Cottage gardens are about letting go of formal garden design and embracing the wild beauty of nature. If you want to transform your outdoor space with intense flower beds, rustic furniture and charming decor, these cottage garden ideas will be exactly what you’re looking for.
What is a Cottage Garden?
For a long time, popular garden design has been informed by traditional French gardens, which sought to demonstrate control over nature. Smooth, manicured lawns have been the norm, framed by neat flower beds and precise hedges. To an extent, garden design has been about symmetry, straight lines and (not to put too fine a point on it), attaining perfection.
Well, times are changing, and lots of people are finding there are more interesting ways to enjoy their garden. Movements like “Food not Lawns” encourage homeowners to grow their own crops in kitchen gardens, and to plant foliage that invites wildlife and promotes biodiversity, especially in urban environments. Grass-free garden ideas are on the rise, and trends are increasingly celebrating the beauty of chaotic cottage gardens.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with conventional designs – but, if you’re up to the challenge, growing a flourishing cottage garden is an exciting way to test your green thumb.
The Quintessential Features of a Cottage Garden
Cottage garden ideas are whimsical, romantic and rustic. In addition to an abundance of flowers, expect to see charming, vintage decor and a delicate colour palette of pastels and neutral shades. Weathered hardscaping and worn paintwork is delightfully tactile to the touch, and you should be able to smell the gentle aroma of fragrant flowers. A cottage garden is an all-around treat for the senses.
Quaint picket fencing
With a cottage garden, it’s about carefully confining the wildness of nature. Although your borders and edging can be overgrown and overflowing, a neat fence in a traditional style will set the right tone. A white picket fence is iconic, but any similar style will work. Just keep it relatively low, and choose a subtle colour that will complement your flowers. A lattice fence – that can support climbers – is a beautiful alternative.
Ancient stone walls
These stone walls at Scotney Castle are an understated backdrop for the huge bursts of hydrangeas in front.
Looking for a more robust garden boundary? Swap fencing for a wall made from reclaimed brick or stone to make it look as if your garden has been growing for centuries. If you’re struggling to find authentically aged materials, there are actually ways to distress both stone and brick to make them look older, quicker.
A picture-perfect gate
However you define the border of your garden, mark the boundary between the street and your fairy-tale garden with a charming gate. Choose traditional hardware and, if you fancy, accessorise with a co-ordinated sign bearing the name of your home, or a simple “welcome” message.
Flowers: More is more
The signature of a cottage garden is flower beds that are positively brimming with flowers of every size and colour. Of course, this doesn’t actually happen naturally, so you’ll want to actively plan how to combine different blooms for the most intense effect. Mix perennials and annual flowers, and add climbers, trailing flowers and plants for ground coverage, too.
Take your time enjoying your garden – and encourage others to do the same – with a long, winding pathway. Allow it to weave or zig-zag between flowers, beneath trees, under archways and past benches.
There are several ways to create a beautiful path in a cottage garden. For example, if you’re growing a wildflower meadow, you could simply keep a strip of grass neatly mown. A gravel or wood-chip path is more formal (just keep it well edged to stop it spreading), or you could embed paving stones or old bricks and let them become overgrown to visually soften them.
Dividing your garden into sections will always help you make the most of it, no matter what size it is. However, with a cottage garden, see how well you can blend the lines between each “zone”. For example, building a brick patio that tapers off into a brick path, or letting your decorative flower beds flower over into vegetable planters.
Keep your unruly flower beds grounded by featuring some larger trees and rocks as centrepieces or natural-looking focal points. You could also use an arbour or trellis arch as a base for climbing flowers to add height. Choose fragrant vines like jasmine, honeysuckle or roses to grow over doorways or windows, and enjoy a pleasant waft of scent whenever you open them.
Historically, cottage gardens would have been a place to grow edible plants and flowers – and they can be today, too. Depending on how much space you have, you could plant apple or pear trees, plan a dedicated kitchen garden area with raised planters, and/or tuck root vegetables and brassicas beneath your decorative plants.
A practical workspace
With so many plants to look after, you’ll need somewhere to keep your tools. A pretty shed or greenhouse is the perfect place for this. If you have the room, you might even want to set up a she-shed or garden man cave amongst the flowers. Make sure any garden room blends in though, encouraging climbers to grow over it and painting it to match your other garden furniture or fence.
Cosy, romantic seating
With so much going on in your garden, you’ll want plenty of places to relax and appreciate it all. Weathered benches and picnic tables lend themselves perfectly to the cottage garden aesthetic. Natural materials like wood and wicker will blend in seamlessly, but modern metal furniture can add interesting contrast – choose whichever you prefer!
Even if your main seating area is on a patio close to the house, make sure you add at least one more place to admire the view.
Whimsical decor and sculptures
One of my favourite things about cottage gardens is that they leave room for a little bit of craziness and eccentricity. This can really come out in your garden decor, whether you love eclectic, vintage curiosities or a rich tapestry of bohemian style elements. Maybe you’re a gnome lover, or like the idea of an enchanted garden. Add sundials, lanterns, repurposed furniture and cheeky sculptures to your heart’s content.
