Q: I am interested in cottage gardens. Would you give me some pointers for creating one? A: Cottage gardens in England are thrifty, charming and filled with gorgeous and useful...

Share story


I am interested in cottage gardens. Would you give me some pointers for creating one?


Cottage gardens in England are thrifty, charming and filled with gorgeous and useful plants. What more could we want?

A whole generation of gardeners in the Northwest rediscovered what gardening could be under the influence of cottage gardens. Perhaps I may generalize from my particular case: My grandparents tended a cottage garden near Portland. Both edible plants and flowers spilled from the garden beds. My grandfather had peas and cucumbers and an almond tree, and my grandmother grew flowers that I, not yet interested in gardening, did not know the names of. She cut them for arrangements to adorn her church.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

It was a garden, not a landscape, which seemed to interest many in my parents’ generation who sought easy-care, low-maintenance collections of trees and shrubs. Perennials seemingly burst onto the scene in the Northwest a decade or two ago, and many gardeners happily succumbed to them.

Cottage gardens do have trees and shrubs, but their glory is perennials and annuals, both floriferous and edible. They take their name from the gardens around small homes in England, where the properties are modest in size and almost every inch of ground is put to use for plants. The beds have a lush look, and plants often scramble up walls, giving rise to the expression “rose-covered cottage.”

It helps to have a marvelous 13th-century thatched cottage to wrap your garden around. Lacking one, just cover your house walls with plants, who will know the difference? Of course I jest, but those old English cottage gardens can teach us valuable lessons about designing a cottage garden here.

Layout is informal, without axis or focal point. Paths lead in a wandering circuit of discovery. Stone or brick paving brings texture and pattern to the composition. Gates and arbors add ornament and heighten the sense of entry and enclosure. These gardens have a sense of intimacy fostered by their small scale and the fine texture created by the profusion of plants.


“The Northwest Cottage Garden,”

by Andrew Shulman (Sasquatch Books, 2004).

“English Cottage Gardening for American Gardens,”

by Margaret Hensel (Norton, 1992).

Cottage gardens rarely have lawns, which offers advantages to gardeners today. Lawns can be high-maintenance. While some people enjoy mowing, others may choose to spend their time tending plants. Lawns also have higher water requirements than most garden plants.

Plants are at the heart of these gardens. Most of them are easy to propagate and can be handed from gardener to gardener. The same beloved plants are used in different layouts in each garden, like well-known actors in a repertory company bringing both familiarity and variety to each new production.

Many of the plants are self-sowing, short-lived perennials or biennials, including hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Edging plants are important, whether bordering roses or lining a path. Consider catmint (Nepeta mussinii), Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and lavender (Lavendula species and hybrids).

Cottage gardens can be as individual as their owners. The style is about the spirit of the law, not the letter. It is all about growing the plants you love and taking joy in their tending. Let us be re-inspired by the cottage garden tradition to create gardens bursting with abundance and expressing our passion for plants.

Phil Wood has a degree in landscape architecture and designs and builds gardens. Call 206-464-8533 or e-mail thegardendesigner@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.