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Cottage garden design: plants, structure and planting tips

Martyn Cox / 28 August 2015 ( 28 June 2017 )

With the right plants and layout even the smallest space can become a delightful cottage garden. Gardening expert Martyn Cox explains how to plan and design your own traditional cottage garden.

Cottage garden
The key to designing a cottage garden is to grow lots of blowsy plants close together

A cottage garden is as quintessentially British as cream teas, the Royal Family and a strange obsession with the weather. Few sights are more impressive in summer than a chocolate-box house surrounded by a space brimming with roses, perennials and flowering climbers.

Yet you don’t need to own a thatched, period stone cottage in the heart of countryside to enjoy this kind of display. These informal, mixed planting schemes can be created around any style or age of property, whether you live in a town, city or a village in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the benefit of a cottage garden is that the style is typically very busy - ideal for anyone wishing to grow lots of plants in a small area.

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Designing a cottage garden

The relaxed style of a cottage garden is achieved by keeping the layout simple. Avoid anything too fussy or complex as the outline will soon be lost once the plants get going. 

Use stone, gravel or grass paths to break up the space among beds and borders. 

A single, narrow path would be fine in a small, rectangular back garden. Wider walkways or swathes of grass are more suitable for a larger plot.

Find out how to design a Chelsea-style garden at home

Architectural features of a cottage garden

Garden structures are an important part of a cottage garden. 

Arbours, arches, pergolas, trellis screens and benches can be used to divide the garden into rooms, act as focal points or work as a device to lead the eye from one part of a garden to another. 

Taller structures are perfect to act as support for wisteria, honeysuckle, jasmine and other scented climbers.

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Cottage garden plants

Cottage garden plants

Perennials are a must for cottage gardens. Delphiniums, verbascum and hollyhocks will provide height at the back of borders, while foxgloves, lupins, phlox, achillea and bellflowers will help to bulk out the middle. Hardy geraniums, lady’s mantle and shorter types of geum are perfect at the front of displays.

Shrubs will help to provide a longer season of interest. 

Roses are a must-have for colour and scent in summer, and blowsy hydrangeas will keep interest going into autumn. Dogwoods act as a foil for flowering plants during the warmer months’ of the year but take centre stage in winter when their leaves fall to reveal colourful stems.

Find out how to design and plant a herbaceous border

Must-have cottage garden flowers

These beautiful flowering plants can all contribute to a traditional cottage garden:

Bellflowers (Campanula)
Geums (Avens)
Lady’s mantle

Planting tips

Plants are usually spaced well apart, but forget this rule when planting up a cottage garden. In fact, cottage gardens were traditionally a way for poor people to grow as many culinary and medicinal herbs and flowers as they could in a small space. Place them closer together than normal so that the soil is soon hidden and everything knits together to form a mass of foliage and flowers. 

Many perennials will need shoring up with supports early in the season to prevent them flopping and some will spread quickly, so expect to be dividing congested clumps every few years.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.