A welcome to wildlife
One reason to try cottage garden ideas over a conventional garden is that they’re a much more welcoming environment for some of the amazing critters we get in the UK. Build bird baths, bug hotels, squirrel feeders and hedgehog holes to share every inch of your garden with nature.
Cottage Garden Ideas: Flowers
Although a cottage garden may look wild and unruly, you’ll get the most stunning results if you choose your plants carefully. Aim to maximise the variety in every flower bed in terms of shapes, colour and height, and plan some order in the chaos for each plant to thrive. The right flowers will also attract bees and butterflies to your garden – perfect for making it feel like you’re stepping outside into a charming fairy-tale.
Lavender is such a versatile plant, and fits right into so many gardens. Its subtle colour and interesting shape adds variety to your flower beds and borders, plus it smells gorgeous! Lavender is also a wonderful material for making crafts, if that’s at all your thing.
Phlox can provide your borders with a beautiful confetti of pink, white and red flowers, with a pretty fragrance. You can also grow them in containers if you’re worried about planting too much in a rental garden.
The delicate pink or red ruffles of peonies are both luxurious and romantic – exactly what you should be looking for in your cottage garden ideas. Once they’re blooming, you can cut them for the most elegant vintage kitchen bouquets.
Foxgloves are ideal for building the interesting layers shapes of a cottage garden, particularly when they’re combined with smaller flowers that will gather at their base, like geraniums or peonies. Remember that foxgloves are toxic though, so keep children supervised and maybe avoid them if you want a dog-friendly garden.
Another fantastic candidate for cultivating interesting levels among your flowers: delphiniums. The Elatum varieties can grow over 6ft – ideal for hiding an ugly fence or creating an organic screen between garden areas. Belladonna varieties are smaller, but are likely to have a second flower in late summer.
Yes, yet another plant with flowering spires – but this mixture of colour and levels is essential for pulling your cottage garden ideas together.
The sunny little faces of daisies are very welcome in any cottage garden. Daisies are super easy to maintain and look great at the edge of your beds.
You only need to check out one of the 63,000 posts tagged “wisteria hysteria” on Instagram to see why these beautiful climbers are such a staple of traditional gardens. Plan for them to grow over a pergola, arbour, archway or trellis to enjoy their incredible draping to its maximum effect.
No cottage garden is complete without roses. In fact, I’d say that if you’re short on space, you could plant a single rose bush in a pot, or a climbing rose up a trellis, and still achieve the cottage garden look. Deadhead your roses to encourage repeat flowering, and enjoy their beautiful perfume all summer long.
Keeping Your Cottage Garden Healthy
By design, cottage gardens need far less maintenance and upkeep than a conventional garden. Although you will need to put a little bit of thought into your planning and some effort in the initial planting, gradually your garden will start taking care of the hard work for you. Once your flower beds start filling in, nobody will notice a few weeds!
Look After Your Soil
Most cottage gardens have tightly packed flowers in overflowing beds. When your plants are so close together, it’s important to keep your soil topped up with nutrients. Cultivating your own compost is a great way to stay on top of soil maintenance, and adding mulch as a top layer will help your soil retain moisture.
Expand in Stages
Yes, you’ll be aiming for crowded flower beds where everything seems to be growing on top of each other, but getting to that stage can be surprisingly tricky. Each plant has its own needs that you’ll want to get right in order for them to thrive as a collective.
Unless you’re an incredibly seasoned gardener, it’s absolutely fine to start in one or two small areas and gradually build up your plant groupings. You may also prefer to plant several clusters of one or two low-maintenance shrubs and perennials to get them established, then slowly add more plants each season. Growing a few self-seeders (like foxglove) will also help with the unplanned, haphazard look over time.
Keep a healthy mix of plants
Part of a cottage garden’s magic is that a strong variety of plants limits the amount of damage a particular insect or pest can cause. Certain flowers will attract “good” critters, while others will act as a natural repellent to organisms you’d rather keep at bay. Nature in perfect harmony.
Relax your borders
Don’t be precious about the line where your flower beds meet your path, lawn or fencing. Letting some foliage spill over borders is essential for cultivating the overgrown look that makes cottage garden ideas so wonderful. You could even try planting rosemary or lavender along the path, so you’re treated with a delightful fragrance whenever you brush past.
Making Your Cottage Garden Yours
Disregarding the “rules” of conventional gardening in favour of the comparatively lawless cottage garden can be a big step. The first thing to do is forget about “perfection” entirely, and find joy in the process of cultivating your new space.
Every cottage garden is unique and stunning in its own way. Remember that, wherever you find your cottage garden ideas and inspiration, your garden will never look like anyone else’s – and nor should it! Your garden shouldn’t even look the same between seasons or years – and that’s exactly part of its beauty.