What is cottage garden style? And how to achieve it…
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?
I think that English cottage garden style is experiencing a moment of popularity this year.
This is my theory. 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. But this year, the shows have been cancelled.
And, as for garden plants – well, it has been difficult to source exactly the plants we want. We have had to compromise on colour and style. Friends have been saying things like ‘I wouldn’t normally buy scarlet pelargoniums, but they were the only ones I could find.’
And finally, we have all been looking at our own patch more closely and more often – whether it’s our own garden or our neighbours’ front gardens as we take exercise.
I feel a stab of joy from that bright burst of colour from an emerging primrose, daffodil, foxglove or rose, because it wasn’t there when I last looked. It survived the winter. And the corollary is that ‘so will we.’
What do you think?
Cottage garden style brings much needed joy…
You don’t get the same sense of surprise and triumph over adversity when you pass a perfectly designed front path. It looked good the first time you saw it. It still looks good now – but it’s the marigold that’s popped up beside the path that gives us the joy.
And you can’t help stopping when you see tumbling purple waterfalls of aubretia down that stone wall on the corner. Or when you hear bees buzzing around a delicately beautiful flowering currant or pastel-pretty fruit tree blossom.
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.
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.
William Robinson’s own garden at Gravetye Manor dates back to 1871 and has been updated by head gardener Tom Coward – and 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. That probably didn’t emerge until enough people had the space and the leisure to grow flowers for pleasure rather than just food to survive.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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. Later in the year salvia, persicaria and dahlias all qualify as being easy to grow.
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.
Grow plants with a purpose
Here in the Naturecraft Garden designed by Pollyanna Wilkinson for the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And this garden by garden designer Peter Cowell at BBC Gardeners World Live 2018 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.
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,
More about Country Lane Flowers
As other flower growers and florists will know, all the weddings, corporate work and markets were cancelled early in 2020 and florists shops were also shut. So Sue and her business partner, Stephanie, have been selling Country Lane Flowers homegrown flowers from a table outside their garden gate during lockdown. (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.’
And they also create bouquets for individuals and local outlets such as Macknade Farm Shop.
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. They’re members of the British flower growers association, Flowers From the Farm.
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
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And you can see more of Sue and Julie’s gardens, and the show gardens mentioned in the video on cottage garden style.