What do you envision when you hear the term cottage garden? If you're like most American gardeners, you probably conjure up images of thatched-roof stone cottages, hedgerows and quaint English village life. If you live in a suburban split-level bounded by chain-link fence, this fantasy may seem too remote to attempt.

A little history...

Cottage gardens got their start in England. The cottage garden of medieval England was a poor man's garden, where beauty was incidental to the plot's real purpose: to feed the cottager's family, while providing medicine, fabric dye, and scent to hide musty odors. The small yard was enclosed to contain animals. In the back yard a beehive sat under an apple or pear tree, next to the family privy. Chickens and a pig fattening in its sty shared table scraps, while contributing manure to the garden.

No space was wasted along the cottage walls where climbing roses and berry vines rambled. Herbs and flowers spilled over the path leading to the front door. Here and there a bench allowed the cottager to rest amid the fragrant rose blossoms.

The vegetables that made up cottagers' staple diet - carrots, onions, leeks, parsnips - might be grown in neat rows, and cooking herbs, as in today's gardens, were clustered by the kitchen door. Otherwise flowers, fruits and herbs were a jumble of shapes and colors, most likely plunked into any available spot as the cottager obtained cuttings from neighbors or from the nearby woods.

Many of our favorite flowers today, back then found their way into the kettle: marigold leaves in stew, peony seeds as a condiment, primrose and Sweet William in wine and flavored drinks. Lavender freshened linens and was scattered on the floor with wormwood, to repel fleas.

Over the centuries, plants from exotic locales have been welcomed into the cottage garden. One of the most beloved flowers, the hollyhock, may have been carried from the Middle East by returning Crusaders. Far-flung trading in the seventeenth century brought tulips from Turkey and a host of hardy flowers from North America, like fall-blooming Rudbeckia and Helenium and Chrysanthemums. Many cottage garden favorites like dame's rocket made the reverse journey to the New World, where colonial settlers eased feelings of homesickness by mixing old and new plants in their own gardens.

Our romanticized view of the cottage garden actually dates to Victorian times, when artists and poets idealized humble country life in reaction to the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution.

But that was then and this is now...

It can be liberating to consider what really makes up a cottage garden these days. Actually, cottage gardens are mostly small, personal, individual, eccentric, spontaneous gardens created by amateurs.

If you've been growing flowers and vegetables among the fruit trees and vines, choosing plants because they're interesting to you, listen to this: You are already a cottage gardener! Following basic guidelines of seasonal bloom and size placement, you can fill your garden with colorful flowers and shrubs to please butterflies, bees, birds, and people. And remember, no garden is ever truly finished; experiment, learn from mistakes, and have fun all along the way.

Cottage Garden Design

Give your attention to some of the following major considerations.

Layout of a Cottage Garden

Start with the bones of the garden: the trees and shrubs. If you have a sprawling old apple tree or red bud, make it the focal point of your cottage garden, or plant one. Ring it with spring-flowering bulbs and place a comfortable bench under it.

To disguise an expanse of chain link, put in a boxwood hedge, flowering vines like honeysuckle or clematis, or a background planting of butterfly bush, Reeves spirea, Viburnum, holly - all perfect cottage garden choices. Indica azaleas and camellias work well, too, provided you use softer shades of flower color.

Avoid planting your shrubs in straight lines - there's nothing formal about cottage gardening. Stagger plants in the garden as if they blew in with the wind and just landed.

Topiary is great for the cottage garden. Plant your clipped pom-pom near an entryway. Run a climbing rose over an arbor at the back door or at the steps to a patio or deck.

Traditional cottage gardens do feature a straight path leading to the front door - or back door. This path, or a fence, may be the only straight lines in the garden. Along this path, the jumble of flowers and herbs progresses from low creepers along the path's edge to medium-sized plants in mid-range to tall shrubs and flowers along the sides. Truly spectacular flowers like ten-foot hollyhocks and Confederate Rose hibiscus are planted against the house or in recessed corners where they will have protection from strong wind.

To achieve this progression from short to tall, start with perennial plants that will give structure and interest year-round. You can't go wrong with herbs; they're tough, attractive and only need occasional trimming. Lavender is in keeping with cottage garden style and looks great spilling over the path. Spanish lavender is perhaps the hardiest and easiest to grow in the South U.S. or other warmer climates. Woody shrubs like rosemary can occupy the middle ground, next to blueberry bushes, and perennial flowers like Malva Zebrina. Foxglove, butterfly bush, lantanas and Joe-Pye weed are good background plants that are also attractive to butterflies.

Spiky plants like iris, red-hot poker and mid-sized ornamental grasses, such as Maiden grass, add interest and structure to the garden. The plumes and seed heads of grasses, herbs and flowers can look spectacular and offer a food source to our feathered friends.

Plant Salvia (sages) to enjoy blue flowers all season long. Bee balms, pineapple sage, and honeysuckle and Bignonia vines will keep the hummingbirds buzzing around throughout the summer months.

