How to Create A Cottage Garden
Interested in creating a charming cottage garden in your yard? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss will walk through the steps and elements of creating a wonderfully wild cottage garden.
As a gardener, particularly a pollinator enthusiast, there is something completely captivating and enchanting about the cottage garden aesthetic. There is a soothing order to things planted deliberately and then allowed to grow unhindered by conventional manicuring.
When I was a teen, there was an influential woman in my life who I like to refer to as “put-together Heather.” She was the perfect blend of the composed but completely effortless aesthetic. While I know now that the perfect shade of ash blonde and flattering, understated makeup did take effort, her relaxed, kind, and confident approach to presenting herself has inspired me ever since.
Cottage gardens are the “put-together Heather” of garden styles. They look natural and effortless but in a way that is also intentional and carefully curated. Plants billow and bloom in an informal, almost wild way, while the actual effect took deliberation and planning to pull off.
A well-executed cottage garden should feel warm and enveloping. It is intentional but whimsical, with a touch of practicality in the addition of plants that are useful as well as beautiful. Let’s stroll through the charming garden and see what treasures live between the lavender and the larkspur.
The main attribute of the cottage garden is an appearance that is deliberate but gives the impression that the elements have developed naturally. It is eclectic but not haphazard and beckons us to walk the winding paths. To live vicariously, retracing the gardener’s muddy footsteps through their collaboration with nature.
I won’t pretend this garden style can be created in a day. This is a long-term commitment to the space. It’s a lot of work initially, but the function of the naturally growing plants means less maintenance over time and more time to enjoy the wild order of nature.
Your garden should have layers, unexpected spaces, and some utilitarian functions as well. Traditionally, the English cottage garden is a collaboration between ornamental gardening and provision. It nearly always encompasses a kitchen garden, with useful plants grown alongside ornamental elements.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Embarking on a cottage garden is a labor of love. The idea can be daunting if we set off to dig holes without some preemptive deliberation. A little bit of planning goes a long way toward designing and executing this style.
Choose a Space and Footprint
Before getting your hands dirty, looking at your space and deciding what type of footprint you will devote to the project is a good idea. The garden does not need to occupy your entire property, although it could. It can be a simple space or a grand one.
Draw a Map
Measure and create a map of your space. The more your map is to scale, the easier it will be to determine specific elements, like how many stepping stones you need and which plants will grow into what spaces. Include any structures the garden will connect to so that the entrances and exits are factored into your design.
If you are tech-savvy, make a digital map of the space. Although not necessary, it can be nice to move things from place to place on the map without erasing a paper. You will use this map to determine where things go in the garden, and that vision may evolve as you discover items that belong in your space.
Create a Plan
Use your map to help you determine which spaces you want to fill and with what. We’ve discussed the idea of a kitchen garden, a very common traditional aspect of a cottage garden. This space allows one to grow necessary provisions that make the gardener less dependent on society.
In his 1797 book, ‘An Account of a Cottage and Garden, Near Tadcaster,’ social reformer Thomas Bernard describes this gardening style as a working-class rebellion against wealthy landowners who claimed common land, depriving others of the space. This nefarious practice created a dependence that the cottage garden helped to alleviate.
This is a way to utilize a smaller space to help sustain the inhabitants and lessen their dependence on outside society. Many homesteaders today utilize similar methods to create a garden that utilizes all aspects of a limited amount of space.
Decide if you would like any open spaces, perhaps a spot to sit and chat over coffee or a reading nook. Design your beds to complement these features. Determine where you want to place larger plants that obstruct the view and create a feeling of coziness.
Edible and Ornamental
Decide how much of your garden you want to be ornamental and how much space you will dedicate to sustainable living. These spaces don’t need to be isolated from one another. They can flow into and around each other organically.
Another method can involve the creation of a food or herb garden in the space closest to the home. A kitchen garden just off of the actual kitchen is undeniably charming and nostalgic. It is both a luxury in our world of fast food and commercial supermarkets and a return to simpler times.
Your kitchen garden can be separated by a border, such as a stone wall or hedge, or it can be seamlessly intertwined with the ornamental portions of the garden. Perhaps you don’t intend to grow edible plants at all. Your garden should include whatever you love to look at and cultivate.
Plan how you would like movement to flow through your garden by creating pathways and open spaces. Traditionally, paths should wind and meander through the garden, contributing an organic movement.
Test Your Soil
Before you put any plants in the ground, test your soil. A soil test is a valuable tool to determine which plants will thrive in your garden. It can also indicate any deficiencies that could inhibit certain plants’ growth.
