Designing the Country Cottage Garden

by Henry Flowers

NOTE: This material is a portion of the Proceedings of the 10th Annual Oktober Gartenfest, Winedale, Texas, 2003. The symposium is a joint effort between Texas Cooperative Extension and The University of Texas Center for American History (Dr. William C. Welch, Committee Chairman)

Decorative teepee
Whimsical design in a Childrens' Garden

The cottage garden is a style of garden that evokes many various images, from the quaint garden around thatched cottages of Tudor England, to the passalong gardens of rural tenement houses in the Deep South. So often the cottage garden tends to be glorified, as if it stepped out of the pages of a fairy tale or a Thomas Kinkade painting. In reality, along with being beautiful, it is a highly useful style of garden. It can be, and has been, adapted to fit our modern life styles and its appeal is truly global.

To begin to understand the concept of the cottage garden it is best to start with a definition of what the term literally means. A "cottage" is defined as a "small, humble dwelling." A "garden" is defined as "a place for the cultivation of flowers, vegetables, or small plants." Therefore, by strict definition, a "cottage garden" is "a place for the cultivation of flowers, vegetables, or small plants at or around a small, humble dwelling."

This definition is in some ways broad, in that it would include all gardens around all small, humble dwellings, whether they be a few flowers beds around the old oak tree, a rectangular vegetable bed in the back, or an elaborate system of parterres. Do these evoke the image of a cottage garden that you had in mind? They don't for me.

On the other hand, this definition may seem a bit restrictive to some. I have seen many gardens that are described as being cottage gardens, yet there is no cottage anywhere near, or the dwelling is definitely neither small nor humble. I personally would say that these are not then truly cottage gardens and back my opinion with the argument that one can not have a rose garden without roses or a shade garden without shade. Therefore, not having a cottage means that one can't have a true cottage garden. Perhaps these "cottage-less" cottage gardens may more appropriately be described as "cottage-style gardens", "cottage garden styled" or simply "cottagesque".


Now that the cottage garden has been somewhat strictly defined, it is time to turn attention to the qualities that give the cottage garden its distinctiveness. Perhaps by looking at the history of how and why this garden style developed, we can get a better grasp of the subject.

Since the dawn of civilization man has tended plants for his own use, whether in the wild or in cultivation. As man began to stay in one place for a prolonged period of time, the cultivated garden began to take on more importance, mainly for producing edible and medicinal plants. At the height of the Roman Empire, ornamental plants, especially roses (also used in food and medicine), took on greater importance as wealth and security increased and the burden of the production of food crops was spread to outlying territories. After Rome's fall and the unsettled middle ages came to be, most gardening again was for subsistence crops. The ravages of war and disease kept life unstable, but it was within the cloister of the monastery that garden concepts and precious plants were preserved. Herbs were grown for medicine, food, and flavoring and ornamentals were grown for decorating the chapel at festive occasions.

It is during the more peaceful time of the Tudor period in England (1485AD to 1603AD) that the cottage garden truly began to develop. In this time of renaissance, global trade was flourishing and new plants from the new world and the orient were arriving. These plants helped to spark a new interest in gardening among the rich and not so fortunate alike. With the protection of the monastery or castle no longer necessary it was safer now, and possible, to develop a garden beyond subsistence crops for the common home.

Because the dwellers of the small, humble cottage were not wealthy and had to be thrifty, it was natural that they tended to grow the simple, hardy plants that we often call "cottage garden plants" or "passalong plants" today. Plants such as foxgloves, hollyhocks, irises, and daisies undoubtedly evoke images of the quaint English cottage garden. Plants of all types - annuals, perennials, vegetables, vines, small shrubs, and small trees (especially fruiting) were grown.

The cottage garden reached its height of popularity in the Victorian era (1837 - 1904). A high level of trade and wealth, much exploration of foreign lands, and a resulting plethora of new plants marked this time period. Perhaps at no time before, or since, have plants been so truly appreciated by the broad public. It is also at this time that well-known garden designers such as Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West took the humble cottage garden style and transferred it to the not-so-humble country estate gardens of the landed gentry. With great wealth it was possible to carry out this labor-intensive style at its grandest level.

In our modern time the cottage garden has not lost its appeal, but is growing less common. Many reasons for this exist. Here are a few:


Despite the decline in popularity of this style of garden its appeal and practicality are still present for today's avid gardener. To begin to understand what is involved in the well-designed country cottage garden it is best to have an understanding of the principles of design.


"The principles of design are not arbitrary; they are constant. They are the tools of all the arts, and no artist can vary them until he has mastered them. A careful study and understanding of these principles of design enables one to express his personality in art. It is through this mastery that distinction and individuality are created and reflected in design. Distinction is that extra note of quality, taste, and originality for which all persons strive."

Composition - the grouping of various parts to make the pattern (design).

Harmony (Unity) - the relationship between the various parts of a composition - this exists when the various units of all parts form a concordant whole.

Focal Point - the point of convergence to which the eye is drawn because of the design - the "bull's eye".

Balance - a state that is achieved when the elements of a design are so composed that they give a feeling of stability and security.

     Mechanical Balance - balance achieved through the proper dispersal of physical materials (positive space).

     Visual Balance - achieved by the proper use of color and placement in sequence of related sizes of materials in conjunction with structural balance.

