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Five Traditional Elements of a Cottage Garden

Climbing hydrangea vine has overtaken this tool shed, showing the horticulural bias of its owner. From Landscaping Ideas That Work, page 75.Design and photo: Suzanne Albinson.

If you want your cottage garden to be truly traditional, you might be surprised to know that up until the 19th century, many cottage gardens boasted little more than potatoes. Nostalgia inspires our image of a typical cottage garden as being beautiful and timeless, but it was also functional. One can’t forget that country homes, especially if they were some way from a town or market, were often required to work toward some semblance of self-sufficiency.


1. A low fence or stone wall often encloses the garden and is a vehicle for plantings.

Some of the perennials are false sunflower, daylilies, sneezeweed, dahlias, coral bells, lambs ear, and red switch grass. Behind the picket fence is my vegetable garden; to the left you can see the gourd vines, and to the right cucumber vines.  Photo: courtesy of Carol Jean Kadonsky.

Fences were a given for any cottage garden, and they played a practical role aside from dividing the surrounding and providing structure for plants. Their main purpose was, of course, to keep animals and rodents away from the vegetables. Yards around the cottage were also fenced to keep chickens and other domestic animals in and the predators out. Today, the fence still serves this purpose, but its role has been expanded. A low stone wall or picket fence gives a backdrop to flowering garden beds and gives climbers something to grab hold of.


2. Berry and vegetable plants, as well as fruit trees, reflect an emphasis on self-sufficiency.

The garden house overlooks a mixture of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. Photo: courtesy of Karen and Ted Harris

When you seek to recreate a traditional cottage garden, incorporating vegetables, berries, and fruit trees is par for the course. From there, add in herbs and fragrant flowers. These plants were picked for their usefulness in addition to their aesthetic value. Fragrant plants were useful for covering barnyard odors as well as for cooking and making herbal remedies. Sage, lavender, thyme, catmint, and others were typical of a cottage garden. Flowers were included to attract bees and other pollinators, to secure the health of the garden, and to ensure a fruitful season.


3. Common flowering plants, especially fragrant ones, grow in profusion.

Spiraea ‘Anthony Waterer’ and lavender behind.


As cottage gardens evolved—and people began using them less for growing their own food and medicines—so did the look. The cottage garden’s signature rambling design was expanded upon. This charming effect was, at least to some extent, an accidental side effect. Our overworked forebears maintained their gardens but little, allowing the plants to go to seed, the vines to stretch, and the garden to grow to overflowing. Still, plants that characteristically fit into the rambling milieu were adopted into the English garden.


4. Abundant and rambling plants grow right up to the house or other structures.

A climbing hydrangea vine has overtaken this tool shed, showing the horticultural bias of its owner. From Landscaping Ideas That Work, page 75. Design and photo: Suzanne Albinson.


Roses were prized for their scent and beauty. Self-sowers and perennials abounded. A new generation of plants were adopted as pivotal to the cottage garden look. In addition to roses, foxglove, clematis, violets, daisies, as well as many others began to be associated with the cottage garden. This combination is the cottage garden as we know it today.


5. Self-sowers are encouraged.

In the foreground, oh-so-fragrant flowering tobacco (Nicotana alata, annual) self-sows each year in shades of pink and white.


All together, these elements work together to create the “classic” garden of a country cottage that lives in our memories and hearts. With a little elbow grease, plants, sunshine, and time, you can create your very own version of a cottage garden wherever you call home.

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