The soil composition is a factor in which plants will endure and which ones will either need assistance or should be omitted completely. I highly recommend planting things that your soil can support without a great deal of alteration.
We can amend the soil to a certain point, but a cottage garden is not one that you will be digging up year after year, and eventually, your soil’s natural composition will sneak back in. You can always fertilize or regulate the acidity of your soil, but if your soil is mostly sand, you should choose plants that can live in sand long term.
Adding mulch to your garden is a great way to add organic material to any soil type continuously. As the layers of mulch break down, they help aerate the soil and add acidity and nutrients back in.
Amend the Soil Ahead of Time
Once you have an idea of the composition and condition of your soil, you can decide what amendments you are willing to make. Think about the sustainability of your soil amendments and the longevity of your garden.
In an ideal world, all gardeners would sink their shovels into rich, loose, loamy soil right from the start. In reality, there are many different soil compositions, and some of them will need some amending if you want to have a wide range of plants that will thrive in your beds. Each soil type has different challenges; understanding them will make amending them much easier.
Clay soil can be challenging for several reasons. It compacts very easily, inhibiting the establishment and growth of roots and making it quite a chore to dig into. It also tends to create drainage issues, commonly leading to root rot.
How to Fix It
Work with your clay-heavy soil when it is either completely dry or very wet and muddy. Avoid working with very wet soil until you are prepared to add your amendments. Working the soil too early can leave you with rock-hard blocks of clay that don’t combine with your amendments and require a lot of precious energy to break apart.
Rather, amend your clay soil in one fell swoop. Working amendments such as compost, biochar, and perlite into your clay soil will increase the porosity and drainage, which are important for providing plants with the right moisture level and nutrients.
Sandy soil can present a couple of hurdles to growing various plants. Sandy soil can heat up fast, which dehydrates the roots of plants. Sandy soil has excellent drainage, which can be a double-edged sword. While you run a much lower chance of coming up against root rot, plants that are not drought-tolerant will struggle to absorb the moisture they need from sandy soil.
With its fast drainage and low porosity, sandy soil also ensures that water and nutrients don’t stick around very long. Fertilizers will rinse right through the soil before plant roots have time to absorb them.
How to Fix It
Sandy soil needs to be amended with lots of nutrient-rich organic material. If you have sandy soil, I highly recommend composting. A compost bin designed for breaking down kitchen scraps and other organic refuse is a great tool for those with sandy soil. Worm composting is another method of creating nutrient-rich compost to help fortify your soil.
If your trees drop a lot of leaves in the fall, store them for use as mulch. Leaf mulch can help to enrich as well as acidify the soil, which is vital for the health of many plants. You can work manure into the soil as well to add nutrients and improve the moisture retention of your sandy soil.
To continue the enrichment of your sandy soil after planting, use plenty of mulch around your plants. Mulch breaks down gradually, improving the condition of your sandy soil.
You may have silty soil if you live near a body of freshwater or where one once existed. Old river beds or areas where seasonal brooks run are other places that commonly have silty soil. This has advantages in that there is typically a high mineral content in this soil type. However, it doesn’t retain water very well and can lead to erosion issues.
How to Fix It
Consider working some terracing into your garden plan. Terraced beds can help with erosion, and they look great and fit well into this type of garden design. As with other difficult soil types, working organic materials like compost, manure, and yard trimmings will help fortify silty soil.
The objective is soil that holds moisture but doesn’t stay soggy. Planting a cover crop can be a great way to enrich silty soil and protect against erosion if you have the time and patience to carry out that process. Mulching regularly will help to continuously add organic material to your topsoil, helping to provide your plants with the right amount of moisture.
A cottage garden typically contains a lot of plants in a small space. Those plants will compete for water in addition to nutrients. No one wants a huge water bill, and conserving water leads to a healthier planet overall.
An irrigation system can help to reduce water usage by depositing the water where it needs to be at the soil level. Watering from overhead deposits a lot of water on the leaves of plants, which can lead to issues with fungus, as well as losing a lot of water to evaporation.
A drip irrigation system, or the use of soaker hoses, can have great advantages over watering with a hose or from an overhead irrigation system. These methods direct the water where plants need it most: the roots. They deliver water at a more moderate pace, which means your plant’s roots have plenty of time to absorb the water, and less of it is lost to evaporation and runoff.
Now for the fun part. Selecting plants is my second favorite part of gardening. My favorite part is watching my garden flourish, and I think we can all agree that pulling weeds falls near the bottom of the list. A nice thing about a cottage garden is its wild quality, making weeding an afterthought in most spaces. But I digress.
