Whether you pine for a bit of the country life or want your home to be more cottagecore, you can have it with a cottage garden. Cottage gardens embody thrift, necessity, and a bit of serendipity and whimsy. If this sounds like you, learn what a cottage garden is and how to create one in your lawn.
What is a cottage garden?
A practical definition of “cottage garden” sounds something like this: An informal garden that is adjacent to the home and includes local flowers, food, and herbs. Cottage gardens are whimsical, colorful, practical, and beautiful.
Characteristics of a cottage garden:
If you’re ready for a little bit of cottage cozy in your lawn, consider these common characteristics of cottage gardens.
A basic plan
Cottage gardens are described as “informal,” but even informal gardens need a basic plan. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a landscape architect to sketch out a basic design for your garden. If you prefer to “sketch” in your head, that’s fine, too.
Much of the design will depend on the placement of your house, where the sun hits, and which elements (food gardening, hardscaping, etc.) you’ll use.
For example, cottage gardens often have trees somewhere in the landscape. Your annual food plot will not likely be nestled among the trees since many annuals need full sun. But your partial shade perennials would love a spot next to a tree to provide them with afternoon shade.
Once you have a rough idea of where plants will go, you can start to plan for permanent features like hardscaping and a seating area.
When you plan a cottage garden, remember this: Straight lines are out; curved lines are in.
Wandering, curved hardscaping features are a staple in cottage garden design. Think of curving walkways or meandering stone paths instead of straight sidewalks. Contrast the hardscapes in a naturalistic cottage garden with the straight pathways in a formal garden to get a better idea of how you’ll want to design the hardscapes in your garden.
Here are a few popular hardscaping elements in modern-day cottage gardens:
- Arbors (perfect for climbers and vines)
- Picket fences (or any short border)
- Raised bed (garden beds or flower beds)
In cottage design, “local” rules the day. Live in a mountainous area? Use local stone for pathways or walls. Live near a forest? Let wood reign.
Since local materials are readily available, this means they are likely less expensive than something that is trucked across the country.
Cottage gardens are founded on utilitarian, thrifty design, so use materials that are local to your area. This will give your cottage garden a local flavor that’s also easy on your wallet.
When you think of a cottage garden, there are a few plants that probably come to mind: climbing roses, foxgloves with majestic spires, exploding peonies, and so on.
Historically, however, cottage gardens would have been filled with whatever local plants you could find, whether that was vining honeysuckle or sweet peas saved from last year’s crop.
Now, native plant societies abound. Check with your local chapter to see if any of these popular cottage garden plants are local to your area:
- Herbs (all kinds)
When you think of a traditional cottage garden, animals may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, cottagers often had animals near their homes. Chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals would provide needed sustenance throughout the year.
There is another important member of the animal kingdom that cottage gardens naturally invite: insects. More specifically, pollinators. With today’s profusion of flowers in most cottage gardens, pollinators are frequent visitors.
If you want to be intentional about including certain pollinators in your garden, ask your local native plant society which native plants are best for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, or whatever wildlife you’d like to invite into your garden.
Food and herbs
As we’ve mentioned, cottage gardens originated as the original DIY gardens in which homeowners could raise animals, food, medicine, and maybe a few self-seeding wildflowers for their sustenance.
If you want to commune with these original cottagers, here are a few popular categories of practical plants to add to your cottage garden:
- Annual/biennial vegetables
- Perennial fruit trees or bushes
- Cut flowers (not purely practical unless you sell them)
- Pollinator plants (very practical since you’ll need insects to pollinate your garden)
- Medicinal plants
In the old days, it is unlikely you would have spent much or any money on the plants in your garden. Friends would likely provide seed or cuttings for you to use, and you would then save seeds each year and divide your perennials as needed.
Today you can get in contact with your local garden club, or look on free online social media pages, for gardeners who are willing to share seeds or extra plants from their gardens.
Another way to be a thrifty cottage gardener is to save time (“time is money,” right?) and use self-seeders that will come back on their own. Flowers such as bachelor buttons and daisies will self-seed, saving you work year after year.
What’s a cottage garden without riotous plants climbing over a rustic fence with a squeaky gate? Historical cottage gardens had some type of border or fence, either to keep chickens and other animals in or to keep larger animals out. Today, fences and gates may be less utilitarian, but they can serve to demarcate areas of the garden or to add charm.
If you want to add a living fence, a hedge of soft, flowering shrubs or evergreens is an option. Although a straight evergreen hedge adds an air of formality to most gardens, if the other elements are whimsical and curving, you’ll likely keep a cottage flair.
Whimsy, in a word, is the je ne sais quois of a cottage garden. A cottage garden is greater than the sum of its parts, and whimsy is often the word used to demystify that “something” about it that makes it magical.
Here are other words often used to describe a cottage garden:
- Overflowing with flowers and color
- Organized chaos
- Pretty and practical
- Inviting and unpretentious
What words or phrases do you use to describe cottage gardens?
A cottage garden history
Cottage gardens are often associated with the English countryside. However, North Carolina State University notes that cottage gardens have their roots at the end of the feudal era. In the late 15th century, subsistence farming became popular as families started to focus on tending their own food plots outside their front door rather than the land of others.
As a result, cottage gardens originated as gardens that would feed the family, even though this may have looked different over time. One expert notes that medieval English homesteads tended more to animals than to gardens, caring for creatures such as pigs, geese, chickens, and cows.
Later in English history, these homesteads started to include vegetables, fruit trees, herbs, and medicinal plants. Over the centuries, as more of a family’s food came from outside sources, these cottage gardens became more ornamental with fewer edible plants.
Cottage gardens for every climate
No matter where you live in the U.S., you can enjoy the whimsy and color of a cottage garden.
As the University of Florida notes, there are cottage garden-like plants that grow well even in a subtropical climate:
- Climbing rose
- Morning glory
What about our northern states with frigid winters? Check out this handy Native Plant Encyclopedia from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Not local to the Florida or Minnesota area? No problem. Search for your state and “native plants” and you’ll find a link to your state’s native plant resources.
Native plants may not be traditional cottage garden specimens, but if you use native plants and give them ideal growing conditions (right amounts of sun and water), most will look right at home in a cottage garden in your area.
If you take these principles to heart, you can create a cottage garden in almost any climate.
FAQ about cottage gardens
plants, and preserve the bounty. Cottage gardens these days are a highly varied lot, though. Determine the maintenance level you want to do upfront, and design your cottage garden accordingly.
Using native plants is the best way to make a high-maintenance garden a little less work. Here’s why: Native plants that are suited for your lawn’s conditions (sun, shade, soil) will require less maintenance than beautiful “introduced” plants that you drool over in the garden center.
— Use less or no supplemental water once established (save time watering!)
— Resist disease (they’ve been around for hundreds of years, after all)
— Are suited to local soil types (makes for better growth)
— Often provide a home for pollinators (good for wildlife and your plants)
Cottage gardens are known for having dense plantings. Cottagers took advantage of every bit of space and put a seed or cutting there. Mature gardens will be more full than new ones since you’ll want to leave some room for plants to grow and expand. But you may want to install your plants slightly closer than normal to get that dense cottage look.
If you’d like to enlist the help of someone who’s in-the-know, contact one of our local lawn care pros. They’ll install new, cottage-friendly plants to make your home a little more like the cottage you crave.