Creating an English Cottage Garden

An English cottage garden is a chaotic mix of color, texture, height and sweet smell.  But it’s more of a controlled chaos than you may think.  Getting the look of a cottage garden takes a little planning, a little work and a lot of plants.  Don’t even think of lining your plants up like little soldiers, you’re going to be creating a romantic, over-flowing garden of old-fashioned favorites.

Designed to remind us of the simple, romance of a bygone era, a cottage garden is the perfect way to fit a lot of landscaping in a little yard with a little budget.

Choose an Area

You’ll need six or more hours of sunlight per day.  If the soil is sandy or clay-like, consider adding compost or another additive for a healthy start for your garden.  Drainage is important as well, as plants hate to have their roots left in standing water and will rot at the very thought of it. 

Spots to consider for slipping in your cottage look are lining a pathway to your home, using a white picket fence as a backdrop, bordering a quaint shed, or enlisting the aid of an arbor to add interest and definition.

Choose Plants

Good old-fashioned varieties of plants are used for cottage gardens.  No newcomers here.  A mix of annuals for season long blooms, perennials, herbs, shrubs, trees and vines create the look – there are no rules or regulations for which plants or varieties to use.  Recommended plantings are:

Reseeding annuals work best in a cottage garden.  It eliminates most of your spring planting and having to fit into those tight spots, as cottage gardens are wall-to-wall plantings.  Popular annuals perfect for the cottage garden include:

  • Snapdragons – They reseed themselves annually
  • Petunias – For a sweet smell and constant bloom
  • Daisies – Perfect old-fashioned look
  • Heliotrope – Sweet smell and purple blooms
  • Nicotania – Color variety and nonstop blooms that reseed
  • Hollyhocks – The tallest and showstopper of the garden.  A must-have!


  • Bleeding heart – Lovely early spring perennial for the shadier spots of a cottage garden.
  • Yarrow – Perfect for the sunniest and driest spot – a hardy plant with lacey foliage.
  • Campanula – Bell shaped flowers with summer blooms
  • Coreopsis – Non stop blooms from summer into fall


  • Lavender with purple blooms and fantastic foliage
  • Thyme – creeps along with a beautiful smell
  • Rosemary – grows big and tall with purple flowers in early Spring

The shrubs can add a ‘backbone’ to your garden, particularly evergreens for winter interest

  • Rose bushes – A must have for the romantic look
  • Hydrangea – Showy blooms for summer
  • Lilacs – Showy purple sweet smelling blooms mid spring


  • Japanese Maple – For brilliant fall color
  • Dwarf fruit trees – For added interest and color
  • Dogwoods – For spring blooms


  • Clematis  - For winding up the trellis
  • Morning glory – Perfect arbor climbing
  • Climbing roses – For twining up any structure


As for placing the plantings, there are no rules, just your senses to guide you.  Helpful suggestions include:

  • Placing taller plants in the back and shorter varieties up front where you can see them is a good rule of thumb, but not set in stone. 
  • Winding pathways to view the garden with plants overflowing onto the walkway set the stage for your cottage garden. 
  • Plantings should be close together.
  • Bare ground is bad.

The roots of the cottage garden date come from 18th Century England, with cottage dwellers combining plants for food, medicine and dyes in one small area.  Thus, our classic cottage garden overflowing with abundance, variety and informality can be kept in mind when creating your English cottage garden.