Fill in with clumps of annuals like Spiderflower (cleome), zinnia and marigold. If you seed annuals directly in the ground, give them enough space and light to germinate. You may get some delightful surprises from self-seeders of last year's garden.

Structures In The Cottage Garden

An arbor entwined with a climbing rose such as the Lady Banks Rose is a classic cottage garden image, as well as a fence covered with the Red Cascade Rose. Add a bench, a rustic gate, stone or brick path, birdbath and flower containers like window boxes, clay pots, stone troughs or tubs. Keep it simple, though. Oh, and don't forget our feathered friends - spot bird feeders and bird houses throughout the garden.

Soil Preparation

Since your plants, once established, won't be going anywhere, it's always important to start with healthy, rich soil. Compacted or heavy clay soils can be amended with organic compost materials such as mushroom compost, composted manures or, of course, your own homemade compost.


When you water do so by hand with a garden hose or lay out a soaker hose. Overhead sprinkling is ineffective and fosters diseases like mildew and leaf spot on roses and many other cottage garden plants.

Cottage Garden Plants

When designing a cottage garden, judicious choice of plants can give you an almost year-round display without visible gaps or unsightly dead foliage. below are a few selections of plants that when combined together in the cottage garden can provide blooms almost year round.

Resourceful gardeners look first to native plants, which are hardy and appropriate to the region's style. For example, in my home state of Georgia native azaleas, rhododendrons, sweet shrub, summersweet, honeysuckle, crossvine, dogwoods, redbuds, sourwoods and and paw paw trees are just a few examples of native plants and trees that are ideal for use in cottage gardens.

Late Winter & Early Spring Color
Camellia japnicas, Loropetalum, tulip trees (Japanese magnolia), paper bush (Edworthia), bridal wreath spirea, yellow bells (Forsythia), mahonia, Carolina jasmine, evergreen clematis, flowering cherry, and flowering quince are just a few shrubs, trees and vines that will herald the arrival of spring with their bountiful flowers. Old fashioned bleeding hearts (Dicentra), lenton rose (Helleborus) and are just a few early blooming perennials. Popular and readily available bulbs include crocus, daffodils and hyacinths. Plant bulbs by scattering them in irregular patterns throughout the garden. No straight rows or formal patterns please.

Spring Color
Azaleas, Rhododendron, sweetshrubs, shrub roses, lilac bushes, Gardenia (cape jasmine), Pieris, Viburnum, anise (Illicium), Hydrangea macrophylla (mopheads), buckeyes (Aesculus), honeysuckles, Wisteria, Bignonia, confederate jasmines, grancy graybeard and chaste trees (Vitex) are just a few spring-flowering shrubs and trees. Iris, Dianthus (cottage pinks), peonies, snapdragons, foxgloves and columbines are excellent perennials and biennials.

Summer Color
Abelia, dwarf crape myrtles, butterfly bushes (Buddleia), rose of sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), summersweet (Clethra), summer daphne and Hydrangea paniculata (pee gee) are among a few types of summer flowering shrubs. Crape myrtle trees, which are unrivaled in flower for up to 100 days of summer, southern magnolias,and pineapple guava are a few summer flowering trees. Perennial plants such as Lantana, Lirope (lilyturf), shasta daisies, Rudbeckia daisies (Black-eyed Susan), Liatris, pincushion flower (Scabiosa), hollyhocks, daylilies, Coreopsis, Echinacea, and Hosta are wonderful for summer color and draw in the butterflies and hummingbirds. Don't forget about fruit. Pomegranate, fig, paw paw, pineapple guava, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and grapes and muscadines can provide a bounty of fresh fruit during summer.

Fall Color
You can extend the color show into fall with fall blooming shrubs such as the ever-popular and numerous varieties of Camellia sasanqua and the fall-blooming Encore Azaleas. The abundant flowers of tea olives (Osmanthus) will bring magnificent fragrance to the fall garden. As the summer heat subsides, shrub roses are back in full bloom during the fall season. Ornamental grasses such as muhly grass, pampas grasses, reed grasses (Calamagrostis) and Miscanthus not only serve as soft textured vertical accents in the garden but produce colorful flowers that persist through winter. Chrysanthemums, asters, and Huechera are a few perennials that provide fall color in the garden. And we can't forget about japanese maples, Gingko and many other trees that provide outstanding foliage color in the fall garden.

Winter Color 
Winter Daphne, beautyberry bushes, Nandina (heavenly bamboo), Mahonia, paperbush (Edgeworthia), flowering quince, Japanese aralia (Fatsia), white tea olives, evergreen clematis (Clematis armandi) and many varieties of ornamental grass provide winter interest in the cottage garden with their flowers, fragrance and or foliage color. Many Camellia varieties, such as Yuletide and Early Autumn, bloom in early winter, mid winter or late winter.
But the reigning cottage garden plant has to be the rose. If you want low maintenance and disease resistance, look at the Knock Out, Drift and Sunrosa roses. If you have a fence or large structure you'd like to cover check out the old fashioned Lady Banks Rose.

Hope you enjoyed reading this article and that it gave you some good ideas to get your cottage garden started.

Plant Long & Prosper!

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