The Principles of the Cottage Garden Style


The seeds of the modern cottage garden movement were sown in late nineteenth-century English nostalgia. Influential garden writers of the time extolled the virtues of the unpretentious gardens that they saw cultivated by rural cottage owners, as a reaction to the artificiality of large-scale country house gardens. They wanted to return to what they considered to be native small-scale gardening.

The cottage garden was closely and abundantly planted with hardy flowers and bulbs, fruit bushes, herbs and vegetables. Whilst hedges (some trimmed into shapes) were important, shrubs were not.

The planting was lush as the soil was kept in good condition by quantities of manure. A great variety of plants, often highly scented, were grown, such as old roses billowing over cabbages, Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) next to marigolds (Calendula), or towering hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) framing the doorway. However, little thought was given to colour harmonisation or geometry.

Lawns were rare, as it was thought that any spare ground was better used for growing more plants. The garden was characteristically divided by paths of trodden earth edged with stones, tiles, shells, or clumps of flowers such as pansies (Viola x wittrockiana).

The compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) is so-named because its lower leaves tend to line up in a north-south direction.

Recreating the Style Today

Whilst it is possible to recreate a traditional cottage garden successfully, the characteristic plants do not usually provide much interest in autumn and winter, and the maintenance demands are high. However, many of the cottage garden principles are valuable ideas for modern gardens, and may be borrowed or modified to suit individual sites, whilst certain typical features and plants are often used today to create a rural and relaxed effect in a scheme.

The design of cottage gardens can be surprisingly formal, with symmetrically arranged beds for produce and flowers and straight paths edged with hedges of lavender or box. However, it is the careless abundance of the planting, tumbling over the paths and hedges and softening the hard edges, that gives cottage gardens their characteristic appearance of informality. It is this factor of controlled casualness that gives the true spirit of the cottage garden style.

The right choice of plants is the key to success with a cottage garden. The large beds should be planted with good examples of old-fashioned flowers (particularly hardy perennials), and a few shrubs to give structure. A wide assortment of herbs, vegetables and fruits should be grown either amongst (to produce what is known as 'integrated' gardening) or alongside the flowers. Scented plants are an especially good choice, particularly those that attract bees. One or two favourites may be used repeatedly as 'key' plants to produce a consistent effect.

Paths made from bricks, cobbles or gravel are practical as well as fitting in style, whilst an edging of lavender (Lavandula) provides scented flowers outdoors and for drying, as well as attractive evergreen foliage. A rustic, wooden arch is an excellent feature for supporting scented climbing plants such as honeysuckle (Lonicera) or roses, and borders overflowing with lupins (Lupinus), peonies (Paeonia), pinks (Dianthus) and wall-flowers (Cheiranthus) recreate the feeling of unrestrained profusion.