Cottage Garden Design Tips

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You don’t need to own a cottage to have a cottage garden – it will suit any style of property. It’s essentially one that’s packed with plants, and often plenty of homegrown produce too – a riot of colour, scent and taste with barely an inch of space left bare.

Far fewer design rules apply when it comes to cottage gardens. If it’s planted correctly, you’re unlikely to be able to see the bones of the plot as borders will be spilling over with plants and paving interplanted with herbs and self-seeded perennials. If you enjoy traditional garden techniques and features, this is the design for you – get it right and it’s a magical place to be.

Work out your plan

Before you put pen to paper, there are some decisions you will need to make – it’s important to get the basics right before you get too far down the line.

Here are the points to work through before starting your design.

Start with a list

First, create a list of all the practical features you need to include – don’t forget washing lines, wheelie bins and barbecues. You need to be realistic about what you’ll need, as well as what you’d like.

What will you use your garden for?

First things first – you need to know that a cottage garden can’t be created overnight. This is a style for those who want to garden all year and understand that it will take time to create the perfect, dreamy cottage plot. It’s not a low maintenance style, so before you sit down and design endless flower beds, consider honestly if you’re prepared to look after them.

Next, is your cottage garden going to double up as a family garden? If so a large lawn will be essential. And if you’d like to keep chickens, ducks or bees make sure you do your research first. You’ll need more than one chicken run.

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Do you want a theme for your cottage garden?

A cottage garden is a theme all of its own, but there’s still room for different themed areas. A wildflower meadow is a popular addition, as is an orchard, cutting garden and herb garden. In fact, the possibilities are endless as a cottage garden can be lots of gardens within one space.

What permanent features will you include? 

The best cottage gardens look under-designed. For that reason, you’ll need to make your permanent features fit the scene. Mixed deciduous hedges are more at home than fence panels (unless they’re willow hurdles) and sheds should be draped with climbers.

Manhole covers and telegraph poles are difficult to disguise, but in a cottage garden you have more chance – you can use pots and climbers to hide unsightly features.

Which way does your garden face? 

As this type of garden is a haven for plants, a sunny, south-facing plot is ideal. The majority of fruit and vegetables require sunshine, so if you’re creating a vegetable patch, don’t choose the shady spot for it.

If your plot is north facing, all is not lost – you could consider using woodland plants and create a natural pond as a focal point.

Consider the setting 

A cottage garden offers so much of interest that if it’s well designed and planted, you won’t notice the setting you’re in. Create a cottage garden plot in the city and you’ll be swept away to the countryside without ever leaving home.

Use plants, rather than landscaping, to screen off unwanted views – and frame those you do want to enjoy with trees or shrubs.

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How will you landscape the garden? 

The original cottage gardens were created as a means of survival and provided a place to keep hens and sometimes a pig. Crops were essential to feed the family and the flowers were used to mask horrid smells or to make medicines. For this reason, a cottage garden is the perfect home for recycled and vintage garden features.

For the same reason, modern landscape materials don’t always work well, so it’s usually a good idea to opt for reclaimed bricks and gravel, or to use landscape materials from restoration yards such as railway sleepers.

Features need to look as if they have been in place for years – if you want to soften new concrete urns and pots, try painting them with natural yoghurt as this will encourage moss to grow and give features the appropriate aged look.

A cottage garden has the most potential for attracting visiting wildlife, so this is another area to consider. Create a natural pond and you’ll be encouraging frogs, toads and dragonflies. Garden birds will be a-plenty due to the many fruiting plants and bees and butterflies will enjoy a feast thanks to the very varied feast offered by the eclectic mix of plants. If you provide a bird table, bird bath, nesting boxes, and a place for beneficial insects to overwinter too, your garden will become a very exciting place for the whole family.

What kind of plants will work?

You can really go for it here – nothing is off limits, but there are certainly plants that we tend to associate with cottage gardens, You’re aiming for a mix of vibrant, bold flowers –ideally, self-seeding plants that keep going, and growing, with minimal effort from you. The added bonus is that these are also plants that tend to be nectar rich, attracting pollinating bees and butterflies.

