice as the climate changes. I have Hidcote and Munstead in my garden. They are also attractive to bees, who produce lavender honey from the nectar that they collect. Grow individual plants or plant them to form a hedge. When cutting back at the end of the flowering season, the dry flower heads can be used in baking, for a bowl of fragrant potpourri, or for making lavender bags to slip into a lingerie draw.

English Lavender Blossom
English Lavender Blossom | Source

4. Pinks

Delicate, fragant, garden pinks are easy to grow and their silvery foliage provides all year round interest in the garden. They are good for cutting, if you can bear to do it, and they make a lovely corsage or buttonhole for special occasions. The plants become woody after about three years but it's easy to maintain a constant supply of young plants by either layering non-flowering shoots or taking cuttings.

Double Pinks
Double Pinks | Source

5. Delphinium

A classic flower in the traditional garden. Tall spikes of flowers are short-lived but if the plants are cut back to the ground immediately after flowering they may produce a second flush later in the season. Plant in groups of blue and white for the best effect. My favourite at the moment is Delphinium Cherry Blossom. Regenerate and increase your stock every three years or so by dividing the plants. Guard against attacks by slugs and snails, particularly amongst new, unestablished plants.

Delphiniums aka Larkspur
Delphiniums aka Larkspur | Source

6. Love-in-the-Mist

Love-in-the-Mist is the beautiful common name for Nigella. Delicate flowers and fern-like foliage. It self-seeds and flowers abundantly in my flower beds every year. Scatter seed wherever there is a gap in the flower border. It flowers for about eight weeks.

Love-in-the-Mist Miss Jekyll
Love-in-the-Mist Miss Jekyll | Source

7. Verbascum

Verbascum, common name Mullein, needs well-drained soil, lots of space for the foliage, and a sunny aspect. The numerous tiny buttery yellow flowers are borne on spikes which grow to a height of seven feet in my sandy soil. A spectacular perennial, attractive to bees, for a cottage border.

Verbascum
Verbascum | Source

8. Clematis

Choose several different plants carefully for a variety of different clematis scrambling over your fences, trellis, or amongst trees, for many months. I grow macropetala Blue Bird, a shade loving variety which can withstand extremely low temperatures and flowers in March/April, Comtesse to Bouchard, which flowers July-September, Margaret Hunt - June/July, and the evergreen Arabella in a pot at the base of an east-facing wall of the house. Clematis roots must be shaded from the sun - place a few rocks or some gravel around the base of the plant. There are three different pruning groups - light, severe, and no pruning - so make sure that you know which yours belong to so that you can cut back at the correct time of year. Watch for clematis wilt, or stem rot, and cut out any affected stems.

Clematis Margaret Hunt

Clematis Margaret Hunt, planted on trellis nailed to a west-facing 6ft wooden fence
Clematis Margaret Hunt, planted on trellis nailed to a west-facing 6ft wooden fence | Source

9. Mock Orange

Philadelphus, a perennial shrub, is commonly known as Mock Orange because its scent is said to me similar to that of orange blossom (though it reminds me of bubble gum). During a summer evening in June the perfume from the gracefully arching stems will pervade the garden and mingle delightfully with that of Night Scented Stocks and garden Pinks. Mock Orange is very easy to grow. I have succesfully taken semi-ripe cuttings and simply planted them to my light soil, where within a few years they have grown to a height of around seven feet. Philadelphus must be pruned properly - immediately after flowering cut out the dead flower stems and cut out some old branches to prevent overcrowding.

Philadelphus (Mock Orange). A perennial shrub, flowering in June, that has a wonderful scent that is reminiscent of bubble gum.
Philadelphus (Mock Orange). A perennial shrub, flowering in June, that has a wonderful scent that is reminiscent of bubble gum. | Source

10. Lupins

Late May Lupins
Late May Lupins | Source
Source

Annuals for an English-Cottage Style Garden

Unless you are willing to go the expense of buying large established plants from a nursery the quickest way to produce a spectacular display of flower in the garden is to sow annuals amongst the young perennials and shrubs in new borders. Many of them are self-seeding, if you don't remove the dead flowers. I have marigolds coming up in the borders every year as a result of putting in a few plants many years ago. I broad cast few forget-me-not seeds gathered from my son's garden many years ago and now each Spring have a blue carpet of flowers mingling with tulips.

Nowadays different seed mixtures are available ready-sown in biodegrable mats. Simply place the mat where you want the flowers to appear and cover lightly with compost, grit, or topsoil. Water regularly until established. This year I have had very successful results from a couple of mats which produced bee-loving Borage, Common Knapweed, Anise Hyssop, Verbena, Lady Phacelia and Viper's Buglos.

Every year, without fail, I make thin repeat sowings of Night Scented Stock throughout my flower borders so that I get blossoms for as long as possible throughout the summer season. The flowers are unspectacular but the scent,once the sun has gone down, is sublime. Place a bench in a quiet spot in the garden, watch the stars appear and enjoy.

Plants in Pots

Asiatic lily, Brunello grown with begonia cascade orange in an east facing pot
Asiatic lily, Brunello grown with begonia cascade orange in an east facing pot | Source

Herbs for a Cottage Garden

No traditional cottage-style garden would be complete without a collection of herbs, nowadays used largely for culinary purposes but in the past used to make herbal remedies. Grow them in terracotta pots on the patio, or in the borders. I have a bay, thyme, sage, mint, chives, borage. ( Mint is invasive and bay trees eventually grow to a height of around 38 feet if left unpruned. Both are best grown in pots.)

