What is cottage garden style? And how to achieve it…

June 14th, 2020
Posted In: Garden trends & design

Cottage garden style means a colourful mix of flowers, packed in together with herbs and edibles. It is relaxed and pretty – but are there secrets or rules you need to know?

English cottage garden style is experiencing a moment of popularity at the moment.

Sue Oriel's cottage garden

Sue Oriel’s cottage garden – she grows flowers for British flower growers Country Lane Flowers in much of her garden, but she has hedged off a ‘cottage garden‘ area beside the house just for enjoyment.

Most garden lovers don’t really follow ‘fashion’ as such, but we can’t help being inspired by show gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival.

And now there’s an increasing emphasis on creating wildlife friendly gardens. A glorious cottage garden hotch-potch of local flowers and mixed hedging is perfect for pollinators and other wildlife.

You’ll always see cottage garden inspired gardens at the shows. A recent BBC Gardeners World Live Show had lots recycled furniture and pavers plus lots of pollinator-friendly flowers. Check it out for pretty garden ideas that would work in our own patches.

Cottage garden style is also very sustainable. It’s about using plants that grow locally. They’re easy to grow and don’t require extra care or special products. Sustainability is a big new direction in gardening today. Sustainability is now a key element at the garden shows, such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. 

Alliums in a cottage garden

Sue’s favourite new allium – Allium ‘Silver Spring’.

What are the rules of cottage garden style?

There aren’t any. That’s the whole point. There’s no need to plant in threes and fives, or in drifts or to think about colour combinations – unless you want to.

If someone gives you a plant, you find a space to wedge it in. It may not like being wedged in, but that’s cottage gardening for you. Only the tough survive, but they will look very pretty doing it.

For example, ornamental grasses aren’t normally considered cottage garden plants. But garden designer Tim Pilgrim uses them to create a ‘contemporary cottage garden style’ in this post.

Did it really come from cottages?

In theory, cottage garden style started when low paid farm workers filled their gardens with vegetables, herbs and fruit trees for their own use. Herbs originally had a wide range of uses, from culinary to medicinal and for cleaning.

And cottagers who kept bees for their honey may have included flowers for the bees.

It seems likely, however, that the cottage garden as we know it today dates back to Victorian times when people started to have a little more time and money, so they could grow flowers for their own enjoyment.

It was a rebellion against large Victorian formal gardens

Cottage garden style is heavily influenced by Victorian garden designers such as William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. They introduced the idea of informality and naturalness as opposed to rigid bedding schemes and formal design.

Gravetye Manor gardens

William Robinson’s garden at Gravetye Manor is now a top hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s been very influential in ‘English’ garden design, both in cottage garden and country garden style.

William Robinson’s own garden at Gravetye Manor dates back to 1871 and has been updated by head gardener Tom Coward. Although it’s technically a grand garden, it showcases many cottage garden plants. It’s now a top hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant.

William Robinson’s clients were the aristocracy and the newly wealthy, but his ideas influenced those with smaller gardens, too.

A cottage garden has lots of flowers

At its heart, today’s cottage garden has an abundance of flowers.

There’s a theory that cottage dwellers got the leftover plants when the head gardener from the ‘big house’ divided them up. And presumably friends and neighbours would have then divided the plants further.

So cottage garden plants are easy going. They divide easily or they self-seed. They won’t be too fussy about being in exactly the right spot.

Best cottage garden flowers

Lupins and foxgloves appear on every list of ‘Top 10 cottage garden flowers.’

Focus on ‘easy’ plants and flowers

In London, Julie Quinn writes the London Cottage Garden blog, which celebrates the power of this style for small, urban gardens.  Julie’s definition of cottage garden style is ‘Plants that are common and robust – nothing too delicate or fragile.’

Her cottage garden style means keeping work of gardening down. ‘For me that means no seed sowing, no tiny plug plants, no staking, no pest control, no topiary, no lawn and no propagation.’

She also has an a colour theme. In the front garden, she aims for yellow, green and purple. This reflects her yellow front door.

