I’ve owned my business—Cottage Garden Landscaping—for twenty years. I gave it that name because, of all the types of gardens I studied while earning a degree in horticulture and design, they captured my imagination the most. I liked mixing plants with different qualities: fragrance, food, color and texture. I relished setting plantings loose within embracing garden structures. And, pardon the phrase, but the grass roots origin of the concept spoke to me; historically, English farmers grew anything that was useful, colorful and cheap in the space between the road and the front door of their cottage.
Clients sometimes ask me for other kinds of gardens like Japanese gardens, rain gardens or woodland gardens. But many of my clients have an image in their minds of the relaxed and charming look of a cottage garden. Every site and every budget is different but I find that sticking to a few general rules can give any yard a cottage garden look.
Okay you thought I was going to talk about taking a relaxed approach with a cottage garden and the first thing I mention is structure. Well in order to be relaxed you and your garden need to know that certain elements will provide support. Structure generally means paths, patios, decks, fences, trellises, stonewalls hedges and so on. By laying these out early, your structures allow the plants to romp in a relaxed way that doesn’t look messy or too “busy.” I think the critical structures in a cottage garden are enclosures, circuits and seating areas.
To enclose a yard is to create a garden. A fence, trellises, stonewalls and even hedges provide enclosure. Hedges will take longer to fill in than built enclosures like fences and trellises, but they also cost less.
Ideally the paths in your cottage garden aren’t dead-ends. A path that makes a circuit from the back door, to the patio, to a series of garden beds while circling back to the patio allows you to enjoy some coffee or wine while taking a friend on a garden tour without having to back track. Paths made of flagstone or brick cost more than paths of grit, gravel or rock dust (also called screenings), but they stand up to the elements better. On the other hand, investing a bit of time to maintain gravel, grit or rock dust path can save a lot of money. Edging for paths isn’t absolutely necessary; I often forgo them, but they do add a nice finished look.
I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more breaks I want to take while gardening. And by having lots of seating areas (some with or without a patio or deck) I get to take my breaks without having to go inside. With a variety of seating areas I get to appreciate different views of the garden and I can kick around ideas for new plantings while relaxing. And I have more places to entertain friends in the garden. Some of my favorite seats in our cottage gardens are lawn chairs or Adirondack chairs I’ve picked up from the curb or at junk-tique shops.
(I normally only include photos that I shot in gardens I've made, but this seating area/enclosure where my wife is sitting was in an artist's garden in Denmark--can't wait to make something like this for a client. Call me.)
Cottage Garden Plant Choices
With some structure in place, gardens can be planted or rejuvenated as cottage gardens. The themes I work with in making cottage gardens are: texture, color, food, fragrance, seeding and spacing.
Just because the label says to put the plant 24” away from its neighbor, doesn’t mean you have to. I normally set perennials in a cottage garden only 2/3 of the suggested distance apart. I prefer the look of plants that are cheek-by-jowl rather than wingtip-to-wingtip. Not only do they look better--by which I mean, more cottage-y as they tumble together--but also it saves me a lot of work. Closer plantings shade out weeds more quickly and leaves less square footage needing mulch. I love the look of bold peonies tumbling through the frilly foliage of a Blue Star Amsonia for instance. And the dormant Amsonia foliage fills the space after frozen peony stalks are cut back. One caveat: use the closer spacing with similar sized plants. A short plant overshadowed by a tall one, may die out.
Plants That Gently Seed In
The original cottage gardens were grown from seeds, divisions and cuttings that gardeners shared with each other; what many gardeners call “passalong plants.” I like to include plants that will seed in without overwhelming other garden plants. Gardeners in your area will be happy to share seeds with you—just ask when you see something you like. In NC I rely on blackberry lilies, columbines, garlic chives and Formosa lilies (pictured below) to seed in and fill bare spots in the garden. I think of them all as “skinny” and/or vertical plants that don’t sprawl over the top of other plants. Other plants that like to seed-in and might be compatible with your garden are hellebores, Tommies, love-in-a-mist and Melampodium.
Plants With Fragrance
For me a flower without fragrance is almost like a steak without flavor. To have year-round fragrance in my cottage gardens I mix in evergreen shrubs like tea olives, sasanqua camellias, August Beauty gardenias, Little Gem magnolias, shrub roses and winter blooming Daphne’s. Many herbaceous perennials also have fragrant flowers, but they may not have as long a season as some of the shrubs: some peonies, dianthus and lilies. Many woody deciduous shrubs and small trees can infuse fragrance in the cottage garden: sweet Betsy, lilacs (pictured below), saucer and star magnolias.
Plants That Feed Us
The original cottage gardeners also relied on their gardens to help feed them. We can do that too by mixing in many of the culinary herbs, which are often evergreen, drought hardy and deer-resistant: plants such as rosemary (which can perform as a loose, low hedge), lavender, sage, oregano, thyme and chives. Some attractive perennial and biennial vegetables also support the cottage garden theme: artichoke (pictured below), cardoon, rhubarb, chard and walking onions.
Color and Texture
We all enjoy the exciting colors of flowers in the garden. But in twenty years I have never designed a garden with the colors of the flowers in mind. Nature has a pretty good eye for color, so I don’t worry about clashing or gaudiness. I also don’t try to orchestrate colors of flowers by season or proximity; I figure the colors will be great and whatever they are near when they bloom will be just fine. I could orchestrate a garden so that certain flowers bloom in conjunction with other flowers, but I feel like that’s just too much work and violates the spirit of a cottage garden. Instead I focus on leaf texture when deciding which plants would make good neighbors. Why? Because flowers on many perennials last a month or less, but the leaves with be there for 7 to 12 months of the year. If a viewer’s eye sees striking textural contrasts every time they look, then the garden will be deemed a success. So I’ll put a big, bold-leafed plant like a peony near a frilly leafed plant like an Amsonia. Or light-textured candytuft next to bold bearded irises (pictured below). A middling-sized leafy plant like a geranium, might sit next to a strappy-leafed carex.
No cottage garden is ever the same two years in a row (we can say the same of any gardener). Some plants will do better in a dry year and others in a wet one. Plants that seed-in will excel one year and decline the next. As your interests change and your experience grows the look of your cottage garden will also change. That’s just one of the many things that make a cottage garden among the sweetest of gardens. It’s a portrait of the gardener that changes with the seasons.