Transform your yard with the timeless beauty of a cottage garden.

We’ve all seen them: pictures of romantic gardens rambling around a thatched cottage or manor estate. Now cottage gardens are popping up around farmhouses, rural ranchers and even urban townhomes. Popular for their simplicity and hodge-podge style, cottage gardens can be easy to grow or require detailed planning, depending on how you approach them.

What is a cottage garden?

Rooted in centuries-old traditions, cottage gardens feature whimsical arrangements of colorful blooms, aromatic herbs, fruiting trees and edible plants. Characterized by their informal style and dense, mixed plantings, these gardens evoke a sense of nostalgia and tranquility. Traditionally featuring in-ground beds, today they may include a mix of in-ground growing, planters and containers.

History and purpose of cottage gardens

historic cottage garden painting

Old Cottages at Pinner, 1885-1895 by Helen Allingham. Image: Birmingham Museums Trust.

Cottage gardens were originally designed to provide food and medicine for households. Originating in the Middle Ages, these gardens were typically small and enclosed, often bordering a small dwelling tenanted by farm labourers who worked larger pieces of land for wealthy landlords.

Plants were first chosen for their practical use and later, also for their aesthetic appeal. Over time, these gardens inspired the romantic and informal style we associate with modern cottage gardens, emphasizing beauty, diversity and a connection to nature.

Basic cottage garden elements

Cottage garden style includes a number of elements that evoke simpler times. These include:

  • Plants: The heart of any cottage garden is its plantings. This often includes a mix of perennials, annuals, biennials and self-seeding plants, creating a tapestry of color and texture throughout the seasons. See below for specific plant recommendations.
  • Pathways: Meandering pathways made of gravel, stone, or brick guide visitors through the garden, encouraging exploration and discovery. These pathways add structure and flow, connecting different areas and creating inviting spaces to wander and enjoy.
  • Vertical structures: Arbors, gazebos, pergolas, fences and trellises are often used in cottage gardens to provide support for climbing plants. These structures can be made of wood, metal, or other materials and may feature flowering vines and climbing roses.
  • Seating areas: Whether it’s a rustic bench or a vintage cafe table, cottage gardens provide places to relax and enjoy. These spaces are often nestled within the garden, offering secluded spots to soak in the surroundings.
  • Water features: Simple water features such as birdbaths, small ponds, or bubbling fountains can add a sense of tranquility and movement to a cottage garden. These features also attract wildlife.
  • Enclosures: Cottage gardens are often enclosed by hedges, fences or walls, creating a sense of privacy. These boundaries not only define the garden’s edges but also help to protect the plants from unwanted pests or strong wind.

cottage front garden with house

Getting started with your own design

Before you start digging, take the time to plan your cottage garden. Begin by assessing your available space, taking note of its size, shape, and the amount of sunlight it receives throughout the day. Cottage gardens may contain a mix of plants, but many of those we traditionally associate with this style require full sun.

Next, consider how you might achieve a harmonious and visually appealing space through the following factors.

Balance and proportion

  • Height variation: Incorporate plants of varying heights to create a layered garden. Tall plants, like delphiniums or hollyhocks, work well at the back of a bed, while medium-height plants, like lavender or salvia, can fill the middle. Low-growing plants, such as dianthus or alyssum, can border the front.
  • Color harmony: Choose colors that complement your home’s exterior and surrounding landscape.

Flow and movement

  • Curved pathways: Design pathways that guide visitors through the garden, creating a sense of exploration and discovery. Curved paths soften a garden’s edges and encourage a leisurely pace, allowing visitors to experience the garden’s beauty from different angles.
  • Focal points: Use eye-catching elements such as a pergola, sculpture, obelisk, trellis or beautifully planted container. These draw the eye, serving as visual anchors that enhance the garden’s overall design.

