A Cottage Garden That’s Not Chaotic

An exuberant design filled with frothy perennials needs just the right amount of organization

Fine Gardening – Issue 180
cottage garden that isn't chaotic

Typical cottage gardens—the ones we see in English gardening books and magazines—are undeniably beautiful. But often, when gardeners in the States attempt to replicate their charming and iconic look, the result can be unstructured and chaotic. We set out to create a garden in North Truro, Massachusetts, that was inspired by the romantic look and feel of those English gardens, but we didn’t want it to look messy and unruly. However, because we live on a bluff on Cape Cod, we felt that a formal garden design would look out of place on the windswept site that is surrounded by native grasses, shrubs, and wild roses. So instead, we opted for a casual cottage style that uses color and repetition to prevent visual chaos.

Before a single perennial could be planted, we had to plan for the challenges of the site itself: punishing winds; cool, damp springs; and salt air. The gardens envelop two adjacent cottages, which we use as both windbreaks and a framework to extend the gardens vertically, with many of the shingled walls clothed in vines and scramblers (photo, below). Next, because the property sits literally on top of a sand dune, we had to amend the soil. Finally, we had to learn how to highlight—and contain —hundreds of varieties of perennials and shrubs and nearly 80 different kinds of roses in our seaside location.


Color control and repetition help avoid a chaotic look

The cool pastel hues from plants like catmint, lady’s mantle, and an array of roses play a prominent role throughout the entire landscape.
Repetitive plants and colors provide cohesion. The cool pastel hues from plants like catmint, lady’s mantle, and an array of roses play a prominent role throughout the entire landscape.

True to the cottage style, our garden focuses on flowers in lush abundance. To achieve this effect, we use a very close planting style—one that requires some vigilance to make sure that the stronger growers don’t smother the more timid ones. The garden is dominated by plants that flower in cool, soft colors (blue, violet, soft yellow, pink, white, chartreuse). This particular color scheme gives the landscape a soothing appearance and an overall sense of calm, which helps combat any chaos that may creep in.

We try to achieve design coherence through the careful repetition of several foolproof signature plants: lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis, Zones 3–8) and ‘Six Hills Giant’ catmint (Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, Zones 4–7) in early summer; gaura (Gaura lindheimeri, Zones 5–9), ‘Summer Beauty’ allium (Allium tanguticum ‘Summer Beauty’, Zones 4–7), and bog sage (Salvia uliginosa, Zones 6–10) in midsummer; then ‘Waverly’ salvia (Salvia ‘Waverly’, Zones 7–9) and a few select aromatic asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium and cvs., Zones 3–9) in fall. We have also planted close to a dozen shell-pink climbing roses—notably, ‘New Dawn’ (Rosa ‘New Dawn, Zones 5–8) and ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’ (Rosa ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’, Zones 5–8)—even sending several onto the roofs of the houses (photo, above).

To keep the potential for messy frothiness further in check, we do use some bold-leaved and strongly structured plants throughout the gardens. Golden Spirit smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’, Zones 4–8) and ‘Sun King’ aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, Zones 4–8) bring welcome textural breaks from the masses of flowering perennials and shrubs.


Despite our limited space, we have made sure that the grass pathways throughout the garden are wide and easy to navigate.


Small beds allow for unique vignettes and keep things organized

The walls of each cottage serve two purposes: They help shelter tender plants from punishing winds, and they provide a structure for an array of climbing vines.
Make the building exteriors useful and a part of the garden. The walls of each cottage serve two purposes: They help shelter tender plants from punishing winds, and they provide a structure for an array of climbing vines.

The creators of the large British gardens that we find so inspiring (think Sissinghurst and Hidcote) have the luxury of fashioning separate garden rooms defined by hedging, walls, and terracing. But this design approach wasn’t an option for us. Mostly this is because our garden is small (about three-quarters of an acre)—and the evergreen yew (Taxus spp. and cvs., Zones 2–9) and boxwood (Buxus spp. and cvs., Zones 5–8), so often used to delineate garden compartments abroad, just simply won’t survive the desiccating winter winds (regularly 30 to 40 miles per hour) on a bluff above Cape Cod Bay.

Instead, we developed a series of smaller beds, visually connected but not physically attached, separated by grass pathways (site plan). These island beds are our version of garden rooms. They’re an easy way to create a series of unique vignettes that highlight captivating plant combinations—pairings built on texture, color, and cultural requirements. Each small bed tends to have its own micro-environment, which can help dictate the plant palette—and the ultimate design. For example, a hot, dry strip along our gravel drive is home to drought-tolerant—yet texturally contrasting—plants like ornamental oregano (Origanum ‘Rosenkuppel’, Zones 5–8), Mexican feather grass, and golden-leaved thyme (Thymus cv., Zones 3–8).


Wide paths allow easy navigation while self-sowers fill the gaps

grass pathways give a visual break from the explosion of plants.
Be sure two people can walk through side-by-side. Although we had to sacrifice precious garden space for our grass pathways, they give a visual break from the explosion of plants. If the occasional mound does burst out onto the turf, there’s still plenty of room to squeeze by without being accosted, which might make some visitors uneasy.