Borage. An annual herb also known as starflower It is used both for medicinal purposes and in cooking.
Borage. An annual herb also known as starflower It is used both for medicinal purposes and in cooking. | Source
Oregano. Good in Italian recipes and a pretty polinator friendly plant for the flower border
Oregano. Good in Italian recipes and a pretty polinator friendly plant for the flower border | Source

Few cooks need an entire packet of seed herbs, so often purchase a pot of culinary herbs from the supermarket for a specific recipe and then throw the pot out after the plant starts to wilt. Trying planting your expensive purchase out in the border and watering well until established. Not all herbs will take root but it's worth trying. I have successfully grown parsley in this way and it has survived throughout the winter.

Increasing Your Stock of Plants for a Cottage Garden by Taking Cuttings

A new garden takes several years to mature unless you have unlimited financial resources to buy large quantities of the best-quality mature plants. Patience is a virtue that most gardeners have to learn. The good news is that our stock of plants can be substantially increased for the cost of a few cheap plant pots, a sack of cutting compost, a bag of horticultural gravel, and a small pot of rooting compound.

The correct time to take cuttings from dianthus, pelargoniums, and flowering shrubs such as lavender is during the flowering season.

How to Take Cuttings from Dianthus (Garden Pinks)

  • Make a mixture of potting compost and horticultural gravel and place it into small pots. I find a mixture of 80/20 percent works for me.
  • Find some none flowering shoots on the parent plant and carefully remove, by either gently breaking or cutting away.
  • Using a sharp knife cut a section of the stalk just below a leaf node.
  • Strip off most of the leaves above the leaf node.
  • Dip the base of the cutting in rooting compound.
  • Gently insert the cutting into the edge of the plant pot.
  • Continue in the way until you have four of five cuttings around the edge of the pot
  • Water the compost and place the pots out of the sun.
  • Keep the compost moist, but don't overwater
  • Once the cuttings have taken root and start to grow, pot them on into individual plant pots
  • During the winter months keep the plants in a frost-free location - if you don't have a greenhouse a garden frame or a cool windowsill in the house are OK.
  • Plant out in the Spring

This method works well for pelargoniums too. I have just taken what must be twelfth generation cuttings from a plant that was originally grown by my father. (You may think me sentimental, but I feel that my Dad's spirit lives on in the plants that he so lovingly grew).

Cuttings of garden pinks
Cuttings of garden pinks | Source

Use Plastic Carrier Bags as Propagators

We should all be trying to avoid picking up a plastic carrier bag at the supermarket but ocassionally one finds it way into the home. Here's a way to make use of it
We should all be trying to avoid picking up a plastic carrier bag at the supermarket but ocassionally one finds it way into the home. Here's a way to make use of it | Source
Cuttings which have rooted and started to grow
Cuttings which have rooted and started to grow | Source

Potting-on Rooted Cuttings

Gently tease rooted cuttings from the pot and re-plant in individual pots. Make a hole of sufficient size for the roots and drop the plant into the hole. Gently firm the compost and water.
Gently tease rooted cuttings from the pot and re-plant in individual pots. Make a hole of sufficient size for the roots and drop the plant into the hole. Gently firm the compost and water. | Source

Collecting Seed from Garden Flowers

Once the flowerheads on hollyhock plants have died back and fallen off you will find a seed pod on the plants. Harvest these and store them in a labelled brown paper bag until the sowing season (March or July in England). Then plant them in seed trays filled with seed compost and watch them grow!

Life in a Cottage Garden

Carole Klein in is a passionate plantswoman who often appears on British tv to talk about the flowers that she loves and how to cultivate them. A recent accolade that I recently heard from her peers is that nobody knows more about perennial plants than she. This beautifully illustrated book, Life in a Cottage Garden, is about a year in her lovely garden at Glebe Cottage. It is both inspiration and a useful guide for anyone who loves the cottage garden style of gardening.

How to Grow Hollyhocks from Seed

Taking Cuttings from Lavender

There are two methods of taking lavender cutting - ripe, hardwood cuttings or semi-ripe cuttings. The methods can be applied to all flowering shrubs. My father said that I had magic in my fingers because I have had success simply breaking off a piece of hardwood with a heel and dropping it into the garden. I suspect that the 'cuttings' grew because I have very light sandy soil, ideal for Mediterranean plants. I wouldn't recommend that you rely entirely on this method! Instead, take a semi-ripe cutting from a non-flowering shoot and dip the bottom of it into hormone rooting powder.

Taking Semi-Ripe Cuttings of Shrubs

Vegetables in the Cottage Garden

There are few garden tasks more satisfying that stepping into the garden to harvest fruit and vegetables for the table. In bygone days a cottage gardener aimed to grow sufficient fruit and vegetables to feed the family throughout the year. My garden is small, and as my family has flown over the years my fruit and vegetable patch has reduced in size, but I still maintain a small raised bed as a nod to tradition. Filled will fertile compost the bed can be intensively planted. Currently, I am harvesting cauliflower, salad leaves, radish and strawberries. I look forward to beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, leeks, tomatoes and red onions later in the year.

An intensively planted raised vegetable bed, which I am about to thin out.
An intensively planted raised vegetable bed, which I am about to thin out. | Source

Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death. I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once

Beverley Nichols

Merry Hall

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 GlenR

    Comments

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    • Claire-louise profile image

      Claire Raymond 

      16 months ago from UK

      Excellent article, I know nothing about gardening, but I am trying to learn, so this would definitely be a good place to start. Thank you.

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