When selecting plants, there are some fundamental elements to consider. Additionally, some factors will maximize your garden’s longevity and year-round attractiveness.
Start with an Evergreen Foundation
I am partial to evergreen plants for the foundation of my garden. There is no way around having some dormant plants unless you live in the tropics. By planting evergreens in the background, you keep some of the structure and appeal of the garden year-round.
There are quite a few evergreen shrubs and trees that produce berries that are very appealing to overwintering birds. If you like to keep the birds fed in winter, consider planting some Eastern red cedar, firethorn, or cotoneaster.
Add Some Fall Color
Add a few deciduous plants that provide gorgeous color in the fall. Viburnums, various maple trees, and birch trees all turn brilliant shades of red, gold, and bronze in the fall. If you have to have bare branches in the winter, it’s always nice when they go out in a blaze of glory.
Plant a Fruit Tree
Fruit trees are very popular in this style of gardening. A fruit tree will draw pollinators, produce a beautiful floral display in the spring, and provide delicious fruits in summer and fall.
Check on the chill hours and plant fruit trees that will produce fruit in your climate. Peaches, pears, and apples are classics, and a fig tree is a great addition for a twist.
Choose Perennial Plants
Your next layer of plants should be made up predominantly of perennials that will bloom year after year and are reliable in your zone. Choosing native plants will keep local pollinators visiting your garden, and more pollinators means more plants and more flowers. These plants will increase the yield of your fruit and vegetable plants.
As long as a plant is not considered invasive, it is typically fine to plant it. Some bulbous plants are naturalizing, which means that though they are not native to a space, they will reproduce and spread where space exists. Planting these types of bulbs will provide you with color in your garden earlier in the year.
Some plants are classics. Roses are a must, and lavender is also a wonderful, shrubby perennial requiring little maintenance. Echinacea, bee balm, and black-eyed Susan will provide a long period of blooms to the garden.
Foxgloves, delphinium, and hollyhocks are all classic flowers as well. These tall, flowering beauties will give the garden a gorgeous focal point and texture when they bloom. Salvia, tickseed, and yarrow all have great blooming seasons and will return year after year. These plants get that wild look quickly and will mingle and blend to create a cottage garden vibe.
The idea with this layer of plants is to create a sort of meadow feeling. This midground will be present from spring through fall and should come to look as though they all just grew there together. Consider flower color, height, and leaf structure when selecting these plants.
Consider Ground Cover
If you have spaces that you want to cover with a low-growing plant, some great evergreen groundcovers will keep your garden looking fresh all year.
Creeping phlox brings evergreen cover and flowers in the summer. Creeping thyme is beautiful, and different types of ivy and mondograss are lovely ground covers.
Climbers and Travelers
I can’t imagine a complete cottage garden without some flowering climbing plants. Think vertically when creating spaces in the garden, and consider using vining plants to create boundaries. Climbing roses, passion vines, and even pea plants can all be stunning on a trellis or arbor, which creates depth in the garden.
Don’t Skimp on Herbs
Big, bountiful herb plants are a must. If you are including a kitchen garden, this is where the bulk of your herbs will work best.
Large pots full of basil, oregano, and rosemary will smell heavenly and spice up your meals. Feel free to intersperse your herbs throughout the garden as well. These interesting textures will look lovely all over.
Add Your Annuals
The last group of plants will be the ones that get replaced yearly or seasonally. These can get costly, so consider that when you decide how much space to devote to annuals, including vegetables. Annual plants also tend to bring a ton of color to the garden, so having some space for these plants is nice.
Annuals and vegetables can be grown amongst the perennials, and anywhere they will get sufficient sun exposure. Most vegetables need a fair amount of sun, so consider that when planning your garden and designate space accordingly.
A cottage garden should tell a story about the gardener. A bench, birdfeeder, and water source can be planted nearby if you love to sit and birdwatch. A water source is also important for pollinators. These creatures all need to stop and rest and have a drink on their travels. Providing a water source will keep them coming back.
Truly, anything goes when it comes to accessorizing. Garden gnomes are always a classic addition. Statues, bird baths, and a bistro set for having coffee with a friend are all wonderful additions. A garden full of interesting things is a garden that is fun to observe and spend time in.
A cottage garden is a splendid, curated space full of charm and warmth. Rather than manicured order, the cottage garden is a place of relaxation, fun, and fancy. While it can take years to achieve the final goal, the process is delightful, and the final product will bring joy to its owner for a lifetime.