Cottage Garden Primer
Photo by Felder Rushing
Cottage gardening is a relaxed style with a few classic characteristic design elements that allow relaxed planting and personal expression. Anyone can have a cottage garden, or at least a slice of one, anywhere. In spite of it being much easier—not to mention more socially acceptable—to mindlessly mow grass and trim shrubs, any landscape can include an area where you can plant stuff “every which way” and enjoy using all your senses, all year.
Though no two cottage gardeners—or their gardens—are alike, most share certain characteristics which proclaim them as cottage gardens. They include a sense of enclosure, strong vertical elements, a small lawn or other “people” space, a wide assortment of locally-adapted plants, and personalized garden accessories.
Universal Design Elements
Cottage gardens are surprisingly similar, whether in England, Japan or America. There is little difference in style, merely in weather-related plant selections, architecture and culturally-appropriate accessories.
The first thing anyone notices about a cottage garden is its apparent lack of design—from outside the garden. Most are laid inside-out, from the gardener’s perspective, making the best sense when viewed from the house, not from the street.
There is nearly always a sense of enclosure, be it a small fence, stone wall, or low hedge that says “this is a separate space.” To keep the enclosed area neat and unified, and to provide a simple people-friendly space, most cottage gardens have a neatly-edged or bordered small lawn, paved or mulched area. Think throw-rug, not wall-to-wall carpet.
Usually there are strong vertical effects, from small trees to arbors, often covered with mixed vines and hanging baskets. There is plenty of all-weather seating, often under a sun- and rain-protective arbor or porch, and carefree evidence of hands-on gardening everywhere, from tools, watering cans, or hoses, to gloves left on a table where they can be reached easily.
Low-Maintenance, Locally Adapted Plants
What would a cottage garden be without a huge diversity of plants? Small flowering trees usually drip with favorite vines, and assorted evergreen and deciduous flowering shrubs, some pruned into creative shapes, are the backbone plants.
Underneath and between the larger plants are countless heirloom or “passalong” perennials, bulbs, ferns, grasses, and a wide variety of potted plants in creative containers. Annual flowers, vegetables and herbs are thrown together, providing a year-round display of shape, texture, color, fragrance, and home-grown taste. Any plants that have serious insect or disease problems are gradually weeded out, replaced by trouble-free favorites, including native wildflowers.
Because of this mix of plants, as well as stacks of old pots and other garden debris and of course a bird feeder and at least one birdbath, there is always an abundance of wildlife in a cottage garden, including birds, bees, butterflies, lizards and other beneficial natural predators. This live and let live attitude between gardener and critters often means there are rarely any needs for pesticides.
Finally, cottage gardens are accessorized with highly personal and culturally centered garden art such as over-the-top birdbaths, small statues, wall hangings, recycled containers, and assorted “found objects” such as rocks, driftwood, chimney pots, or other cast-off material turned into whimsical sculptures.
Not all these elements are requirements, but most cottage garden have most of these features. The main thing is to carve out a small, fun, enclosed space for growing plants for the love of it, and to indulge your creative fantasies.