This planting style means lots of color and charm without lots of money or time. You don't even need a cottage! Let our experts show you the way.
Steve Bender

These gardens champion the spirit of individualism; no two are alike. Every flower, shrub, and ornament reflects the owner's personality. Modest in size but huge in appeal, cottage gardens evoke feelings of intimacy and enclosure. Some plants are grown for sheer splendor. Others are treasured for the warm memories they elicit of the generous family and friends who shared them.

Why plant a cottage garden? The simple answer is: For many people it's the easiest garden to do.

  • It doesn't require a big budget.
  • You don't have to spend every weekend pulling weeds.
  • You don't need a big yard to grow a wide variety of different plants.
  • You can change things quickly and as often as you like because your planting plan isn't set in stone.

 A Prime Example
To see what cottage gardening is all about, you need only visit the backyard of Atlanta garden designer Esther Stokes (pictured on page 93 of the March 2004 issue of Southern Living). The place overflows with flowers. Roses spill from an arbor by a toolshed. Pinks and verbenas invade the cracks between stepping-stones. Squads of delphiniums battle teeming hordes of poppies, while a rose-colored clematis solicits the support of a weathered picket fence.

It all looks beautiful and random. But Esther cautions that there's more to a successful cottage look than simply letting plants grow anywhere. "If you want to create a cottage garden, there are certain things you have to do to keep it from looking like yard flowers," she states. "It all comes back to structure. A garden needs good bones. The really necessary parts are the backdrops--the hedges, fences, and stone walls. The lawn and even gravel paths are just as important as flowers, because they give form and context.

"Evergreens perform a vital role in anchoring the garden and defining spaces too," Esther continues. She favors using those with deep green foliage, such as boxwoods, 'Otto Luyken' cherry laurels, hollies, and various conifers.

Any Way You Like
Once you've used structures and evergreens to establish the garden's basic form, it's time to add plants for flowers and foliage. Feel free to experiment and play. Cottage gardens are fluid; they can change from week to week and month to month--often just on a whim.

Such freedom and flexibility are important to graphic artist Linda Hostetler, whose wondrous cottage garden in The Plains, Virginia, combines hundreds of different annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, bulbs, and ground covers. She's constantly planting new things and moving others around. "All new plants need to be 'on wheels,'" she explains. "I'll walk a new plant from place to place, maybe leave it in a certain spot for a week or so and say to myself, 'How fantastic is its color against that color?' Eventually, I'll find a location that works."

Don't be surprised if not everyone quite understands the untamed look at first. Sometimes a cottage garden only makes sense from the house looking out--not from the outside looking in. This quirk provides the perfect excuse to invite neighbors over for a tour.

Another point of potential confusion is that color in a cottage garden often doesn't depend on big sweeps of a single kind of flower, but rather many small spots of different flowers. Neighbors don't always get this concept. Garden designer Cathy Umphrey of Annapolis admits: "I have a friend who says every time she comes by, 'Oh, I see your garden isn't at its peak.' "  Don't be discouraged by such misunderstandings. If you like your garden, that's all that really matters.

Color Is Key
Cottage gardens may lack huge sweeps of flowers, but color is still prominent, often year-round. Some folks favor soft pastels, but Linda says she gets more oomph from strong color combinations. "My plants need to pay rent; I like a lot of zing and pop," she asserts. Her favorite mix is red, blue, and yellow, as evidenced by blue- and golden-foliaged conifers planted with a red-leaved Japanese maple. Another excellent example of this is blue- and gold-leaved hostas planted with 'Palace Purple' alum root (Heuchera micrantha 'Palace Purple').

More Plants, Less Maintenance
How can this be so? Easy. The more thickly you plant, the less room there is for weeds to sprout. In addition to her other plants, Linda also uses an assortment of ground covers to smother weeds. Some of her favorites are mazus, 'Aurea' creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'), and dwarf Japanese garden juniper (Juniperus procumbens 'Nana'). She welcomes flower seedlings that pop up in unexpected places. "My attitude is, 'Let go; let God,' " she says. 

 From the March 2004 issue of Southern Living.