Go big on color, but light on labor with this classic, informal garden style.
By Julie Martens
Updated May 25, 2021
While formal gardens are all about order and well-defined spaces, cottage gardens bubble in cheerful tangles of flowers that form a kaleidoscope of hue and texture. According to Darrell Trout, an avid gardener, writer, and lecturer with a passion for the easy-growing beauty of cottage gardens, their style is “relaxed, colorful, and fun.” Because nature is allowed to take its course more in these spaces, as opposed to the careful manicuring other styles may require, they tend to be lower-maintenance. “A cottage garden has perhaps less regard for rules than for doing what you really love,” Trout says. That said, you can make the job of cultivating your own corner of delightful floral abundance even easier with the following advice and ideas.
cottage garden large boulders surrounded by purple and yellow flowers
How to Create an Easy Cottage Garden
1. Starting a Cottage Garden From Scratch
“Don’t create a monster that you don’t have time to feed regularly,” Trout says. “Keep your cottage garden small, and most of all, fun.” Over time, as your confidence grows, increase the size.
2. Invest in Good Soil
“Starting with good, rich, organic soil where plants will thrive with a minimum of watering and fertilizing cuts the work from the start,” Trout says. He also recommends doing a soil test to learn the type of soil you have. Add organic matter yearly, either by purchasing compost or making your own.
3. Position Plants Carefully
Much work in a cottage garden design comes from not having the right plant in the right place, either because of the variety’s full size or its preferred growing conditions. As you gain gardening experience, you can push the envelope, Trout says. “But the healthiest plants—ones that need less care—are those that are in ideal conditions,” he adds.
4. Select Tough Garden Plants
Some of Trout’s favorites on his cottage garden plants list include spring-flowering bulbs, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), wild indigo (Baptisia australis), ‘Stella d’Oro’ or ‘Happy Returns’ daylily (Hemerocallis), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’). And roses always lend a romantic touch, but avoid high-maintenance varieties. Instead, Trout suggests growing tough, disease-resistant Knock Out shrub roses or the old-fashioned climber ‘Blaze’. For foliage interest, try English cottage garden plants like lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Helene Von Stein’), or blue fescue (Festuca glauca).
“Choose high-performance, almost bulletproof plants,” Trout says. “There is no absolutely right way or wrong way to create a cottage garden, so choose what you love.”
5. Cover Soil
“Mulching helps maintain soil moisture levels and prevents weeds from growing,” Trout says. “As organic mulch (bark, compost, or leaf mold) breaks down, it improves soil. Mulch also gives the garden a neater, more unified look.”
6. Use Automatic Watering
Trade dragging a hose around for hands-free watering. Trout recommends using drip lines because “it’s easy to put the water exactly where you want it, and not on the foliage or flowers.” Plus, he points out that it’s efficient because “less water evaporates into the air.”
cottage garden with various heights of flowers and greenery
Low-Maintenance Cottage Garden Ideas
These pointers will help you make an easy-to-care-for cottage garden design that looks especially stunning.
Set Off Plants with Hardscaping
Boulders, laid out in natural-looking formations and dug one-third of the way into the soil, are good year-round anchors that complement their flowering companions. In addition, a picket or rustic fence makes a fitting backdrop to a cottage garden, adding order to the visual chaos of mixed plantings.
Plant Long-Lasting Annuals
Many annuals make excellent cottage garden plants for shade or full sun. They’ll usually bloom all summer without any coddling. A few, such as love-in-a-mist (Nigella) and cockscomb (Celosia), will even reseed themselves without becoming a pest, adding to the naturalistic, casual look of your cottage garden without much work on your part.
cottage garden landscaped path flowers planks rocks
Make a Path Through the Garden
Garden paths offer visual relief from crowded plantings. More importantly, they make your landscape more welcoming and easier to maintain. Consider who will be walking through the garden and in what kind of shoes. This will help you decide whether to go with a soft surface such as gravel or wood chips, or a firm surface such as concrete. A grass path is an easy alternative where foot traffic is low, but it will require regular mowing. [external_footer]