Lay of the Landscape: Cottage Garden Style

Houzz.com

Marianne Lipanovich

20 May 2012

Mention the term "cottage garden" and most of us imagine a colorful, fragrant garden filled with billowing perennials, all surrounded by a picket fence. Ornaments, trellises, arbors and benches are nestled among the plants, and a simple path leads to a charming entryway.

That’s the typical cottage garden of today, but what many admirers don’t realize is that the cottage garden began its life as a purely functional space for growing vegetables and herbs for everyday use. If the only space you have is in front of your front door, then that’s where you’ll grow the food you need. As for the fence, it’s a practical way to keep out intruders (both animal and human). 

Through the centuries, the cottage garden has become less practical and more decorative. It has also been adapted to fit different climates and architectural styles, from traditional to contemporary. As with any garden style, though, there are some guidelines that will help ensure that your cottage garden looks pleasing and pulled together, not simply like a hodgepodge of plants that have been placed haphazardly.

Start with the layout. 

Traditionally, the main path would lead directly to the front door, with plants billowing over on each side. That's still appropriate, but you could also create a winding path that leads you on a tour through the garden.

Keep it informal. 

A certain informality defines cottage garden plants, of course, but it also applies to your hardscape. Gravel, pebbles or bark make great choices for paths, for instance. Rather than identical bricks set precisely in mortar, look for discolored older bricks with a few chipped edges, and set them so that the space isn't precisely even between each paver. Stepping stones also give a cottagey look. Local materials are the best choice if you can find them. 

Design tip: While imperfections in a walkway look charming, get the effect by varying the width between different pavers and keep the actual walking surface even. No one wants to trip over an uneven stone, especially at night.

Stone and unpainted wood are equally authentic choices for fencing, and the fence at Archer & Buchanan's Hobbit House artfully combines both. You can even use hedges to create a boundary. Keep the materials simple; for example, a stone wall should be short and look dry set, not like a massive construction piece.

Lose the lawn.

In a true cottage garden, a lawn is rarely the focal point. If you do want a bit of green, consider using grass as your path material. A low-mow fescue will keep your maintenance levels down while adding to the informal feel.

Plant for color.

A cottage garden is, above all, vibrant. You can use an exuberant mix of colors, go for something bold or stick to softer shades. A color wheel can be a great guide for choosing colors, whether you want them to contrast or complement each other.

Design tip: If you're new to designing with color, choose a theme color or colors, such as pinks, blues or purples, much like you would for colors inside a house. The different shapes of the individual plants you choose will give you variety; the repetition of color will have a calming and harmonious effect. As you get bolder, add a pop of contrasting color — yellow nasturtiums mixed in with blue pansies and delphiniums, bright red lupine nestled among white Shasta daisies and pink echinacea or a bright orange black-eyed Susan scattered about in a sea of lavender.

Plant the unexpected. 

Bright purple allium, standing tall, adds color. Artemisia and santolina are both good filler plants; their soft foliage and inconspicuous flowers serve as a backdrop for more colorful plantings.

Enclose your space. 

A white picket fence is the epitome of a cottage garden look. Here, the fence itself is simple, but the bright white color helps it hold its own against the yellows and greens that front it. Also, a birdbath is always a welcome touch.

Stone and unpainted wood are equally authentic choices for fencing, and this fence artfully combines both. You can even use hedges to create a boundary. Keep the materials simple; for example, a stone wall should be short and look dry set, not like a massive construction piece.

Include gates, arbors and trellises. 

This is a classic combination, complete with a climbing rose, but you can also scatter structures that support climbing plants throughout the space. You can even add additional gates, whether to enclose a smaller area or simply as decoration.

Add the finishing touches. 

Cottage gardens call for individual details, and this birdbath is a stunning example of taking a simple detail and making it your own. Constructed of pots and a simple bathing bowl, it adds color and originality to the garden while providing a spa for birds. In turn, the birds provide plenty of entertainment for the homeowners.

Water features are common in a cottage garden. If you plan to add one, keep it simple. Ponds should be relatively small and natural in appearance. Fountains should also be low-key affairs, such as simple urns.

What's a cottage garden without a birdhouse or two? They can be simply decorative, of course, but it doesn't take much to make one into a cozy home for a nest. Different birds have different nesting requirements, so choose a birdhouse style that will attract birds native to your area and keep them safe from predators. Check with a local pet store or birding group to find out more about what will work best for you.

You have to be able to enjoy your garden. A seat placed somewhere within the space will allow you to look out over your garden creation. You'll probably discover that birds and butterflies will enjoy the garden as well.

If you're going to sit for a while, you'll need a comfortable spot to do that. Fortunately, thrift store finds and old favorites will fit into a cottage space, so you don't need to spend a lot of money. However, if your space is exposed to sun and rain, you may want to look for fabrics and furniture that appear weathered but are actually designed to stand up to the elements.

Of course, you'll need a place to work, whether it's starting seedlings or arranging fresh-picked flowers. This bench is functional, and the soft green color blends in with the plantings around it.

Create a cottage garden that's right for you. 

It makes sense to work with the space and the climate you have. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, great; you have a similar climate to England and you can probably recreate a Cotswold garden. In other climates, you'll need to be more creative. In the upper Midwest, plants like hostas function well as anchors in a cottage garden space.

Just inland from the central coast of California, a Mediterranean climate and lack of summer rain means plants have to be more drought tolerant. As this garden proves, that doesn't mean you have to give up on the cottage look, just choose grasses and perennials that can handle the climatic conditions.

While cottage gardens are remarkably adaptable, somehow a fluffy yard of roses doesn't always work with a more modern architectural design. Grasses, especially those with a mix of colors in their flower heads, make a great, slightly more contemporary substitute.

While cottage gardens are remarkably adaptable, somehow a fluffy yard of roses doesn't always work with a more modern architectural design. Grasses, especially those with a mix of colors in their flower heads, make a great, slightly more contemporary substitute.

This edge of a sloping driveway provides the perfect spot for a contained cottage look that also brightens the edge of the driveway. In this case, the picket fence is keeping the cottage garden out of the yard, rather than in it.

Call it contemporary cottage. The containers have an urban look, but they're filled with spilling plants that evoke images of a cottage-inspired front yard.

If you're really limited for space, a cottage container can work very well. Set it on a patio or in an entryway to get the look, even if you don't have the land.

Design tip: You can also use containers within your existing cottage garden. They're a great way to add a decorative element, and easy to swap out if the plants start to look shabby.

Of course, sometimes your home will look like a cottage even with the minimal amount of landscaping. This house would say cottage even in the middle of a city. Even so, you can see the basic cottage elements, from irregularly placed paving materials to climbing plants and a wooden bench.

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