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Cottage gardening for beginners: How do you start a cottage garden from scratch?

Published on May 19th 2021

Anne Hathaways Cottage and gardens 15g2006

by Richard Peat. CC BY-SA 2.0

A close up of a cottage flower garden in front of Anne Hathaway's Cottage
Throughout Festival of Flowers, we've highlighted some key national days to raise awareness of the importance of our gardens concerning the conservation of biodiversity and pollinators. This week, we celebrate World Bee Day and the International Day for Biological Diversity.
As gardeners, it's important to know that our gardens make up a large proportion of UK habitats. According to the RHS, urban gardens make up between 22-27% of cities in the UK, without taking rural gardens into consideration.
So when planning your garden, you might wonder how can you make the most of your space for the benefit of pollinating insects and beneficial wildlife. Cottage gardening could hold the answer.
Cottage gardening is a fantastic way to promote garden biodiversity and fill your garden with wildlife. The first step is to create a habitat that will attract and sustain a large diversity of insects. The more insects you can help support through providing a colourful array of flowers, the larger the diversity of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, that will follow.
In this story, our botanist Rosie tells us everything we need to know about cottage gardening. Including what it is exactly, and most importantly, how to grow one yourself!

What is cottage gardening?

Cottage gardening is a distinct gardening style that originates from England. This popular and carefree style of gardening dates back to Elizabethan times. At this time, gardens were more production-focused and would often feature livestock and grow various fruits, vegetables and herbs, and flowers to fill in the gaps. This also helped to reduce the amount of weeding and watering required to maintain the garden. Flowers were used for decoration and medicine, with food output as the main function of these gardens early in history.

Cottage Garden Plants

Outdoor Vegetables


Cottage garden

Tradional vs Modern Cottage Gardening

What is traditional cottage gardening?
Traditional cottage gardens often feel cosy and may be enclosed. Stonewalling and sprawling, climbing plants often feature, especially Roses.
Some other traditional cottage garden plants are Primrose, Primula vulgaris and Violets, Sweet William, Dianthus barbatus and Hollyhocks.
A stone wall covered with cream roses and plants

The modern cottage garden
Modern cottage gardening features both edible and ornamental plants, traditional materials such as wood and stone in a busy, textured, cosy-feeling environment created by informal design, spreading borders and close, naturalistic planting.
Cottage garden plants include self-sowing annual species such as Love-in-a-Mist, Nigella damascene or Borage, Borago officinalis. Spreading perennials such as Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis are popular, as well as rambling flowers like Clematis.

Shop Clematis plants on Candide.

What does the cottage garden style involve?

William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll have helped made cottage gardening famous. Cottage gardening is not limited to English cottage gardens, it can be adapted to a wide range of gardens in different climates and may be used as more of a guiding style than a strict planting plan.
Dense planting and overflowing flowerbeds with plenty of colour and texture are classic cottage garden styling.
Native species or those adapted to grow well in your climate are more sensible choices compared to imitating the traditional English cottage garden planting and trying to grow plants that won’t thrive in your garden.

Cottage garden planning: how to design your cottage garden

Cottage gardening can be as formal or informal as you like. You could pick your plants based on colour and texture, or you could go for a mixture of everything! Your garden space can reflect your personal tastes. Try to grow what makes you smile.
Native plants are wonderful for the local ecosystem, but your garden doesn't have to be completely traditional. Almost any plant that produces flowers is helpful for pollinating wildlife.
Shop plants for cottage gardens:

Cottage Gardening

More tips on different gardening styles:

How do I start a cottage garden from scratch?

A plan is always a good place to start, you could sketch out your space and get a feel for how much light it gets, where the cold spots might be if there's anything else to consider around your space and what you’d like to do with it.
Informal planting sounds simple, but a lot of planning can be involved. A way to start planning out your cottage garden could be to look at the space you have and think how to add different layers of plants.
Consider the wide range of plants you could grow and how tall they generally get. Will you have ample time to potter about deadheading, supporting and trimming back? Or are you looking for more of a low maintenance cottage garden?

First step, start small

All gardens take some work. Rather than taking on a huge, daunting project, try converting smaller areas and adding them over time.
Bulbs are relatively easy-care, as long as they’re in a good spot, with ample sun and well-draining soil, most bulbs thrive with little input. Alliums, Tulips and Daffodils all suit a cottage garden and can be planted in the autumn, for a spectacular spring-summer display.

How do I make a cottage garden?