Typical cottage garden plants include foxgloves, nasturtiums, verbena, cornflowers, delphiniums, lavender and dianthus – all of these are self seeding, or have self seeding varieties. Roses, too, are a cottage garden staple.

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Enjoy changing the plot through the year with seasonal bedding plants, mixing these in with salad crops, herbs, climbers, roses, and perennials.

In a nutshell, the more plants the better. There should be plants at every level – from the floor to well above your head. Try typing ‘cottage garden’ into our plant finder tool and you’ll find lots to inspire you.

What’s your budget? 

A cottage garden, although packed with plants, can be very reasonable to create as you can grow plants from seed, or divide existing ones. Your borders can be built up gradually over a few years.

To get the garden started, plant your trees, shrub and hedging first so that your garden framework is in place.

You can enjoy looking out for second hand pots and features as they fit well into this style of garden.

Our top 10 tips for a contemporary garden design

  • Design your plot so there’s maximum amount of room for plants.
  • A typical cottage garden has a vegetable, cutting, and ornamental garden.
  • A garden shed and compost heap are essential.
  • Make use of vintage and recycled features and materials.
  • Hedges rather than fences are more in keeping with this style, although weathered brick walls fit in nicely.
  • Include plants that attract beneficial insects.
  • Select trees that have more than one use – for example a crab apple that offers spring flower and autumn fruits.
  • If you want chickens, make sure you have plenty of room for your chicken run.
  • Curves in paths and borders offer the informal look you are after.
  • Avoid large patios – you need as much space as possible for plants. Smaller areas work well.

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The next step: draw your plan

Once you’ve thought it through and made your list, it’s time to get out the graph paper and draw a plan. We’ve sketched out an example below.

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A triangular cottage garden

This plot is broken up into four sections – patio, lawn, vegetable garden and meadow, with lots of informal shapes making it very natural. A fruit frame, shed, natural pond and chicken run are all great features to include in a cottage garden. The meadow at the far end is of the garden is home to a collection of fruit trees and is a wonderful retreat after a long day at work – the mixed hedging will make you feel like you’re in the countryside.

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A square cottage garden

The main focus of this garden is the circular lawn, which is edged with a step-over height box hedge. This is a traditional cottage garden feature, and is surrounded by a rose garden, veg patch, shed and meadow. The summer house at the far end is a lovely spot to sit and watch life at the pond, while the rose garden will offer wonderful scent when on the patio.

3 inspiring cottage garden designs

To give you an idea of the different effects you can create with a cottage garden, we’ve picked out three designs we especially like:

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Vintage delight

A vintage picket gate with peeling paint sits perfectly in this cottage garden. Hollyhocks and roses are planted just outside the low boundary wall to soften the entrance, and the path to the front door is flanked either side with beds packed with perennials.

Closer to the house is an intimate seating area, where you can just imagine enjoying the scent from the roses trained up the house.
Image Credit: Getty

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A plot packed with interest

There’s not a paving slab in sight here – each and every corner is home to a plant. This is a great example of planting at every level, with climbers decorating the house walls, specimen trees in the lawn and shrubs intermingled with perennial plants. There is so much to explore here – a bird table will attract feathered friends and an archway leads the eye to a lawned area.
Image Credit: Alamy

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Wild at heart

If well managed, a cottage garden can be greatly enhanced by wildflowers. Here, an area of grass has been left to sway in the breeze, while the shed has been completely covered by a climbing rose, and a very ancient wisteria adds to the magic of the place. Grass replaces grouting between the paving slabs, which gives that aged look.

This style of garden needs to be kept under control, otherwise it will run away with you. Note how there are two well-shaped evergreen shrubs either side of the door – this says ‘I am a garden that is looked after’.
Image Credit: Alamy

Have you seen our guide to the first steps of garden design? Make sure you read it before you get to work… 

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