Despite our limited space, we have made sure that the grass pathways throughout the garden are wide and easy to navigate (photo, above). We’ve followed the rule that two people should easily be able to walk side-by-side as they wander through the garden. The width allows plants to spill a bit into the walkway (a cottage garden signature trait) without blocking the journey. The paths’ natural and winding character gives them an informality and invites the observer into the garden and around to the next corner. Also, the grass provides a deep green “full stop” where the eye can rest before taking in more of the lush plantings.

Golden Spirit smoke tree around a Foxglove
How do you keep floppy plants in check? Foxglove (Digitalis spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) is thought of as a classic cottage garden plant, but it is known to sprawl out uncontrollably. We surround plants that have unruly habits with sturdy, bold neighbors like this Golden Spirit smoke tree.

Self-sowing plants—a staple of many cottage gardens—do make an appearance in our gardens, as well. For the most part, these plants are profuse bloomers that help ensure an exuberant look throughout the year and fill in any bare spots, making the garden look full and lush. The list of self-seeders in our garden is a long one and includes biennials, short-lived perennials, and annuals. However, we do carefully curate them. For example, we deliberately introduced only the white forms of rose campion (Lychnis coronaria and cvs., Zones 4–8) and dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis*, Zones 3–8) to help keep the color palette under control. And careful editing is required each year when new seedlings appear to ensure that more prolific seeders don’t swamp shyer plant companions—or completely dominate the garden.

*See invasive alert below.



At a Glance

Two Properties in One


Our garden started out as just the small parcel of land surrounding cottage 1. After a few years, we were able to purchase cottage 2 next door, create a new garden, and blend the two into one flowing and frothy landscape.

1 Cottage

2 Cottage

3 Driveway

4 Native plants area

5 Arbor



Plants that thrive in high winds and fast-draining soils

Cape Cod has a lot of good things going for it: cool/moderate temperatures in spring and summer; beautiful beaches; and incredible lobster rolls. Two other things that the Cape has in abundance, however, are a challenge for plants: high winds and lots of sand. We’ve found an array of plants that laugh in the face of desiccating winds and fast-draining soil. If these plants can survive in North Truro, imagine how well they might do with more amenable conditions?


Mexican feather grassMexican feather grass

Nassella tenuissima

A self-seeding grass that is not usually reliably hardy in New England, this beauty winters over nicely in our fast-draining soil. It’s soft to the touch and beautiful in the wind.

Zones: 6–10

Size: 12 to 24 inches tall and 30 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil





Camassia leichtlinii ssp. suksdorfii

Clear blue blooms on 30-inch stems help fill the late-spring gap between bulbs and the onset of perennials. It is said to do best in moist conditions, but it thrives for us, persisting and multiplying in our fast-draining soil.

Zones: 5–9

Size: 2 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist soil



‘Betty Corning’ clematis‘Betty Corning’ clematis

Clematis ‘Betty Corning’

Clematis can be challenging in a windy site with soils on the dryer side, but ‘Betty Corning’ thrives, possibly because its finely cut foliage does not desiccate. It gets covered in porcelain bluish pink, bell-shaped flowers throughout the summer.

Zones: 4-9

Size: 5 to 6 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide

conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil




Father Hugo’s roseFather Hugo’s rose

Rosa hugonis

This is our first rose to bloom and is covered in single yellow flowers in late spring. The delicate, ferny foliage, unlike that of most roses, remains beautiful throughout summer and fall.

Zones: 5–9

Size: 7 to 9 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil


Red cedarRed cedar

Juniperus virginiana

By far the most successful evergreen to withstand the Cape’s relentless winter winds, we find that the straight species does better than any of the named selections.

Zones: 2–9

Size: 30 feet tall and 8 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil







‘Patricia’ geranium‘Patricia’ geranium

Geranium ‘Patricia’

This is a well-behaved geranium with bright magenta flowers that look fantastic when paired with the chartreuse blooms of lady’s mantle.

Zones: 3–8

Size: 24 to 36 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil




Sea kaleSea kale

Crambe maritima

This plant does best for us when planted directly in the sand and is a good companion for lavender (Lavandula spp. and cvs., Zones 5–8), which enjoys the same conditions. Sea kale is one of the first perennials to bloom, with fragrant white flowers rising above elegantly crimped, glaucous foliage.

Zones: 5–9

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil



David Kirchner and Scott Warner battle voles, moles, bunnies, and an array of other wildlife while tending their gardens in North Truro, Massachusetts.

Illustration by Conor Kovatch

Photos by Danielle Sherry except where noted: Michelle Gervais; Kerry Ann Moore; Sue Heath/; Jennifer Benner


*Invasive alert: Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis)

This plant is considered invasive in CO, CT, IL IN, IA, MA, ME, MI, NH, NJ, OH, PA, TN, VT, WI, and WV.

Please visit for more information.

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