And in the back garden, she plants ‘terracotta reds, green and Mediterranean blue.’ The terracotta echoes her interior colour scheme as she has big glass doors and windows so the garden can be seen from the house.

Yellow front with cottage garden plants

Julie’s front garden with a theme of green, purple and yellow – to go with the front door.

So make your own rules…

Other cottage garden enthusiasts I know make their own rules, too.

For example, Sue Oriel runs British flower company Country Lane Flowers with her business partner Stephanie.

While much of Sue’s garden is for growing flowers to sell, she has carved out a ‘cottage garden’ space with hedging just for her own pleasure.

Rose 'Darcy Bussell'

Rose ‘Darcy Bussell’ and the last tendrils of wisteria in Sue’s cottage garden.

It’s a charmingly crowded area with roses, lupins, nepeta, wisteria, fruit trees and herbs. But Sue says she ‘doesn’t plant yellow or orange flowers in it.’

And even if your soil, climate or environment don’t seem ideal for the cottage garden look, you can take elements of it and adapt it. Read how head gardener, Bill Bampton, creates ‘a cottage garden mashup’ at the Diggers’ Club’s Heronswood garden.

Think about what you don’t want…

So it’s much easier to say what you don’t want in cottage gardening.

Julie, like Sue, she relies on excluding certain colours from her garden. ‘What I DON’T have are any dark colours of flower or foliage, she says – they just don’t show up.  No Queen of the Night tulips, black grasses or Anthriscus Ravenswing.  And no bright white.  I’ve found it impossible to place.’

And she doesn’t have ‘blobs of bright colour’ – so no delphiniums, no dahlias, no peonies, no poppies, even no roses.  Summer is green with specks of soft colour.

Instead she aims for ‘ greenery, movement, sound, rustling, swaying, changing all the time, wildlife and a different scene as the year progresses.’

London cottage garden

Julie’s London cottage garden is filled with robust, easy-care plants, with lots of greenery. She doesn’t use either black or white in the garden – no Queen of Night tulips or Anthriscus ‘Ravenswing.’

You need at least one fruit tree…

A fruit tree is a key part of cottage garden style, not just for the fruit, but also for the blossom to feed bees in spring.

A tree also adds height, improves the proportions of a small space and gives you vertical space for planting.

Rose 'Felicite Perpetual'

Rose ‘Felicite Perpetual’ growing up through an apple tree in Sue’s garden

Sue grows a ‘Felicite Perpetual’ rose up one tree. And there is another rose – probably Rambling Rector – growing up the other.

But no lawn…

Cottage garden style is about cramming in as much planting as possible.

You could have a patch of grass in a larger cottage garden. But in a front garden, a town courtyard garden or an enclosed ‘cottage garden’ area, a lawn won’t be necessary.

Cottage garden has no lawn

Sue’s cottage garden has paths and a place to sit but no lawn.

Instead go for terracing, winding paths, places to sit and, of course, more planting

So what are the best cottage garden flowers…

A list of top cottage garden flowers will usually include foxgloves, hollyhocks catmint, delphiniums, phlox, lupins and cosmos. Sue is also on a self declared mission to get people to look at garden pinks or dianthus again as they’re stunning and easy to care for.

Any plant that self seeds easily counts as a cottage garden plant. Popular ones include erigeron, nigella, fennel, forget me not, poppies, Lychnis coronaria or rose campion.

Top cottage garden plants

And then there are the wild flowers – sometimes considered weeds – such as wild carrot (Daucus carota) and ox-eye daisies.

Early spring, primroses, bulbs and fruit tree blossom are essential.  To find out how to get a beautiful bulb display, see how to grow daffodils and how to grow tulips.

Later in the year, colourful flowers, such as dahlias, are also very good for cottage gardens. Find out how to grow dahlias here. And if you don’t want the bother of digging them up for winter, then find out why I don’t dig up my dahlias here.

Other colourful, easy to grow flowers include salvias, roses and irises.

Herbs are very ‘cottage garden’

Herbs would have been grown in cottage gardens to use medicinally, for dyeing and even to make cleaning products.

