The cottage garden was traditionally a productive one. An active, evolving set of garden beds that provided food and herbs for the table, and flowers for craft. humble families would devote virtually the entire space to food production, while those better off might devote the front yard to a colourful display of flowers.
The cottage garden themes of colour, abundance, fragrance and charm are just as popular and valid today – and an historic cottage isn’t pre-requisite.
These gardens are as productive as possible from season to season, and they’re as much about the activity of gardening as they are about the garden’s outputs and appearance. They are gardener’s gardens. If you don’t have the time for almost daily attendance you might prefer any number of low-maintenance garden themes, but not the cottage garden – it’s a high maintenance activity for those that enjoy gardening itself.
That said, you might prefer to start small and see what suits you. cottage gardens tend to evolve over time, responding to (and reflecting) the personality of the gardener.
Step 1: Design themes
Several themes can be expressed in your cottage garden. You can keep it as simple or elaborate as you like!
Cottage garden layout can be formal, geometric or rambling. The important key aspect that it’s more garden than lawn – in fact there may be no lawn at all!
beckoning Have you ever seen a garden that you absolutely ached to walk into? Why was that? You can create this response with your garden by not giving the whole game away from the outset.
Your garden’s viewers and visitors are presented with a glimpse of what awaits when they walk through the gate or down the path, but – most importantly
they cannot see much
without actually doing so.
To do this well you will need to think carefully about plant heights, fencing, trellises and other structures.
Romantic This theme is concerned more with human spaces and objects than plants. An arbour at the front gate, or as a garden entrance can create a romantic feel – especially if it is large and includes seating.
An intimate sitting area with a cosy two-seat bench or two-seat café table is a must. The immediate area can be planted with aromatic plants and herbs.
A collection of rustic objects can add to the romance. Consider rusty old farm implements, cartwheels, millstones, wine barrels, or any interesting object from a bygone era.
fascinating If you have plenty of room, a maze of pathways can be a fascinating puzzle for those that wander in. Unusual objects can have them wondering and enquiring. Bizarre or unexpected plants can be captivating – a gnarly tree or large cactus for example. Fascinating objects can include boulders, sculpture, wells, mosaic paving, poems carved in pavement or walls, perhaps even a sword in a stone.
Sensory With a little thought you can create a real feast for the senses. All the senses can be engaged if your garden is full of life – butterflies, fish, frogs, lizards, birds, insects and spiders amplify the feeling of abundance and healthy life.
Sound. Go for subtle sounds that may not even be consciously noticed at first. Wind can create interesting sounds as it passes through some plants
she oaks make an eerie noise, while tall grasses and
bamboo rustle. Chimes can be pleasant, but can also be annoying if too loud or consistent. Gravel can make a pleasant sound underfoot, and water can soothe. Take care with water features, as falling water can be quite loud, especially at night. Trickling or flowing water can work well.
Taste. Put the tasty stuff tantalisingly within reach of your garden’s visitors, and encourage them to pick and eat at will. Line the paths with strawberries, berry tomatoes, radish, snow peas, mint, and any other pick-and-chew plant that takes your fancy. Children find this especially wondrous.
Touch. If you have a small patch of lawn, make it soft and lush. Include a few plants within easy reach that just scream out to be touched. The furry soft leaves of “Lambs ears” are impossible to resist. An old manual water pump is irresistible. Visitors seem compelled to grab the handle to see if it works. Sculpture can have a similar effect, especially those with apparently working parts.
Sight. Well, this is the whole point of a cottage garden, so don’t neglect it in the quest for other senses. The concept of abundance can, if you’re not careful, be overridden by clutter and mess. By grouping plants you can generally create beauty and abundance together.
At night you can use lighting to great advantage to create an entirely different visual feast of shape and colour.
Scent. Another obvious attribute of a cottage garden, but do consider seasonality when choosing scent plants. Apart from the obvious flowering scented plants, there are those with scented foliage such as geraniums and herbs, and if they are encouraged to spill out onto the pathways they’ll release their scent for passers-by. This is another fascination for children that can keep them busy for some time.
Step 2: Paths
Paths are used to provide access to parts of the cottage garden, but perhaps more importantly to provide shape and definition. Somewhere in the
garden a small clearing is necessary as a workspace for gardening activities as well as a spot to sit and enjoy the garden and its wildlife visitors while you contemplate the next thing to do.
Paths should be quite wide, 1.2 metres if possible, so that plants can spill over onto them and you’ll still have room to comfortably move around with a friend or a barrow.
Because these gardens have a traditional, even rustic, look and feel you might like to consider recycled materials such as bricks, pavers, stone, gravel or timber sleepers.
Once you’ve decided on the garden layout theme, set out the beds and paths using tape measures and line-marking paint (or handfuls of sand), drive in pegs to mark corners and shapes, and use string-lines to give straight lines or a garden hose to create curves.
When you’re happy with the layout dig out unwanted turf and plants and begin creating the garden beds and pathways. Check out other MitrePlans – #5 “Lay your own paving”, and #68 “Retaining walls”.
Step 3: Plant choices
Herbs of all varieties can have a place in your cottage garden: thyme as a fragrant ground cover; Rosemary as a low hedge or garden edge; chives as a border; chilli as a feature and mint in pots (to prevent them from invading everything). They can be grown amidst other plants or in their own dedicated garden bed.
Climbers can be useful cottage garden inhabitants: wisteria over an arbour; Bougainvillea over an old shed; roses on a trellis; grapes on a pergola; even choko or passionfruit on an old back fence. They can hide unpleasant views, provide height without costing much ground space, and even offer a cooling shade canopy. Many also provide a spectacular display of blooms or tasty food.
Step 4: flower choices
Some native plants will work well in a cottage garden, and may provide splashes of colour when traditional cottage plants are dormant. Try to spread flowering times throughout the entire year, and spread them across the garden so you won’t have an entire section looking like a forest of dead sticks.
Stalwarts include violas, poppies, lilac, geranium, lavender, roses, salvias, achilleas, and weigela.
Step 5: Maintain and evolve
This is a constant, so keep a pair of secateurs on-hand whenever you stroll through for a quick tidy-up.
A plant that isn’t doing well may do better in a different location, so simply dig it up and try it somewhere else. Plant labels are important sources of information for location and transplanting.
Plant so there’s virtually no open soil. This is in accord with the crowded style of the cottage garden, but has a practical side – it helps control weeds. Any weeds that do find a spot for themselves will probably blend into the garden rather than be obvious.
Water conservation is important wherever you live, and although cottage gardens may appear to be water-hungry, they needn’t be. Try siting plants with others of similar water usage – that is, if you avoid mixing water-hungry plants with those needing less, you won’t waste water on those that don’t need as much. Plant those that need daily water together, those that need water twice weekly together and so on.
A water tank will add to the garden’s appeal, so keep your eyes peeled for a slightly rusty old tank, or “rusticate” a brand new one with a careful paint job.
Irrigate with infrequent soakings rather than frequent light waterings. This promotes deep root growth, reduces rot and mildew problems, and creates a garden that can survive on its own when you take a break.
Mulch the soil well to reduce evaporation, reduce weed infestation, and provide lots of living space for wildlife.
Try using plants for their foliage effects rather than their flowers. In this way you’ll have year-round beauty with less work.