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. I love cottage garden! I cannot live without it. I will go crazy if I cannot garden. I watch Gardener’s World with Monty Don and all HRS programs like Chelsea. Your photographs are lovely!

  2. Lovely! So different from what we see in the Caribbean! All the plants would probably be hibiscus shrubs and the kind of flowers I post on my blog. It would just be a tropical cottage. Lovely post!

  3. What a wonderful splash of vibrant colour for a cold wintry day!! I’ve always wanted a cottage garden but I’m too lazy to do the work, so I content myself with your beautiful photos instead! Thanks!

    1. Summer seems a long way off (we had romantic, floating snowflakes again this morning) but it’s not that far from planting season again here!

  4. Thanks Susan. Your Hollyhock photo led me on an educational journey into the family Malvaceae teaching me how many “relatives” of which I had already made acquaintance – Marsh Mallow, Althea, Hibiscus, etc.

    Just yesterday I found a photo of my backyard when it looked at lot more like a cottage garden. I’ll have to post it on my blog next week.

      1. Please bear in mind that I’m saying more like a cottage garden than the prairie we are currently cultivating. Although, I’m confident that even the wildflower and native grass prairie will someday have its own form of lush charm.

        1. Prairie and various styles of wildflower planting are very popular in England – I’ve seen good examples at RHS Wisley and Trentham Gardens recently. Even some of our roundabouts (traffic islands) have been turned into miniature wildflower meadows.

          1. I confess woeful ignorance of such matters but I’m still making note of the first time I’ve ever seen “England” and “prairie” in the same sentence.

  5. Informative post, thank you! I have a fair number of these plants in my garden, and while it all looks pretty in the height of summer, almost all of them die down to nothing over winter leaving the garden looking bare. Thanks for the ideas.

    1. You’re right, most cottage gardens are at their peak in the summer and rest with the natural seasons in the winter. I quite enjoy this. Adding hellebores, witch hazel and spring bulbs will provide winter colour and give glimpses of new life to come.

  6. Who wouldn’t want this?! Simply beautiful. Reminds me of flower arrangements when I was a florist in the States-lisianthus, phlox, liatrus, delphinium, salvia…not cottage garden, but similar colors and beauty. So romantic and feminine. Your photos are gorgeous and your information is so thorough, one of my favorite posts of yours. Xx

    1. Thanks for leaving such a lovely comment. Floristry is a wonderful skill – I can arrange a few short stems in a vase and that’s about it! I’ve been fortunate to have worked alongside some talented florists and I love to see the respect – reverence, even – you all have for the flowers. We were often using cottage garden flowers which made it all the better.

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