Guide to cottage gardening

Use our planting and design tips to create your own cottage garden with a Western twist

Cottage garden bench

Photo by Robin Cushman

How to design a cottage garden

Cottage gardening is an attitude, not a location

You can achieve a cottage effect in the heart of the city as well as the suburbs. All you need is a passion for plants and a willingness to mix them all up.

While English-style gardens draw heavily on hardy perennials, you can accomplish the same look of artful chaos with any plants appropriate to your climate. (See the Sunset Plant Finder.)

Indeed, Mediterranean plants and succulents like agaves work quite well in coastal and desert plantings.

Click ahead for a look at how the traditional cottage garden can morph to fit your own personal gardening style.

Cottage garden four-season plants

Photo by Janet Loughrey

Four-season appeal in Portland

How long does it take to create a show-quality cottage garden? About 18 months and most of that is growing time.

Darcy Daniel created year-round interest in her garden by using plants that hold their places in the off-season. Perennials and shrubs form a multilayered tapestry of flowers and foliage in her front front yard.

To the left of the path, the mauve blooms of Erysimum linifolium ‘Variegatum’ and the burgundy leaves of New Zealand flax are backed by white ‘Iceberg’ rose, yellow-flowered Achillea ‘Moonshine’, and the violet blooms of Allium ‘Globemaster’.

Design: BloomTown Garden Design (503) 331-1783

Exotic cottage garden in Southern California

Photo by Steven Gunther

Exotic variety in Southern California

South African plants work in Alan and Angelika Wilkinson’s exotic cottage garden in Los Angeles. The trick: Using multiple varieties and planting them for an unstudied effect.

African daisies with reddish orange flowers skirt the front, and Aloe marlothii with saffron-colored flower spikes and kalanchoe with pink bell-shaped blossoms fill in behind. Surrounding: Evergreen shrubs, New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Ruby Glow’), Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’, and a treelike protea.

Design: Robert Cornell (626/398-5581)

Cottage garden plants

Photo by Allan Mandell

Step 1: Pick plants for a cottage effect

Cottage gardens may appear wild and romantic, but it takes the right combination of colors, textures, and accessories to pull off the look.

In this garden: Lavender blue scabiosa and red Astrantia; rosy Pimpinella and Alstroemeria; lacy white Eupatorium rugosom ‘Chocolate’ and creamy Clematis recta; and deep purple delphiniums.

The prettiest gardens blend at least a few of the plants in the following slides.

Cottage garden billower plants

Photo by Terry Donnelly


Pillowy shrubs and perennials, like this phlox spilling over a rain barrel, add softness. Others: breath of heaven (Coleonema), ceanothus, lavatera, lilac.

Tip: Plant closely for a generous look.

Cottage garden drapers plants

Photo by Norm Plate


Twining plants, like this wisteria, climb walls or trellises and spill over fences or arbors.

Wispy cottage garden plants

Photo by Janet Loughrey

Lacy accents

Wispy foliage and delicate flowers, like those of love-in-a-mist, create an airy effect.

Cottage garden edger plants

Photo by Jerry Harpur


Ground covers soften the hard edges of paths and patios. Here, chartreuse Scotch Moss fringes a pond and steppingstones. Others: blue star creeper, creeping thyme.  

Cottage garden spire plants

Photo by  Terry Donnelly


Plants with tall flower spikes, like gayfeather (Liatris), make bold contrasts to lower-growing ones. Others: delphinium, foxglove, hollyhock.

Cottage garden roses

Photo by Allan Mandell


They’re naturals in cottage gardens. Plant shrub roses among perennials, climbing types over arbors and against fences or walls.

The perfect cottage garden rose

Caroline Kopp

Choose a space

Carefree style fits anywhere. You don’t need much space to achieve a cottage look.

You can create the same bursting-with-blooms appearance by arranging potted plants on a deck or rooftop. Or plant a portion of your existing garden, perhaps an island bed, with a cottage-style mix of perennials and roses.

Next, options for where to plant.

Rooftop cottage garden

Photo by Jerry Harpur

On a rooftop

Pots filled with astilbes, delphiniums, and roses create a cottage effect on a San Francisco rooftop.

Design: Sonny Garcia

Patio cottage garden

Photo by Bob Wigand

In a patio bed

Layered plants, from the fringe of white bacopa in front to the red ‘Simplicity’ rose in the center to the blue delphiniums at rear, create a colorful centerpiece for Carol Brewer’s Southern California patio.

Island bed cottage garden

Photo by Connie Coleman

In an island bed

Pink ‘Ballerina’ and red-and-white ‘Eye Paint’ roses share an island bed with blue catmint in Sharon Brasher’s garden in Reno.

Backyard cottage garden

Photo by Mark Turner

In a backyard

A grapevine-covered pergola frames a grass path in Jasmin Liepa’s garden in Bellingham, Washington. The soft pink blossoms of an herbaceous peony contrast with the towering spikes of foxgloves.

Sunset cottage garden

Photo by Norm Plate

In a sunny corner

In this springtime scene from Sunset’s test garden in Menlo Park, California, drifts of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are backed by ornamental grass, purple Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), and a tree mallow with rosy blooms. The poppies reseed freely.

Design: Bud Stuckey

Cotttage garden path

Photo by Mark Turner

Add finishing touches

Placing sculptural elements among plants or using them imaginatively as backdrops adds magic and romance to cottage gardens. Use them sparingly, to accentuate the plants rather than overwhelm them.

A curved path like this one will allow visitors to meander among plantings. Put an interesting focal point, like a bench, at the path’s end. These steps lead to a trellised rose.

See more ways to add to your garden next.

Cottage garden window-gate

Photo by Janet Loughrey

Recycled materials

Integrate a flea-market find into your garden. This window-gate frames a moss-lined path leading to Darcy Daniels’s rear garden.

Cottage garden bird feeder

Photo by Steven Gunther

Bird feeders

Use them as accents among drifts of flowering plants like these roses.

Cottage garden sculpture

Photo by Terry Donnelly


Set a piece of outdoor art or a gazing ball on a pedestal among plantings.

Cottage garden rock wall

Photo by Terry Donnelly

Rock walls

Build a stone wall to add structure and texture. This one, fringed with Scotch Moss, curves past lilies and other perennials.

Cottage garden birdbath

Photo by Steven Gunther


Place one among perennials and keep it filled with water to serve thirsty birds and catch reflections of surrounding flowers.

Printed from: