Do you want a cottage garden?

What is a cottage garden?

The cottage garden has been a popular style choice for homeowners for hundreds of years. Originally a cottage garden was a mix of flowers, fruit, and vegetables sited next to a house and intended to provide variety to the diets of the homeowners. Its heyday was just over 100 years ago when it was popularised by the Victorians, Gertrude Jekyll and others, to produce a more ‘natural’ feel to a garden.

More recently though its popularity is linked with those who want a garden filled with a huge variety of flowers and seemingly “unplanned” planting arrangements. A cottage garden’s appeal comes from this apparent lack of formal design, allowing beds to seemingly fill and grow in a more spontaneous way – something which takes more than a little skill to make it look effortless.

Common misconception

The biggest mistake to make when planting a cottage garden is in thinking it will be low maintenance. While a well-established garden looks untended and “as nature intended,” it can, in fact, be quite the opposite and need constant taming. Certain plants may take over and squeeze others out and self-sowers can quickly get out of hand, while the plants themselves will need deadheading and perennials dividing. It is no coincidence that when at its height of popularity there was plentiful, and cheap, labour to help to maintain that look.

The advantages of a ‘cottage garden’ style garden

With a modern eye however, the abundance of life and colour in a cottage garden can be recreated and may offer many advantages. Foremost, such spaces are a natural haven and invite pollenating wildlife and broader biodiversity into your outdoor space. A cottage garden can also be as unique as it is personal – as no two are ever the same governed by preferences in flower form and colour and in the fruit grown.

While they will take hard work to tame, a cottage garden does not need to be perfectly maintained. Indeed too much perfection can detract from the overall look. The charm of this style is therefore that a few stray weeds will easily go unnoticed! If you do intend however to grow vegetables and salad crops the frequent turning of the soil will create the ideal conditions for weeds to thrive time after time. Better for the modern cottage garden to plant fruit trees and bushes so that this does not occur.

How to achieve a the look of the cottage garden style 

Designing a cottage garden well does take a lot of thought and expertise across many plant varieties, colours, and forms. It is also important to note here that a cottage garden improves with age – so a long-term, professionally thought-out plan will benefit the overall aesthetic as your garden establishes itself. It is inevitable though that your garden will evolve and change as the years go by.

If planning such a garden yourself I would advise starting with two concepts in mind. First is that although geometric symmetry does not fit with the planting combinations and plant positions selected, the underlying skeleton of the garden may well rely on these for its form. Whether beds are straight edged or curved though the key point here to consider is how you will get into all of the beds to maintain them and what will form the paths between?

Second when it comes to placing the plants themselves you should aim to clump plants together to create larger areas of a plant – then repeating plants and colours across your garden – to create a pleasing coherence to the scheme. Remember that adding different heights is always beneficial, but don’t worry about keeping them to the back of a bed. Let both heights and colours ebb and flow around the space for interest. Some metal supports for the tallest plants though are often needed due to the tendency of traditional, tall cottage garden plants to flop over time.