Recipe for a Traditional English Cottage Garden

Described by the British Cottage Garden Society as an informal, abundant, diverse planting, this well-loved gardening style is always in fashion with ’real’ gardeners. If you’d like to create a cottage garden at home, follow this recipe. Add an extra dimension by including as many highly fragrant cultivars as you can from the plant lists below. Your challenge (should you choose to accept it) is to have no soil visible from year three onwards. Simple!

  • Patch of earth (ideally cultivated and enriched for hundred years, though it’s never too late to start)
  • Some form of enclosure: hedge, stone walls, wooden fence
  • Path, winding
  • Garden gate

  • Border spade & fork (the more nimble ladies ones are best for everything other than construction)
  • Nice, tactile trowel
  • Good pair of secateurs

Pick and mix your personal favourites from these choices:

  • Shrubs: buddleia, hydrangea, lilac, shrub roses, witch hazel
  • Climbers (vines): clematis, honeysuckle, rambling roses, sweet peas, wisteria
  • Cottage garden plants: achillea, allium, astrantia, campanula, daylily, delphinium, dierama, foxglove, geranium, helenium, hellebore, heuchera, hollyhock, hosta, iris, lavender, lily, lupin, penstemon, peony, phlox, polemonium, poppy, primrose, rosemary, salvia, spring bulbs, Sweet William, thyme, verbascum, violet
  • Cottage garden annuals: borage, calendula, cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), love-in-a-mist (Nigella), nasturtium
Cottage Garden Accessories
  • Natural willow stakes, obelisks and supports
  • Seat, bench
  • Scarecrow, gnome, bird house, bee hive
  • Well with bucket, stream, bridge, stepping stones
  • Greenhouse
  • Thatched roof (if you want the whole enchilada)
  • Water
  • Mulch

Choose any number of ingredients – the more, the merrier. Combine well, plant and season to taste with accessories. Lavishly garnish, then leave to intermingle.

Creating An English garden elsewhere

The plants listed above assume an English climate or similar. Wise gardeners grow what grows – if lavender dies within a few months of planting, choose locally adapted plants to create the same effect. Ask gardening friends for plant recommendations or visit a few nearby gardens to see what’s thriving. English cottage gardeners transplanted to the Southern States of America will soon be growing crepe myrtles rather than lilacs – and marvelling at their beauty.

Garden experts tend to be cautious about recommending plants, with good reason. To create a cottage garden style planting in more challenging conditions, you may need to experiment and take a few calculated risks. So if local experts assure you that in your climate, you’ve no choice but to replace all the plants with begonias – take my advice and ask for a second (or third) opinion!

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I might learn how to do it”

Pablo Picasso

Three Useful links

Leading plantswoman Sarah Raven’s top twelve cultivars for cottage gardens – I’ve dug up too much Alchemilla mollis to recommend it myself but always enjoy alternative views.

Cottage Garden Society is a friendly association of enthusiasts (around 3,000 members) with regional meetings and a seed exchange.

The Royal Horticultural Society has lots of great resources – in particular their shows, gardens, their magazine The Garden and another seed exchange.

Where to see cottage garden plantings in North West England

My local favourites include Arley Hall and GardensGresgarth Hall Gardens and Levens Hall. Some of the nicest cottage gardens are small scale, private ones: the Yellow Book lists gardens that open on selected days of the year for charity.

If I’ve missed out any of your favourite plants for cottage gardens, have any ideas for substitutions for your part of the world, or know of some must-see gardens, please let me know.


35 Replies to “Recipe for a Traditional English Cottage Garden”

  1. It is possible to create a cottage garden anywhere, I have discovered, by adapting your choices to the varieties of plants available in your area, as you have pointed out here. I live in a sub-tropical zone of Australia, and as we head into the sticky hot days of summer, I have foxgloves, cornflowers, gardenias, lavender, hydrangeas, buddleias and fuchias, just to name a few, thriving happily in my garden. If only I had realised sooner than I did that these options were available, I would have a well established cottage garden by now, but better late than never. And I’m into year two of my planting now, and making my way steadily toward the “no soil visible” look through trial and error. 🙂

    1. That sounds wonderful. You’ve reminded me of the gardening saying ‘the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago: the next best time is now’.

  2. As someone who loves cottage style gardens and lives in sub-tropical south Mississippi, I’m delighted to have discovered your blog! The photography is beautiful and I look forward to reading more of your informative posts.

  3. I especially enjoyed this blog post and your infusion of humor. Our sandy soil here in Florida, USA is not great for and English garden, but I have a friend who has done it by bringing in truckloads of good, rich soil. I have added lots of good soil, too, and plan to add a lot more. I’m thinking of creating an English garden, but doing it little by little with native plants.

  4. I do share your love of cottage plants! Going through your list I was delighted to tick most off that I’ve put in my little patch here in the South of England 🙂

    1. It’s almost a test of how much you love plants, isn’t it? Can I suggest that you add a category and a few tags to your posts, rather than leaving them as uncategorised? It looks as though you’ll be sharing some interesting content and that way, people who love gardening will be able to find your posts in The Reader.

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