Seasonal interest and continuity

  • Year-round appeal: Select a mix of plants that provide interest throughout the seasons. Incorporate early spring bulbs, summer-blooming perennials, fall foliage and winter-interest plants to create a garden that evolves year-round.
  • Succession planting: Plan for continuous blooms or color by selecting plants with staggered bloom times and incorporating annuals for seasonal color.
classic cottage garden flowers

Classic cottage garden flowers include phlox, hollyhocks, evening primrose, coreopsis and more.

Choosing cottage garden plants

Choose plants that reflect the practical and self-sufficient nature of old cottage gardens, providing a blend of food, medicine, and beauty.

Herbs and vegetables

Including herbs and vegetables in your design brings a practical and flavorful element to your cottage garden. These versatile plants enhance the garden’s aesthetic with their textures and forms while offering fresh ingredients for cooking and healing.

Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Thyme (Thymus spp.)
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
Catmint (Nepeta spp.)
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
Onions (Allium cepa)
Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)
Carrots (Daucus carota)
Peas (Pisum sativum)
Kale (Brassica oleracea acephala)
Leeks (Allium porrum)
Turnips (Brassica rapa subsp. rapa)
Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris)

Fruit trees, shrubs, and vines

Productive plants can be integrated seamlessly into your garden design, offering beauty and functionality while upholding the self-sufficient spirit of a traditional cottage garden.

Fruit Trees & ShrubsVining Plants
Apple (Malus domestica)
Pear (Pyrus spp.)
Quince (Cydonia oblonga)
Plum (Prunus spp.)
Crabapple ( Malus sylvestris>)
Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum)
Gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa)
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
Red currant (Ribes rubrum)
Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris spp.)
Climbing Roses (Rosa spp.)
Clematis (Clematis spp.)
Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)
Jasmine (Jasminum spp.)
Wisteria (Wisteria spp.)
Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

Flowering plants

Adding blooms to your cottage garden is a surefire way to infuse color, fragrance, and vitality into your outdoor space.

Flowering cottage garden plants 
Roses (Rosa spp.)
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)
Hollyhock (Alcea spp.)
Pansies (Viola spp.)
Daffodils (Narcissus spp.)
Delphinium (Delphinium spp.)
Hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp.)
Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
Penstemon (Penstemon spp.)
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
Peonies (Paeonia spp.)

Plants that thrive in full or partial shade

Whether you have dappled shade under trees or full shade along a north-facing wall, there are many plants that can brighten up these areas and contribute to the garden’s allure.

Shade Plants 
Hosta (Hosta spp.)
Astilbe (Astilbe spp.)
Ferns (Various genera)
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis)
Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)
Hellebore (Helleborus spp.)
Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)
Heuchera (Heuchera spp.)

Virtual cottage garden tours for inspiration

Thanks to the help of technology, you can now ‘visit’ historic and new cottage gardens. Try some of these options below as you work through your own design.

Hidcote old garden
Catch a 360 degree view of a cottage garden at Hidcote in Gloucestershire. This glimpse of British soil includes summer flowering plantings, paths, a lane, and a cottage. Created by Lawrence Johnston in the early 20th century, Hidcote Manor Garden is renowned for its intricate design, featuring a series of outdoor “rooms” with diverse planting schemes, including many classic cottage garden plants.

Sissinghurst castle rose garden offers another 360 degree view of the stately but rambling rose garden outside Sissinghurst castle near Cranbrook. Designed by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s, Sissinghurst is one of England’s most celebrated gardens. It features a formal structure combined with romantic planting, including roses, lavender, and other cottage garden favorites.

Choose from eight virtual garden visits courtesy of the National Open Garden Scheme, which raises money for nursing and health charities through in-person admissions. Lucky for gardeners across the pond, they have also captured a selection of cottage gardens for sharing virtually, including the Glebe cottage garden in Buckinghamshire, Snowdrop Ridge in Leicestershire, and Oakleigh in Surrey.

Putting it all together

Cottage gardens are all about blending beauty and practicality. By mixing edible, medicinal and ornamental plants, you can create a space that’s both stunning and useful. Whether you love the look of colorful flowers, want a cozy spot to relax, or enjoy watching birds and butterflies, cottage gardens have something for everyone.

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