How To Create A Cottage Garden

There’s something so charming and nostalgic about a classic cottage garden.

Originally serving as productive spaces for growing vegetables and flowers in front of small workers’ cottages, these days cottage gardens are characterised by their relaxed, maximalist plantings that capture the quaint and romantic charms of a simpler time.

Find out how you can create your own cottage garden with some advice from garden designer Tim Pilgrim!

Christina Karras

Oak Cottage by TP Gardens is a country cottage garden that mirrors the wild planting of nature. Photo – Martina Gemmola

Woodend by TP Gardens features a dogwood tree and flowering perennial grasses that frame the walkway to the home. Photo – Martina Gemmola

Garden designer Tim Pilgrim. Photo – Martina Gemmola

Tim suggests layering flowers with leafy plants to create pops of colour. Photo – Martina Gemmola

Cottage gardens are relaxed and informal spaces with wild, sporadic and exuberant plantings of perennials, annuals, bulbs and shrubs packed in tightly. Photo – Martina Gemmola

An arbour is a classic element of the cottage garden aesthetic. Photo – Martina Gemmola

Pots can be used to create contrast and intrigue alongside abundant, wild flower beds. Photo – Martina Gemmola

Photo – Martina Gemmola

Vintage furniture or objects also help break up a cottage garden setting. Photo – Martina Gemmola

‘I like to have a strong backbone of reliable long flowering and big impact plants and then experiment a little with grasses, clipped form and larger drifts of perennials for a more contemporary look,’ Tim says. Photo – Marnie Hawson

Photo – Marnie Hawson

The Estate Trentham is another brilliant cottage-style garden that TP Gardens designed for a Federation house. Photo – Marnie Hawson

Christina Karras
14th of March 2024

With their winding paths, romantic flowers, and lush, layered plantings, there’s a lot to love about cottage gardens.

This classic style has been around for centuries, but it’s become even more popular after the aspirational #cottagecore aesthetic took over the internet a few years ago, and now reports suggest the pandemic has inspired a renewed interest in gardening worldwide.

Luckily, you don’t have to have an idyllic vintage cottage to create a cottage garden. ‘To me, cottage gardens evoke a feeling, an emotion of romance, whimsy and extravagance, like being in a fairy tale,’ gardening designer Tim Pilgrim (of TP Gardens) says.

We asked Tim to break down everything you need to know about cottage gardens, and his expert advice for planning, designing, and planting one yourself!

What defines a cottage garden?

Traditional cottage gardens were originally peasant gardens — a small garden in front of a worker’s cottage that was used for growing vegetables, flowers and fruit to supplement their diets. They would usually have a fruit tree or two, with a mix of vegetables and flowers planted in tightly using every available bit of space in the plot. They were productive and practical spaces that by default were also beautiful. Today, they are more about the latter.

Cottage gardens are relaxed and informal spaces with wild, sporadic and exuberant plantings of perennials, annuals, bulbs and shrubs packed in tightly. They’re naturalistic and rambling, often framing an entrance, a fence, or the facade of a cottage. Natural and locally sourced materials are common and reclaimed or repurposed furniture defines the cottage garden aesthetic as well.

Is there a particular layout you reference when designing cottage gardens? 

It’s down to the individual’s interpretation, but some of the things I like to consider are framing a building or entrance using a path, an arbour or planting. I like to consider the flow around the garden, creating lots of immersive areas and a journey throughout. Combining common and traditional plants together, with pops of exciting new ones (the experiments) with lots of repetition helps draw your eye through a scene. Layering of your planting is one of the most important to me as well, making sure there is always something of interest creating a moment.

What plants are you most likely to find in a cottage garden?

Some of the common things you might find are big impact blooms like fruit trees for blossoms, roses, hydrangeas and dahlias. Strong verticals like those plants from the Digitalis, Stachys, Delphinium, and hollyhocks families feature alongside common garden working plants like Erigeron, Centranthus, Nepeta and Salvias. Naturalising bulbs like hyacinth, alliums, daffodils and galanthus are a favourite as well.

I like to have a strong back bone of reliable long flowering and big impact plants and then experiment a little with grasses, clipped form and larger drifts of perennials for a more contemporary take.

Are there any other materials or design elements you’d look to include in a cottage garden? 

I like to use gravel and stone from local quarries, reclaimed timbers and bricks from salvage yards where possible, and handmade elements like teepees or wigwams for climbing plants.

Other design elements might be accents and features like using pots, sculptures, or a table and chairs to draw your eye through the garden. Using plants to cover soil, soften the hardscape and give an overall feeling of abundance. I like to design to a colour palette, as this can add as much softness as a flower or a seed head to the cottage garden.

What type of maintenance do cottage gardens require?

It really depends on the complexity of your planting. I usually allow for two big sessions a year, once just before Christmas for a clip of any topiary and a general tidy and edit of self-sowers, and then I typically let it go until the big winter cutback around July/August. The big winter cut back includes any shrubs, perennials and trees that need attention. Bulbs in a scheme like this need little to no attention as there should always be a plant coming into the scene as a bulb is going out.

Weeding is something that needs to be managed in any garden, but due to the density of a cottage garden planting, the time to so should be reduced as there is little exposed soil for weeds to take hold. Using annuals and biennials in your plantings will require more maintenance as well. For beginners, I usually suggest sticking to spring bulbs, perennials, small trees and shrubs.

Do cottage gardens suit a particular style of home or property?

An old cottage is a good start, but this style of gardens can be used almost anywhere. I think that cottage gardens are a style of garden that can be adapted to any climate given the right knowledge of site conditions and appropriate plants, using the same basic principles. This is a garden style that originated from Europe (with a much damper and cooler climate than ours here in Australia), so the traditional cottage garden plants used there will need to be subbed out for something more appropriate for your particular site.

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