A beginner’s guide to cottage garden design

Since its humble Elizabethan beginnings when workers would rely on their home’s garden to grow fruit, veggies, or herbs to help supplement their paltry wages, the cottage garden has never strayed far from the UK popularity stakes. This informal garden style is ideal for making the best use of small garden spaces or sectioning larger outside areas, as well as growing decorative plants alongside edibles and creating a beautiful, immersive haven with year-round interest.

Here are our tips for creating a showstopping classic cottage garden design no matter the size of your garden. We have also included tips on how to keep maintenance to a minimum if you are short of time.

What is a cottage garden.

Think quintessentially English, white picket fence, and a cosy cottage surrounded by a garden brimming with traditional country favourites. Nowadays, cottage gardens are more decorative than functional, but the idea is to retain the densely planted, high-impact charm they are admired for. 

Focus on packing your space with colour, scents, and edibles so that everything serves a function or use. Creating garden zones is a popular way of dividing up the space into distinct growing areas to separate edibles, mini focal points, sensory areas, and beautiful planting. Paths are often incorporated into the design to allow visitors to access all areas of the garden and create a truly immersive experience. Cottage gardens usually boast an informal, mixed planting palette rather than neat, uniform beds or colour zoning. 

Luke Richards, Director at Terra Firma Landscapes adds:

“You want to create that hidden garden vibe where you crouch down in some areas to experience scents, look up in other areas to admire a climbing rose, and follow a path into quaint, hidden areas full of unusual plants. Make the most of vertical space by using arches and structures to grow plants up, and section off areas using a box hedge or rustic fencing. You may even want to showcase a conifer, yew, or traditional fruit tree by placing a quaint wooden bench underneath so visitors can admire at their leisure. For an authentic cottage garden ambiance, the tendrils of wisteria should be caressing your head upon entering and leaving!”

Stunning mix of flowers along a cottage garden path

Cottage garden design tips

When thinking about a cottage garden design think informal over uniformity, dense planting, colour in abundance and year-round interest and blooms. Incorporate lots of natural wood in the form of benches, planters, or a traditional front door, and avoid using metal, or contemporary features or minimalist layouts. In a cottage garden, maintaining a rustic and quintessentially country aesthetic is key for an authentic portrayal of rural living.

Terra Firma_Gravel Drain with lawn laid and permeable path

Avoid straight lines. Instead, embrace circular patterns which are good for rhythm and structure. You can create circular beds, spherical features, and points of interest such as circular cobble stone patterns in paved areas or as lawn centrepieces. Veering pathways are a great choice too.  Neutral stones such as York stone are great for seating areas.  

Other design tips for cottage gardens include:

Foundation trees and shrubs

Trees and shrubs play a pivotal role in creating a foundation for your garden. They offer height, structure, and contribute colour and tradition. Magnolias and weeping cherries are amazing statement trees in spring, while crab apple trees are perfect for spectacular summer displays thanks to their white, pink, or red flowers. Whether they have weeping, rounded, or columnar habits, they’re known for producing orange, gold, or red fruits too. For autumn and winter colour, Japanese Maples such as Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ will never disappoint.

Terra Firma_ Gravel Drain after it was installed

Adding a layer of evergreen and deciduous shrubs to your design base will continue to keep things interesting. Better still, opt for cottage garden shrubs that offer more than one season of interest – Evergreen viburnums are a perfect example offering year-round interest and make good screens, hedges, and specimen shrubs too. Deciduous viburnums lose their leaves over winter after providing a colourful foliage autumnal display. Following a fragrant winter, they will bounce back with early spring flowers. 

Large Hydrangea Arborescens ‘Incrediball’ are another of our favourite cottage garden shrubs.

Ensure there is year-round interest.

Aim to have something in flower all times of the year. Nothing spells quintessentially English more than roses. David Austin Roses are our favourites, plus they are grown in England. The collection is vast so whether you want fragrant, shrub roses, climbing roses or standards, there will be something for you. Climbing roses not only add height to your garden but also provide visual interest when they climb up trellises, arbours, pergolas, and obelisks. David Austin’s Generous Gardener is a favourite of ours.

The Generous Gardener Rose Bred by David Austin

When considering perennials, blend classic cottage garden favourites including peonies, nepeta, phlox, iris, sedums, and salvias. Foxgloves are our favourite biennial, and many species can be encouraged to self-seed, giving that informal look. In terms of annuals, explore cosmos, snap dragons, or impatiens. 

For an explosion of much needed colour come spring, plant some bulbs and tubers in autumn.  alliums and dahlias are always top of our list.

rose arch

Luke adds:

“Fans of the Chelsea Flower Show will be familiar with the award-winning cottage garden at  Bridgemere Show Gardens. For me, this garden has perfected cottage planting. The gardens can be enjoyed all year round and feature some amazing champion trees and planting combinations.

Throughout the year, the cottage garden transforms with colourful flowers. It features special scented peonies, bearded irises, and agapanthus. They’ve planted pastel-coloured flowers to enhance the cottage garden vibe. Plus, their bedding plants are mainly grown from seed in their greenhouses, along with a kitchen garden. There truly is something for all seasons.”

