Tips for how to create an English cottage garden, including classic plants and flowers, planting methods, and money-saving advice. Any growing space, large or small, can be transformed into the cottage garden of your dreams.
Imagine you’re reading a fairy tale, and the heroine of the story happens upon a cottage in the forest surrounded by a beautiful garden. It’s abundant in color, flowers, natural textures, and casual elegance. She pushes through a gate, sees bees and butterflies hover above blossoms, and hears birds sing from climbing vines. That’s the essence of an English cottage garden. It’s romantic and colorful, but down to earth and effortlessly beautiful. No two gardens are the same, but their spirits are kindred.
There’s so much to take in with an established cottage garden that you might not know where to begin creating your own. The principles are straightforward, though, and you can transform your patch of grass into a charming floral oasis by steadily adding plants and features and using a few essential tips.
An overflowing abundance of plants
Cottage gardens are ideal for plant lovers since they’re often a sweets shop array of flowering plants and textures. If you’re the kind of person who buys plants without quite knowing where to plant them, then this style could be perfect for you. Squeezing plants in and seeing if they’ll take is part of the fun.
Use every possible space — this is the essential rule in creating a cottage garden. Fill it to overflowing with plants and add features that will give you even more: arches, walls, benches, picket fences, painted window boxes, and masses of pots and containers. The typical backyard garden is mostly laid to grass with smaller areas dedicated to growing flowers. A cottage garden is the exact opposite.
A stone pathway can meander through billowing lavender and roses, up to a door covered in climbing honeysuckle. It could also lead to a small circular lawn surrounded by spires of delphiniums and hollyhocks—the perfect place to have a picnic or to be surrounded by the hum of bees. Plants, and how you use them, create the space and atmosphere.
Classic plants for an English Cottage Garden
When you’re choosing flowers for your cottage garden, go for those that are wildlife-friendly, long-blooming, colorful, and that have scented flowers. You want your plants to look and smell as beautiful in the garden as they will in bouquets. If you want to add another element to your plan, grow plants that you can use in skincare, cut flowers, or herbal medicine. I go through many of these multipurpose plants in my new book, A Woman’s Garden, Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things.
For a classic look, choose blooms in pastel and feminine shades. To save money and time, choose those that readily self-seed, or that can be easily divided or propagated. Plants that fit into these categories can create new plants, and often with little work on your part.
- Roses, both shrub and climbing
- English lavender
- Sweet peas
- Lady’s Mantle
- Culinary herbs
- Mixed wildflowers (Grow an all-wildflower cottage garden)
- Small and miniature fruit trees
Don’t forget shrubs and foliage
There’s a lot of emphasis on flowers in English cottage garden design. Look at any garden though and what you’ll also see are trees, shrubs, evergreen climbers, and foliage. Use all of them to frame your garden and to create additional height or interest. Shrubs like lilacs can put on a spring show of flowers, ivy can grow up walls or features, and trees can outline a growing space. Some favorites for English cottage gardens include climbing hydrangea, crab apple trees, bay trees, and wisteria.
Creating an English Cottage Garden
Time to get out your measuring tapes and drawing pads because designing your English cottage garden’s backbone starts here. Although you could take an informal approach and drop plants in where you’d like, drawing out your growing space is far more efficient.
If your space is small and you’d like to make it seem bigger, create a winding pathway through it. That way, you’ll have a new planting to discover around every bend. Also, not seeing the far side of your garden from the beginning of the path will make it seem more extensive than it is.
Should you have a much larger area to work with, you could design garden “rooms” divided by taller plants and shrubs or arches of roses to pass through. That way, you can tackle one part of the garden at a time or make a large space feel more intimate.
As you’re sketching out your design, add features that are already there or that you’d like to have. A shed, outdoor dining table, greenhouse, composting area, or secret garden element. That could be a garden window, a bench, or garden artwork for you or a visitor to “discover.”
Although it’s the plants we think about mainly when creating an English cottage garden, there’s a lot to be said about hardscaping. Look carefully at photos of established cottage gardens — if you visit one in person even better as you’ll be able to see more. You’ll realize that underneath the verdancy is a layer of natural stone, wood, brick, willow, pea gravel, terracotta, and rustic containers. Even vintage metal has a place.
When you design pathways and walls, lean towards these hardscaping materials to give you the same effect. Salvage what you can, spruce it up with paint or a good wash, make features with found sticks and twigs, and invest wisely in new features that will be the backbone of your garden.
Create cottage garden flower beds
The best way to go about giving life to the garden on the sketchpad is to put in any fundamental features like pathways. After that, add additional hardscaping and structural features as you have time and money. In the meantime, create flower beds and potager-style vegetable patches to your heart’s content.
If you’re beginning from a blank canvas of grass, cut it short, then use sprinklings of flour to create outlines of where you’d like your beds to be and their shape. Cover the grass with 1-2 layers of brown non-glossy cardboard, then add several inches (the more, the better) of compost on top. You can plant and sow seeds directly into this layer, and the cardboard will help smother and kill the grass beneath. No digging is required. You can also create beds by using these tips I’ve already shared on how to create a vegetable garden from scratch.
Planting your new flower beds begins with thinking about layers. The standard planting style is to choose shorter plants and flowers like lady’s mantle or smaller lavender varieties along the front or pathways. Just behind these plants, place slightly taller flowers such as poppies and calendula. Behind them go even taller plants like foxgloves and hollyhocks. Think of the planting like theater seating.
Use as many different types of plants as you’d like but every so often, punctuate your design with a feature planting. Sweet peas growing on a willow wigwam, a crab apple tree, roses on an archway, or a gate or a feature that transitions the viewer into a different part of the garden.
Plonk in new plant acquisitions where space opens, and by experimenting, you find what works best for your growing area. The way that you achieve a cottage garden aesthetic is by planting as many plants as possible, and closer together than recommended. Also, watch my friend Alexandra’s tips for creating a cottage garden in the video above.
Learn to propagate plants
You can spend an absolute fortune on plants, though, so learning how to create plants for free will come in very handy. You do this by growing from [saved] seed, through propagation, and dividing. That way, you could ask friends for seeds or cuttings from their garden or take a single plant and create many more from it.
For example, if you purchase a single English lavender plant, you can take cuttings from it to create dozens of new plants that are essentially clones of the first. It’s this way that you can add long rows and hedges of lavender to your garden for practically nothing. You can propagate many other plants including rosemary, scented geraniums, and countless others. A book that I refer to regularly, and that will help you with learning to propagate, is RHS Propagating Plants: How to Create New Plants For Free.
Create a Cottage Garden over time
One of the best things about creating a garden is that it’s never complete. There’s always something you can add or remove, and sometimes your garden does that itself too. Over time some plants might not take, while others colonize every space that you allow them. Have fun with growing your dream garden and consider the guidance in this piece as helpful tips rather than law. Also, check out these other resources that will help you choose plants and design for your very own charming English cottage garden.
English Cottage Garden books
- A Woman’s Garden, Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things
- Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden
- Cottage Gardens: A Celebration of Britain’s Most Beautiful Cottage Gardens
- The Modern Cottage Garden: A Fresh Approach to a Classic Style