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How to Decide If an English Cottage Garden Is Right for You

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Ilona has gardened actively for most of her life and has been a writer and webmaster online since 1998. Homeschooled all 10 of her children.

Get advice on how to determine if the English cottage garden style is a good fit for your yard.

Get advice on how to determine if the English cottage garden style is a good fit for your yard.

5 Key Characteristics of a Cottage-Style Garden

  1. Hardscape details: A picket fence, an iron gate, a brick or stone pathway, and a traditional arched arbor can instantly create the feeling of a quaint, old-time garden. Benches, flower urns, other garden accessories and structures heighten the sense of style underpinning the plantings.
  2. An abundance of plants: "Abundance," "exuberance," and "jumbled" are all words to describe the way the plants fill and overflow the flowerbeds. Be sure to use enough of one type of plant to give a full look without a confused look of odds and ends of plants tossed together. There is a method to the madness of such places: make drifts of grouped plants in odd numbers like five or seven.
  3. Roses: The planting scheme will benefit from the addition of roses. The heritage/heirloom types with many petals or, conversely, the simple single roses, especially. Climbing and shrub types give the architectural grace that was seen around these traditional homes.
  4. Careful maintenance: Intensively cultivated, regular maintenance of plants, soil and weeding is needed when flowers are grown this way. This nostalgic style is a labor of love—the love of the plants!
  5. Traditional architecture: The look best matches traditional architecture, like Cape Cod, English Tudor, and other such homes. Reconciling the sleeker, modern-style homes is more of a challenge. It will require some modification to meld the house with its surroundings.
A cottage-style garden can be truly wonderful, but the design isn't the best fit for every yard.

A cottage-style garden can be truly wonderful, but the design isn't the best fit for every yard.

With its outdoor rooms in English style, Sissinghurst is well known for this design full of well-thought plantings.

With its outdoor rooms in English style, Sissinghurst is well known for this design full of well-thought plantings.

This Style Speaks of Simpler Times

What's the secret to designing these charming spaces?

Everybody loves the quaint cottage gardens they see in pictures, or happily chance to visit. There is something warm and welcoming about the traditional ones that remind us of simpler times, grandmother's borders, full of an overflow of flowers and fruits to gather on a summer's day.

  • How easy is it to create or care for one?
  • Does this landscape match the style of your home?
  • Will it work to tuck one into a corner if at odds with the house facade?

Such outdoor spaces have certain plants that give the style its own unmistakable look. These are rooted in the history of England's farmers and villagers. Will those plants match the landscape needs of your site?

Discover: Suitability for Your Site

Let's walk together into these quaint front yards, through their gates and around their pathways.

Maybe such a plan is perfect for your own home landscape. Or if not, you can enjoy our guided tour through this old-time enclosure fairly bursting with fruits, flowering bushes and fragrant blooms. Certainly, a place to dream about . . . but is it the one for your home?

A lovely cottage garden path.

A lovely cottage garden path.

Historical Background

These were originally the food and flower patch of everyday tenant farmers; those who worked on other people's lands, but had a little house and yard of their own.

  • They were small, practical plots, meant for feeding and supporting the family.
  • They were intensively cultivated, every little plant was placed cheek by jowl to make the best use of the small space afforded. This meant that the plantings were mixed: fruit trees, small fruits, medicinal and culinary herbs, and a few pretty things thrown in just for the love of it.
  • Originally these areas adjacent to the house were meant to be low maintenance with the main effort dedicated to the kitchen vegetables and fruits.
  • It is only in relatively modern times that the "tidy mess" became a complicated endeavor of constant flowering.

As the Victorian era reached a frenzy of decoration and love of the exotic and the oddity, there grew a hunger for these more humble flowerbed designs. Quietly maintained by country folk who had remained unchanged by the whims of fashion, influential gardeners took notice.

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William Robinson, Tastemaker

A tastemaker, William Robinson, wrote passionately about these older types of gardens and their simpler flowers and abundant plantings.

Gertrude Jekyll joined the movement which swept away the bedding and parterres to a large degree, and implemented their ideals of a picturesque and a more artistically natural feel of style.

Roses and clematis grow up around the stone dwelling.

Roses and clematis grow up around the stone dwelling.

How This Style Developed

Many of what we call "English gardens" have a distinctive form of naturalistic planting that takes its cue from the old dwellings of small English villages.

The English style can vary widely from the grand, sweeping estates of the landscape movement of Capability Brown to the more "gardenesque" styles of the Victorian age. They also include this form which we love so well.

