5 Elements of A Cottage Garden

Cottage gardens remind us of simpler times when working in and enjoying a garden didn’t compete with life’s demands or retirement plans. We envision lush, overflowing pathways, perennial beds filled with color, staggered blooms that start in spring and finish in late fall, benches perched in alcoves, arbors with climbing roses, hidden spots for meditating, and herbs for fresh cooking, nestled around our homes. A paradise.

To accomplish this color-filled and overflowing paradise is actually much harder than it looks and is, unfortunately, a lot of work to keep up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have elements of a cottage garden in your low-maintenance garden. You can. Read on for five ways to incorporate cottage gardens into a low-maintenance garden.

Where Low Maintenance and Cottage Gardens Meet

If we look at a few key elements of cottage gardens, we can create aspects of it in our landscapes without incorporating all the work.

  1. Spill the Perennials

Plant perennials near the edges of sidewalks, pathways or patios to create a spilled look. A quintessential element of cottage gardens is a flower-laden path leading to the front door. No need for a million different perennials with staggered blooms throughout the season, either. Pick a few workhorse perennials like all season blooming Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low' combined with summer blooming Achillea x 'Moonshine' yarrow, and the fall-blooming anemone ‘Honorine Jobert,’ Anemone x hybrida 'Honorine Jobert.' These perennials are no fuss and give color spring through fall. But remember, in the effort to not overwhelm, it’s okay to pick one perennial and keep it simple. If that is your preference, go with the catmint and enjoy lavender like blooms all season.

‘Walker’s Low’ catmint requires full sun. It blooms heavy in spring, then blooms throughout the growing season into fall. Cut back after initial bloom for a fuller, longer bloom time.

2. Add A Bench

Cottage gardens invite us to remove ourselves from the world and take time to sit and enjoy the garden. A bench tucked into a grove of trees, the corner of the backyard, or in front of the ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas creates a charming look and compelling place to retreat. Adding a bench to a quiet spot is easy and doesn’t require anything more than the bench. Pick a private spot that you will actually use. Try not to turn it into a “project.” If the ground needs to be leveled or flagstone is necessary, again, keep it simple. Our tendency is to overdo. Here, the idea is to add elements of cottage design that won’t create extra work, but will add pleasure and beauty to the garden. If it makes you happy to do additional plantings (the smooth hydrangeas are classic cottage garden) or containers or even a small water feature, then do it, but be honest with yourself about what you want to maintain.

garden bench.jpg

A bench with a small table placed in front of ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas invokes elements of a cottage design without being high maintenance. Skip the container with the million bells or add it if you don’t mind watering the container weekly. Give yourself permission to do less if that’s what life allows.

3. Add Fragrance

Add fragrance with one of these cottage garden classics: Hydrangea paniculata, viburnum, roses (try the David Austin roses), peonies, and herbs. Plant near windows or walkways where fragrance can reach passerby’s. A cottage garden staple is a collection of terra cotta pots planted with herbs and placed close to the kitchen door allowing for ease of watering, and harvesting, plus the added benefit of their aromatic leaves close by. Hydrangea paniculatas bloom on new wood, love full sun, are fragrant and basically maintenance free (except for deadheading to bring in cut flowers). Peonies are old fashioned favorites that once established can live for generations without transplanting (they prefer not to be moved) and make great cut flowers. Yes, they only bloom in spring, but it’s okay to enjoy a flower for a season. Viburnums can be evergreen or deciduous, tolerate shade and have showy berries in late summer.

Peonies may only bloom for a short time, but their blooms, fragrance and cut flowers make them deserving of a spot in the landscape.

Peonies may only bloom for a short time, but their blooms, fragrance and cut flowers make them deserving of a spot in the landscape.

4. Add Vines

Arbors covered with climbing roses and clematis are swoon-worthy, but you don’t need an arbor to add flowering vines; a trellis or even a boxwood will do. Clematis can climb over boxwoods or other shrubs for added charm. Add climbing hydrangea to a shady corner of the house or climbing roses along the top of a sunny fence. Many clematis, roses and honeysuckle vines bloom in spring and fall.

Clematis are easy to grow. Most are not aggressive vines and can be grown on simple trellises against the house for vertical enjoyment.

Clematis are easy to grow. Most are not aggressive vines and can be grown on simple trellises against the house for vertical enjoyment.

5. Add Fun Elements

Add fun elements to the garden like a birdbath, rooster statue, pineapple finial, sundial, or antique urns. Any element that adds visual interest that is expressive of you works. Again, keep it simple. A classic birdbath sitting in front of the rhododendrons is reminiscent of a cottage garden. Pineapple finials on top of a rock wall is welcoming and the sign of hospitality, the definition of a cottage garden whose gates open to welcome neighbors and friends inside.

Statues are a good way to express yourself. Go for the classic or what suits your style.

Statues are a good way to express yourself. Go for the classic or what suits your style.

Before you start any new garden, evaluate what your real goal is. For the hobbyist gardener who loves spending their free time in the garden, the goal may be a full cottage garden. For the average gardener who enjoys being outside but doesn’t want to be chained to the garden, consider a few additions that aren’t overwhelming but still create charm.


Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach and blog writer.

B. B. Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.