Try to incorporate a range of plants. Cottage gardens typically feature herbs, ornamental flowers and vegetables. Think about the overall effect you’d like to create using the cottage garden style. Often dense planting and full, bustling colour can be hard to immediately achieve, particularly in larger spaces.
Some fab fruits and vegetables to try growing:
A bird sitting on a branch

Fruit and Veg

It may take time to see the busy, bustling cottage garden effect you want, but that patience will surely pay off!
For larger spaces, tend more towards the spreading perennials and self-seeding annuals. Left to their own devices, these can quickly cover areas with attractive mounds of flowers and foliage.

What are the best plants for a cottage garden?

Taller plants can add dramatic height to plantings, drawing the eye to certain elements in the garden can also give the illusion of more or less space. Combing perspective and colour theory can be a fun way to experiment with cottage garden design.
Fiery orange, yellow and red are warm, attention-grabbing colours, and they can draw the eye to specific locations. Similarly, cooler blue, purple and light pink shades can be relaxing, planting these colours at the edges of borders can make the edges blurry, making a space feel larger.

Tall plants

Some larger, more architectural plants for height:
Delphiniums and Lupins are popular cottage garden plants, producing tall spikes of colourful blooms. Foxgloves are also colourful, they are typically grown as a biennial plant. Bear's Breeches, Acanthus mollis also form dramatic flowering spikes. Use these plants for adding height to informal plantings.
A close up of a flower garden in front of a building

Smaller, aromatic and texture plants

Some popular cottage garden herb plants include Thyme, Mint, Rosemary, Winter Savoury, Chives, Catmint, Sage and Dill. Lady's Mantle, Alchemilla mollis and Sedum spectabile 'Brilliant' add fabulous texture and variety to plantings.
Grow what you enjoy looking at, cooking with and consuming. There are many distinctive cultivars for every kind of garden herb plant, some have fantastic flowers, most have charming flavours and others produce showy, variegated leaves.
Search for herb plants to grow yourself on Candide!

How to choose plants for your cottage garden

What to plant in any garden, including a cottage garden, really depends on your environment and how much space you’ve got. If your garden gets full sun and no shade, this is something to factor into your plant choice. If your garden is all full shade and minimal sun, this will also alter what you can successfully grow there.

What flowers are in an English cottage garden?

Roses are the classic cottage garden plant and there are so many distinctive scented and colours to choose from nowadays.
Roses may be divided into groupings based on habit, flower colour and scent. The types of rose most often associated with cottage gardening are rambling or climbing roses and shrub roses. They are typically grown alongside other climbers such as Clematis or Honeysuckle, which can use the rose stems as support.
Flowers that freely self-seed themselves will help create an informal cottage garden look. If you can allow them to spread themselves around, you’ll find they can pop up just about anywhere. Given a few seasons, flowers can appear in the unexpected nooks and crannies you may have otherwise overlooked for planting.
Daisies, particularly this lovely Erigeron species, commonly known as Mecian Fleanbane, Erigeron karvinskianus.
A close up of a flower garden
Annual Sweet Peas, Lathyrus odorata are another firm favourite to grow in most gardens, not just cottage gardens. Sweet Peas are quick growing, and they produce fantastic pea-shaped, colourful and scented flowers, which make great cut flowers and are also a productive veg crop!
Find all the Sweet Pea seeds you need here!
Scented and colourful plants are a big theme in cottage gardens. Phlox produce pretty, scented flowers, Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum can often be found climbing over other plants such as Roses and another herb garden favourite is Lavender. There are many different types of Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia is commonly known by the name English Lavender, and this is the one often associated with traditional cottage garden planting.
Hedging can be multifunctional, serving to establish edges and support wildlife. Historically they functioned predominantly to protect and contain livestock as well as provide privacy. Hawthorn and Elderberry hedges have great wildlife value, providing both food and shelter to animals. Holly and Privet were also common practical hedging choices, over time these gave way to more ornamental choices, with Laurel, Lilac, Snowberry and Quice plants becoming popular.
Don't forget the importance of weeds and wild patches! Weedy, overgrown areas provide vital, diverse habitat to a range of pollinating insect wildlife. No cottage garden is complete without a whole host of buzzing wildlife.

Some classic English country garden plants:

What are the best cottage garden plants for a small garden?

Small gardens can easily become cottage gardens. Many early cottage gardens were enclosed and not huge; the planting style lends really well to growing in limited space, especially for container gardening fans.
If you grow in containers and pots, consider planting a few up together with plants of varying height, colours and textures. You can experiment with how they look best in your space, try grouping pots together around an upended pot with another on top to add more height.

Read on for more gardening tips for small spaces:

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