Align with tradition

If you are a traditionalist, there are a few elements that you could embrace in your cottage garden design:

  • A low fence or stone wall – back in the day, these were a given for any cottage garden. They not only provided structure for plants, but they acted as protection for vegetables against rodents, chickens, and other predators. Today, the fence still has purpose, but a low stone wall or picket fence is mainly a backdrop to beautiful flowering beds and a support to climbing plants. 
  • Fruit trees and vegetables reflect self-sufficiency. Historically, many cottages would have been part of an orchard so incorporating fruit trees is a great option. Adding vegetables, herbs and fragrant flowers are all great options in terms of practicality. Traditionally aromatic plants were used to cover barnyard smells as well as for cooking. Sage, lavender, thyme, and catmint are classics. Fragrant flowers are also great for attracting bees and other pollinators.
  • Abundant and rambling plants. A rambling design was a signature look mainly because our overworked forbears didn’t have the time to tend to overflowing plants and let them go to seed.

Incorporate edibles

English apple, plum and pear trees are all great options.  As are a selection of herbs and vegetables. It doesn’t need to be a massive area requiring lots of labour either.  Rather than large vegetables ready for the show bench, fill your bed or rustic wooden planter with smaller but tasty crops that you will enjoy devouring.  Tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, and runner beans are firm favourites amongst the Terra Firma team.

crab apple blossom

Keep things low maintenance if time is limited.

The dense flower planting of cottage gardens does tend to mean that you will have a lot of deadheading and picking up of leaves to contend with so, if you are looking for a cottage garden that is heavy on colour but light on labour here are a few tips to keep things as low maintenance as possible:

  • Choose perennials wisely: Opt for hardy, perennial plants that require less frequent replanting.
  • Mulch matters: Apply a thick layer of mulch to suppress weeds, retain moisture, and reduce the need for constant watering.
  • Group similar plants: Arrange plants with similar water and sunlight needs together for efficient care.
  • Native plants rule: Select native plants that thrive in your local climate and soil, reducing the need for extra attention.
  • Limit lawn space: Minimise the lawn area to cut down on mowing and maintenance time.
  • Smart irrigation: Install a drip irrigation system to deliver water directly to plant roots, saving water and reducing upkeep.
  • Natural pest control: Encourage beneficial insects and birds to control pests naturally, reducing the need for pesticides.
  • Less pruning, more natural growth: Choose plants that don't require frequent pruning, allowing for a more relaxed, natural look.
  • Mindful pathways: Choose low-maintenance pathway materials like gravel or mulch instead of high-maintenance options like pavers.
  • Seasonal planning: Plan your garden for year-round interest, so you don't have to constantly tweak and replant.
  • Containers for control: Use containers for high-maintenance or invasive plants to keep them in check.
  • Sensible planting density: Avoid overcrowding; give plants room to grow to reduce competition and maintenance needs.
  • Hardy groundcovers: Choose robust groundcovers to suppress weeds and add a low-maintenance carpet to your garden.
  • Compost regularly: Create a composting system to enrich the soil naturally and reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers.
  • Minimalist design: Keep the design simple and cohesive to reduce the need for constant adjustments and rearrangements.

Focus on colour

In terms of colours, anything goes. However, reds, oranges, purples, pinks, and whites really zing.  

Purple and white is always a winning combination. Aquilegias, purple cabbage, purple kale, and wisteria are not only visually stunning, but they are also a great example of how vegetables and perennials can be integrated.  The silver of artemisia mixed with purple lupins is another winning combo.

Evoke all the senses.

Incorporating water features, fragrant plants and grasses that sweep your legs as you walk along a path create a sensory experience, animates the garden, and encourages wildlife. Strategically placed benches near to bird feeders/under trees will be entertaining, as will hand-crafted arbours and unique garden ornaments. Mini-focal points like these are also a great way to create interesting nooks and crannies off the main path. 

Luke adds:

“I like to design beds on all edges and will section the garden into zones. The first section might be lawn with a rose arch/arbour at the boundary.  As you walk beneath the wooden arbour, you might be welcomed by a beautiful crab apple or English apple tree. The latter end of the garden might incorporate a circular, stone patio for a hand-crafted wooden bench to enjoy listening to the birds and admiring the fragrant flowers and vegetable beds opposite.

Many people believe you need to live in an actual cottage in the middle of the English countryside to have a cottage-style garden, but that is far from the truth. Whether your house is a new build, split level, or town house, anyone can create a romantic display of plants around their home. The cottage garden is more popular than ever due to its informal approach and simplicity; the choice of plants and garden design is what really matters”.

wooden arch feature in cottage garden

If you are considering tweaking your garden to incorporate more of a cottagey feel, or maybe you have a blank canvas and would like to create one from scratch, the team at Terra Firma would love to work with you to create your cottage garden dream. With 40 years’ experience under our belts, we would be delighted to help you transform your garden space. Call us today on 020 8769 7321 or email info@terrafirmalandscapes.co.uk.

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