Proportion - comparison of the relationship of the units of a composition to each other in size, quantity, and setting (environment) - often referred to as scale.

Line - the visual path the eye follows to produce motion.

Texture - the physical characteristics of the materials in the design.

Rhythm - the apparent flow of line from the focal point; the repetition of materials giving force and movement without monotony; the sequence of color harmony, and the graduation of the materials. This element encompasses all the others - it gives life to the design and is the quality a great designer will achieve.

Color - a design element that is extremely important, yet often given too much attention, to the detriment of the other elements. Color can evoke many emotions and is universal in its effects. It can be subtle and soothing or it can create discord and put nerves on edge. As a result it can have great impact, positive or negative, on the harmony and rhythm in a design. The study of the science of color can give a designer a unique insight into how to manipulate a design in order to achieve a certain response or aid in figuring out why harmony and rhythm are not achieved.

What Makes a Cottage Garden?

The Cottage - This is of course the main element that one must have in order to create a cottage garden - it is the focal point of the design. Its style, size, materials, and history will all play a part in how the garden is designed.

Structures - Structural elements in the cottage garden should relate to and accent the cottage itself.

Walkways - Walkways need to be in proportion to the size of the cottage and garden. Cottage gardens are most often small and intimate, so narrow walkways are acceptable. If you enjoy sharing your garden or if it is open to the public, you would be better off making walkways wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The wider path is more social and the narrower more personal. It is also best to take into consideration any needs for maintenance (cart or wheelbarrow access) and possibly handicap accessibility. The size of the walkway(s) will definitely influence how the space of your garden is perceived. Materials for walkways are numerous and your choice should blend in with the materials and character of the other elements in the garden.

Beds - The size of planting beds will depend on the size of the cottage and any defined garden space around it. I personally find that beds over 8 to 10 feet in depth are harder to maintain since you will have to step over and around plants in the front to get to the back for maintenance. If beds can be approached from all sides (not against a wall of fence), then they can be deeper. If it is necessary to make really deep beds due to keeping proper scale, I find it best to plant lower maintenance materials toward the back and space them well apart. Higher maintenance plants can then be placed toward the front and can be more tightly spaced because of easier maintenance. Another option is to make smaller maintenance walkways into the beds for access.

Cottage gardens generally accommodate a large variety of plant materials, so it is crucial that the beds be well prepared with organic material before planting. The mixture of plant types (annuals, perennials, etc.) means that it will not be easy to amend later. Compost can be tilled in between cycles oannuals or spread around perennials, allowing nature to incorporate with the soil over time.

Mulch is also a great key to lowering maintenance and keeping plants and gardener happy. Good organic gardening principles will be essential for keeping the cottage garden healthy and bountiful. Spraying harsh chemicals should be avoided, as it will make it hard to use any vegetables or herbs from the garden.

Turf Grasses - Should areas of turf be included in the cottage garden? I believe that areas of turf only need be included if the garden is of a size to accommodate it or if there is a need to have some space for children or animals to play. The cottage garden is intensive and most often its spaces are given over to the cultivation of as many plants as possible. One positive aspect of having an area of turf is that it tends to act like a negative space, a space of calm and ease for the eye amid the very busy plantings of a cottage garden. This can be used to benefit the overall design, giving plantings more visual power by clearing the foreground and also giving one a place from which to stand back and take in a larger view. One way to incorporate turf into a cottage garden would also be to use it in as the material for the walkways, as long as it can be maintained and not overtrodden.

Hardscape Materials - Materials used to construct the frame, or skeleton, of the garden - the fences, arbors, walkways, etc, should be of a style and material to complement the cottage itself. This will help to unite the garden with the cottage to create unity and will further accent the cottage as the focal point.

Varying materials in the overall design will help to give interest, but as the cottage garden is innately very busy texturally with its plants, I believe it is best to keep the number of different hardscape materials low. The cottage garden highlights the wealth of plant material in our world and should be accented, not overwhelmed, by the materials used to define its space.

Planting -

The Plants - The cottage garden should contain a diverse mixture of plants that displays the wealth of plants in the world. There should be annuals, perennials, small shrubs (deciduous and evergreen), vines, and small trees - especially fruiting ones. Including herbs and vegetables will make the mixture even more diverse and useful.

Now, as to the topic of which plants to use in the cottage garden - that is a whole other topic indeed. There are many plants associated with the traditional cottage garden and many books that cover the subject. Traditional cottage garden plants were ones that were easy to grow and performed well without a great deal of prodding. They were passalong plants that could easily be shared or traded. If a plant is rare, difficult to propagate, or hard to keep alive in your climate, it is really not a good candidate for inclusion in the traditional cottage garden.

As I have previously mentioned, the cottage garden is an adaptable style and one can easily venture away from the mold of the traditional. One could easily create a cottage garden of only native plants or use only the new and exotic. This style is especially suited to the plantaholic that is continually searching out the rare and unusual and would definitely lead to the creation of a non-traditional cottage garden.

As long as you have a cottage, follow the principles of design, and include some of the basic structural elements used in the traditional cottage garden, you should be able to create a wonderful cottage garden that is distinctly yours.

Happy Cottage Gardening!

1Flowers - Geometric Form by M. "Buddy" Benz and James L. Johnson