Cottage gardening dates back centuries to Elizabethan times in England and its principles were brought to the United States when we were still an English colony. At first it had more utilitarian origins and was centered on herbs, fruits and vegetables with flowers used to fill in empty spaces. Even then the flowers used had a purpose, such as being edible or plants that were thought to repel vermin, but over time flowers have become the more dominant theme to this style of planting. Cottage gardens are always full of surprises, but without some thought and planning they can be visually overwhelming and knowing the essentials of cottage gardening can help you to create beautiful “organized” chaos.
As the name suggests structure is an important element in cottage gardening. The first structural element that you’ll find in a cottage garden is fences and gates. Originally these were important to keep livestock from wandering off, but over time they’ve taken on another meaning. The white picket fence which is emblematic of middle class living in America is a great example of the type of fence you would associate with cottage gardening. While it provides separation the fence is not intended to isolate your garden from the view of others. Its height allows your garden to be seen from many perspectives and the garden gate invites others into your yard to share its beauty. Finally, the fence also provides support for plants themselves.
Another structural element that you find in a cottage garden is paths and pergolas. Paths are important because they connect one area of the garden to another. The paths are usually made of pea gravel or flagstone and guide the visitor on their journey through your yard. Pergolas add height to the cottage garden and support for climbers such as roses and wisteria. Twig structures are also common in cottage gardens and you can often see sweet peas and pole beans climbing up this teepee shaped support. The final structural hallmark of cottage gardens is walls and hedges. With space at a premium lattice work is often used to allow plants to climb up the walls of the home and additional structures in the garden. Hedges of evergreens, boxwood and yews can provide a more formal planting that brings an interesting contrast to the more undisciplined aspects of the garden although it is not uncommon to have vines, such as clematis, rambling through these hedges.
The second essential item found in a cottage garden is decorative objects. No cottage garden is complete without a sundial, bird bath or fountain. These objects also bring a contrasting focus to the garden, but are usually made of natural-looking materials so that the garden looks like it has been growing there for many years. These objects also help attract song birds to the garden which bring a peaceful feeling to your yard and also help you to keep garden pests in check.
The final element and perhaps the most important are the plants! Even the type of plant in a cottage garden can have a purpose. For example, groundcovers such as violets or periwinkle are often planted in an attempt to help keep weeding to a minimum. Another suggestion in choosing your plants is to make sure you try to put the taller plants to the rear and the shorter plants toward the front of the flower beds. You also want to mass your plantings in groups of 3 or more and repeat these groupings throughout the garden. It’s also a good idea to keep your color combinations in mind and coordinate them so “they play well together.” Pink, purple, and white colored flowers are often seen together in cottage gardens.
Choosing the plants for a cottage garden can be a difficult task as there is an abundance of options to choose from. Roses are the quintessential cottage garden flower and the choice is often made based on its fragrance as much as the color of its flower. Climbing roses are a must for any cottage garden. Perennials are the backbone of the garden with coneflowers, peonies, and phlox being popular choices along with biennials such as hollyhock, sweet William, and foxglove. Self-seeding plants like columbine are also a feature of cottage gardens and annuals such as pansies, marigolds, and petunias help to tie the garden together. Crocus and tulip bulbs usher in spring and apple trees tell you that fall is in the air.
Finally, don’t forget herbs like lavender, sage, thyme, and catmint which were grown for their medicinal qualities in addition to their fragrance and beauty. Perhaps nothing is more important to know about cottage gardening than while these 3 elements are part of every cottage garden the informal nature of this garden design means that your personal preferences will really drive the design process and you can truly make this type of garden your own.