Decoding the English cottage garden

design aesthetic can be difficult to achieve without an intimate knowledge of ongoing seasonal colour and growth habits

It’s safe to say that no two English cottage gardens look quite the same, nor should they, as this would break the cardinal design rule of ‘everything goes, but with moderation’.

By that I mean that you would be hard-pressed to find mass plantings of any single shrub or perennial in these gardens, as no one element is emphasized over the other.

Rather, the plants are tastefully blended together to both compliment and contrast their varying flower colours, foliage types and overall structure.

Despite its seemingly random appearance, this sort of design aesthetic can be difficult to achieve without an intimate knowledge of ongoing seasonal colour and growth habits, in order to create an ever-changing series of landscape vignettes.

These clusters usually involve two to three plants that bloom at the same time, becoming the focal point of the garden.

While they eventually fade, the adjacent groupings come into flower and in turn demand your attention.

So in a well-designed English cottage garden, you never really notice the faded display, as your eye is always drawn towards the nearby flowers.

So how does one achieve an English state of mind, that Gertrude Jekyll-esque sensibility that allows one to combine plant colours as easily as others blend mojitos?

You could start by having a few ice cold Guinness (my favourite Anglo-Irish technique), or a bracing cup of Earl Grey tea, watching a little Monty Python’s Flying Circus (or Coronation Street if you like) and eating a steak and kidney pie. Or you could just stand back and try to soak in the essential elements of the often misunderstood English cottage garden.

Let’s start with the seemingly random nature of this design – a closer examination will reveal groupings of smaller perennials for greater visual impact, with the larger vertical elements being repeated only at some distance. Typical examples of the latter include hollyhocks (alcea), lavatera, delphiniums, lilies and foxglove (digitalis), while the smaller-scaled pinks (dianthus), scabiosa, primulas and English lavender are often grouped tightly for better visual effect.

Easy care, self-seeding perennials such as rose campion (lychnis coronaria), columbine or granny’s bonnet (aquilegia vulgaris), lupines and sea holly (eryngium planum) also play an important role in larger cottage gardens where open spaces need to be colonized by flowering perennials instead of the noxious weeds.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget the shrubs, and hydrangeas of every stripe are an integral part of any authentic English cottage garden.

Your choices here include mophead-types (H. macrophylla), oak leaf (H. quercifolia), lacecap species (H. serrata and aspera), peegee forms (H. paniculata) and the rounded white or pink blooms of smooth hydrangea or H. arborescens.

Roses also come into play and you might as well choose from David Austin’s fragrant English roses, such as Gertrude Jekyll (pink), Molineux (yellow), Abraham Darby (apricot) or the hard to find Sweet Juliet.

Other typical English garden shrubs include viburnum plicatum, weigela, mockorange (Philadelphus), Lilac (syringa) and rhododendron.

The best designed English cottage gardens have meandering pathways, so that the view changes with perspective and plants can be appreciated both at close quarters and at a distance.

Structures such as arbors, pergolas and obelisks play a secondary role, as their presence is always tempered or softened with clematis, climbing roses or taller perennials – so that you only notice them in passing.

That should be enough to pique your interest for now.


Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author  (

Pop-up banner image ×