Cottage garden herbs include bay, angelica, lavender, fennel, rosemary, chives and sage.  Both Julie and Sue have golden oregano, because it grows happily without seeming to worry about shade or competition.

Cottage garden herbs

Grow plants with a purpose

Here in the Naturecraft Garden designed by Pollyanna Wilkinson for the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2019, all the plants have a purpose.

They are either edible, medicinal or can be used in some way, such as dyeing. That is very much in the spirit and tradition of cottage gardening. See more of Polly’s style in her interview here on how to design a garden.

Naturecraft Garden by Pollyanna Wilkinson

The Naturecraft Garden by garden designer Pollyanna Wilkinson (RHS Hampton Court 2019) showcases plants which can be used for food, medicine or other purposes. Very cottage garden.

And the garden furniture also uses recycled items or anything the garden owner might have to hand.

Another 2019 RHS Hampton Court show garden is the Therapeutic Garden designed by Tony Wagstaff. This once again incorporates plants with a medicinal benefit, such as eucalyptus, thyme and geraniums.

Therapeutic Garden by Tony Wagstaff

The Therapeutic Garden at the 2019 RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival focuses on plants with medicinal qualities, which makes them cottage garden plants.

Don’t forget ‘vertical interest’…

Cottage garden style features climbing plants because you want to make the most of every inch of space. So once again, consider the easy plants. Julie Quinn says that honeysuckle is easier than clematis. And of course climbing roses and wisteria are very popular too.

To find out more about choosing climbing plants for your garden, see this post or video.

Grow local plants…

But above all, if you want cottage garden style, then choose flowers and plants that grow easily where you live.

Sue says ‘you can stick anything you like in a cottage garden.’ Local plants won’t be expensive, they’ll survive whatever your weather throws at you, and you can often get seeds or divided plants from friends.

Echium vulgare

A towering Echium vulgare in Sue’s garden. ‘You can plant anything in a cottage garden,’ she says.

By the way, by ‘local’ I don’t mean ‘native’. I mean the plants that grow easily where you live.

If they’re easily available, they won’t be expensive. Or friends can pass them on for free. So if they don’t work, you won’t have lost much. Cottage gardening doesn’t suit all plants – many will need more space or care. So don’t be surprised if some die. But over the years, you’ll work out which ones work for you.

And if you don’t want it to look too much of a jumble, follow Sue and Julie’s lead and exclude certain colours or types of plants.

It helps you learn about gardening

This kind of gardening can be a great way of learning about plants. Sue uses her cottage garden patch as something of an experimental area for flowers that may subsequently be grown for Country Lane Flowers.

For example, she’s discovered that cornflowers flop if they are transplanted as a seedling, but grows much straighter if you direct sow them. She’s taken that knowledge and is now sowing cornflowers direct for cutting and selling via Country Lane Flowers.

Furniture, accessories and more…

When it comes to furniture, garden ornaments and pots, recycled is very cottage garden style. Pollyanna Wilkinson’s Naturecraft Garden is full of recycled bits and pieces.

You can also use colour in furniture and accessories as a major part of colour in the garden, as Julie Quinn does.

Create colour in a cottage garden

Julie uses red and Mediterranean blue for furniture and pots, plus a terracotta parasol to create the colour theme in her London cottage garden.

And this garden by garden designer Peter Cowell at BBC Gardeners World Live is very contemporary but it uses cottage garden style planting with recycled materials. The hanging fire is made from a gas canister, and there are scaffolding boards, recycled pallets and more. There’s even a sofa made out of an old bath, with one side cut away.

Peter Cowell garden

I don’t know what the designer, Peter Cowell, would say, but I think that this counts as ‘contemporary cottage garden.’ That’s because re-using materials and making do with what you have fits in with the original cottage garden ethos.

Hand made benches and tables would also fit in perfectly with the origins of cottage garden style. I like these benches at the Abbey Physic Garden in Faversham, where garden furniture and useful objects are often made by the Faversham Men’s Shed group,

Benches at the Abbey Physic Garden

Benches at the Abbey Physic Garden in Faversham, where the Men’s Shed makes things for the garden.