Edwardians Needed a More Natural Look

The growth of the middle class coincided with the popular sentiment to create a home with a garden that included the natural look of the old familiar flowers. The rigid regimentation of plants in rows, bedding out, or tightly manicured flower beds gave way to the more romantic freedom of William Robinson's vision.

William Robinson wrote "The Wild Gardener" and changed the appearance of English gardening forever afterward. He persuasively argued for the old-fashioned flowers and planting style of the traditional cottagers. It revived and became the iconic look that we equate with British landscape design today.

In full bloom in Hemingford Abbots, Cambridgeshire.

In full bloom in Hemingford Abbots, Cambridgeshire.

Rooted in England

A cottage garden is . . .

  • A place filled with plants jostling each other for pride of place, outdoing each other with blooms. They regale us with their joie de vivre as they burst forth from the earth, woven together and entwined in each other's arms, scenting the air freely with rose, honeysuckle, and lily. This is what most of us think of as the ideal flower garden.
  • Usually, a smaller space enclosure surrounded by a fence. It is often punctuated with straight paths on an axis, the main one leading directly to the front door which is draped with climbing rose or clematis vines.
  • A food garden, if grown traditionally, and fruits are grown to delicious ripeness, while carpets of thyme can be seen among the stepping stones and along the path, perhaps with a seat of its own.
A modern home can show off tradition by harmonizing the surroundings with the architecture.

A modern home can show off tradition by harmonizing the surroundings with the architecture.

Contemporary House Design With an Old-Fashioned Garden

The modern form of this look is almost always a flowery one. While vegetables might be welcome, they are rarely included when designing such a plan. But with today's trends, it could be time to return to the former methods of growing herbs, vegetables and flowers all together.

Incorporate Food Plants

With the new emphasis on edibles in the front yard, it might be time to incorporate more of the salads and herbs into the streetside landscape plans if this is your desired style. They can be almost hidden in among the blooming plants with some of the colored foliage of lettuces or chard actually adding bright color.

Selection of Location

Two good places in the landscape for such plantings might be a small area by the door, an entry area enclosed with a fence, or a border next to the driveway.

Cleome, Cosmos, Begonia, Nicotiana syvestris, Allyssum, Coreopsis

Cleome, Cosmos, Begonia, Nicotiana syvestris, Allyssum, Coreopsis

Harmonize Home and Yard

Most homes will harmonize with this style, but a strongly contemporary one with modern lines may be visually jarring. It has a feeling that the two aren't knit together properly. While Cape Cod style and traditional bungalows seem made for the simple cloud-like drifts of flowers and vines that comprise a proper cottage garden.

  • Generally, if you have a picket fence, you can have this sort of border! Rustic-looking fences and Craftsman-styled houses will look ideal with this abundance of plants.
  • Not for the front yard? Make a personal space hidden away in the backyard.
  • It is a tried and true method is to make outdoor "rooms", sectioned off areas of the landscape to create a different sort of design from those adjacent.
  • Utilize bushes, either in a shrubbery or hedge, and create your version of the style in a compartment of its own. This is one way to have your cake and eat it, too, when the house is a style that looks jarring with an overflow of flowering plants. Your own personal bower.

Is This Style for You?

Don't let the simplicity of the look fool you. These are intensively cultivated properties that require a good deal of attention and labor from the gardener. Someone who has time to work in the flowerbeds and among the vegetables, pruning the fruit trees, and keeping everything healthy and in good order. Does that describe you?

It isn't an easy or maintenance-free sort of yard.

However, it is a beautiful, rewarding one.

Welcoming Feeling, Well-Spaced Growth

Even the plants of these quaint plots seem to be on close and friendly terms, since they are characterized by flowers bursting the seams of the boundaries.

Yet, it is important to remember that plants that are too close for comfort create conditions ripe for disease.

  • Weakened plants are struggling to get enough nutrients and moisture.
  • Air space for circulation around each plant is also desirable to keep plants growing their best.

Let your abundant flowers come from healthy, well-placed plants, and not from stuffing too many plants in a cramped space.

Border of perennial plants only seems effortless. It requires careful planning and regular care.

Border of perennial plants only seems effortless. It requires careful planning and regular care.

Right Plants in the Right Place

Just what makes a plant "the right one"?

Besides being suitable for your climate and soil conditions, ease of care is a factor for a busy homeowner. Plants that remain healthy without coddling, sprays, or dividing are a boon.

These qualities won't turn this high-maintenance style into a low-demand type, but it will increase its practicality for modern homeowners.

Which Perennials Are Good Choices?

Start out with stalwarts like Iris, peonies, and hardy roses, include good fillers like daisies, baby's breath (Gypsophila), and then add the accents of spires and spiky foliage plants to give height and vertical interest to the planting.