Cottage Garden Style Planting

There are few things as quintessentially English as a cottage garden. Think of one and your mind will drift to a chocolate-box house surrounded by a mass of flowering perennials, roses and climbers. And yet you do not need to have a typical thatched or period cottage in the heart of the English countryside to have and enjoy the cottage garden style.

The ‘as nature intended’ informal style of mixed planting in the garden can be created around any type or age of property, whether you live in a village, a town or a city. In fact, the benefit of a cottage garden is that the style is perfect for anyone wishing to grow lots of plants in a small area.

Creating the Cottage Garden Style

The cottage garden is easy to replicate. It may look haphazard, but give some thought to the planning of it. Avoid straight lines, or any defined pattern, and keep things simple. The aim is to achieve an atmosphere of exuberant,free-flowering, cascading borders so try to blend colours, textures, shape and fragrance to provide a succession of interest throughout the season.

A pastel-hued cottage garden style area of planting with the Hillier RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017 garden

Cottage garden style calls for a good mix of plants, which are planted in groups to create drifts or clumps rather than singles. Repeat the plants and colours across the garden to give harmony and flow with the likes of herbaceous geraniums, phlox and campanula. Plant densely, so that plants knit together creating a mass of interwoven flower and foliage. The added bonus is that the plants act to support each other. 

Add some plants of different heights, such as digitalis or delphiniums. These can be placed in the middle of borders as well as the back to give some random spikes of colour, encouraging the eye to move across the garden up and down to different focal points. This has the added benefit of being great for the environment, as the diversity of planting attracts wildlife and pollinators to your garden.

Favourite Cottage Garden Plants

Dianthus (Garden Pinks) make fantastic cottage garden plants. They are mound-forming, producing a mass of single or double flowers from early spring through the summer and are available in a wide range of colours (certainly not just pink!). The glorious scented white of Dianthus ‘Memories’ is a particular favourite, or the scarlet red of D. ‘Passion’ that flowers for many months on end. Perfect at the front of any cottage garden border, dianthus is also great in containers on the patio. Look out for a new variety called Dianthus ‘Flutterby’ that has magenta single flowers with white fringed petals and is very sweetly scented.

Erysimum 'Fragrant Sunshine', bringing bright yellow cheer to cottage style planting schemes

The elegant perennial wallflower erysimum is a must in any cottage garden. Reliably flowering from early spring through to autumn, it has upright flower spikes of profuse flowers in a wide range of colours. The most popular of all, Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ has racemes of rich mauve flowers on and off throughout the year. E. ‘Winter Orchid’ is another stunning variety with orangey-red flowers that turn purple with age in the summer.

Digitalis 'Serendipity' brings spikes of interest to a mixed border

A mid to back of border plant to give height to any cottage garden style space is digitalis (better known as foxglove.) This easy-to-grow classic of the cottage garden is typically a woodland plant, so likes sun or shade, and will happily grow in dense planting, as it pushes its way through to the light. Robust and reliable, the tall flower spires come in whites, purples or mauves from mid-spring through to summer. Digitalis ‘Serendipity’ has impressive tall spires of lilac-pink flowers that grow to 1.2 metres, or there is the newer Digitalis Illumination Series of reddish-pink flower spires from spring through the summer.

The dramatic purple-black flowers of Iris 'Superstition'

The ever-popular iris is a staple of the cottage garden, adding sturdy, upright sword-like leaves and structure to the border with flowers from around May into the summer. Iris are great in sunny spots in well-drained soil. Three new varieties include Iris ‘Skyfire’, a tall variety that produces flowers of rich fiery orange and golds with red veins. Iris ‘Sultan’s Palace’ will have flowers of velvet deep red, with a coppery beard fringe to the lower petals. And last but not least, a real favourite is Iris ‘Superstition’. Producing purple-black flowers with a purple-black beard, I. ‘Superstition’ is bound to be popular.

The hardy perennial geranium varieties can offer a basis for all cottage garden style planting, in sun or shade. It has ground-cover like foliage and massed drifts of flowers in shades from whites, to pinks, blues and purples. Geranium sanguinium ‘Album’ is a crisp white-flowered form on small green leaves that spread to fill gaps. Geranium ‘Salome’ has gold-tinged foliage with slightly marbled green and dusky violet-blue flowers, with dark almost black veining produced all summer long. And finally, the most popular of all Geraniums, G. ‘Rozanne’, produces a mound of marbled green leaves followed by bowl-shaped deep violet-blue flowers with a white centre, profusely borne from spring to autumn. Perfect for the cottage garden style.

Spotlight on Roses

Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll' together with rich blue-purple geraniums

The garden rose is, time and again, voted Britain’s favourite flower. Elegant, timeless and incredibly versatile, roses make a stunning feature in any type of garden and particularly in cottage garden style planting. 

There are many superb varieties to choose from. Some of our favourites include Rosa 'The Generous Gardener,' an English climbing rose with beautiful pale pink flowers and an Old Rose fragrance. Another fantastic variety is Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll', one of the most-loved of all roses, offering perfect bright-pink flower rosettes. If you prefer a cream or white coloured rose, try Rosa 'Winchester Cathedral'. This shrub rose is named for the cathedral in the same city where Hillier started.

Read more in our guide to designing with roses.

Cottage Style Garden Plant List

  • Campanula
  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus (e.g. D. 'Memories', D. 'Passion', D. 'Flutterby')
  • Digitalis (e.g. D. 'Serendipity', D. Illumination Series)
  • Erysimum (e.g. E. 'Bowles's Mauve', E. 'Winter Orchid')
  • Geranium - hardy varieties (e.g. G. 'album', G. 'Salome', G. 'Rozanne')
  • Iris (e.g. I. 'Skyfire', I. 'Sultan's Palace', I. 'Superstition')
  • Phlox
  • Rosa (e.g. R. 'Generous Gardener', R. 'Gertrude Jekyll', R. 'Winchester Cathedral')