There’s little or no landscaping in cottage gardens

Cottage gardens are inexpensive to create because, traditionally, there is very little hard landscaping. In Rustic Cottage Garden Ideas, Kathy and Stuart Pickering have turned a strip of empty field into a cottage garden, with virtually no hard landscaping at all. Even the edging is recycled corrugated iron, taken from the roof of their own cottage when they were repairing it. Do check it out – there are lots of inspiring ideas.

Rustic cottage garden ideas

Kathy and Stuart made their rustic cottage cabin themselves out of an old haywagon, and they re-use and recycle old farm equipment and discarded pots to create a low budget garden.

More about Country Lane Flowers

As well as doing flowers for weddings and special events, Sue and her business partner, Stephanie, sell their homegrown flowers from a table outside their garden gate. (They’re neighbours!)

‘We have an honesty box system,’ says Sue. ‘And we haven’t lost a single flower or a single penny – everyone has completely respected the honesty box.’

The flowers are grown in their own gardens, and they also use some wild-flowers. So they are available from April to November, with dried flowers also sold around Christmas – there’s more about Sue and Stephanie and how they grow flowers for drying here.

Shop my favourite gardening books, products and tools

I’m often asked for recommendation so I’ve put together lists of the gardening books, products and tools I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store.

For example, a cottage garden is ideally a wildlife friendly garden, with flowers for bees and pollinators, so here are a few things I’ve found useful for wildlife friendly gardening. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, so I may get a small fee if you buy, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. And I only choose things I use myself or think you will really like.

Pin to remember cottage garden style

And do join us every Sunday morning for garden tips, ideas and inspiration – see here on how to follow by email.

And you can see more of Sue and Julie’s gardens, and the show gardens mentioned in the video on cottage garden style.

4 comments on "What is cottage garden style? And how to achieve it…"

  1. Hello Alexandra,
    I liked the way you described the flower that appears out of nowhere is the one that gives you joy. Something unexpected. This is a bit ironic as I’m a garden designer, but I have an old cottage garden and it’s always surprising me. Don’t forget the Cottage Garden Society – we have a seed swap every year where you can get your cottage garden seeds for next to nothing! Jane

    1. Absolutely, thank you for reminding me about the Cottage Garden Society, and for anyone else reading this, here is their link: http://thecottagegardensociety.org.uk/

  2. Ruth says:

    I love this post. This is entirely my style of gardening. My only rules are if I like it, leave it, if I don’t like it or it’s taking over, take it out. This way I get to see what plants will thrive in my garden of their own accord. A lot of my plants are self seeded or have blown in on the wind (or via the help of a bird or a squirrel!). I planted wildflower plugs and scattered wildflower seeds to get things going from a bare patch about 3 years ago, and now it’s a thriving, abundant, wildlife-friendly haven. I also prioritise edible/useful plants, especially those that are perennial, and they are some of the only plants I have deliberately planted. I have currant bushes, a dwarf blackberry, strawberries, sorrel, wild garlic, chives, garlic chives, sweet cicely, 3 types of mint, sage, marjoram, salad burnett, fennel… It turns out that many of the other plants are actually edible too, so I can forage in my own garden for all sorts of delights. I don’t have any bare soil, it is covered by ground cover plants like alpine strawberries, violet, sweet woodruff, pennyroyal mint, ajuga and creeping thyme, amongst others. And when I do have bare soil (if I take something out for example) I let the ‘weeds’ grow to cover the soil until I’ve got something else to put there. Often a perennial spinach plant will pop up and I’ll get a crop of leafy greens, before I pop something else in there. You never know what might come up that you aren’t expecting and want to keep! This style of gardening (cottage garden/forest garden) has been brilliant for learning about plants and soil and gardening for me. Especially about the specific conditions of my garden and what plants are best suited to it. I’ve also attracted a lot of wildlife along the way, and haven’t had to ‘design’ a planting plan as nature has done the hard work for me. Now I just need to work on adding height and layers through climbers and trees, and maybe adding a pond!

    1. That sounds absolutely beautiful.

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