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Cottage Garden Planting Beds

What Is This Design Style All About?

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Rose-covered arbor a cottage garden fixture. Old-fashioned climbing roses preferred.

The rose-covered arbor is a cottage garden fixture.

David Beaulieu

This style is still used in the 21st century, even if we have to abandon some of the components found in classic cottage garden planting beds. Inspired by the likes of Claude Monet, Thomas Kinkade and Gertrude Jekyll, we have come to seize upon -- as a practical matter -- certain essential elements of the style and made it our own. All of which begs the question (which I started to answer on Page 1): what are the essential elements of this design style?

On Page 1, I began by listing an informal design style and a sense of privacy as two components that must be present for a planting to qualify as a cottage garden. These are necessary but not sufficient; we'll need to explore further to arrive at a better understanding of this design style.

Cottage Garden Style

To distinguish this style from other examples of informal landscape design, just think of the words we tend to use when describing cottage garden planting beds:

  • "sprawling"
  • "riot of color"
  • "seemingly haphazard"
  • "plants bubbling up from everwhere"
  • "densely planted"
  • "refined rusticity"

The cottage garden style, then, is not just any informal style. It is, rather, specifically a style exuberant in its use of a diversity of plants of varying heights, forms and textures, arranged so as to give an impression of abundance -- with a touch of whimsey.

Planting beds will be wide, irregular in shape, and densely planted with a variety of plant forms and textures. Annuals will supplement perennials, flowering shrubs and flowering trees to ensure optimal color display. Most people stop at using 3 or 4 dominant colors, to avoid overdoing it.

At least one of the flower beds will be placed along a house wall, replacing the more typical foundation planting. Make use of vine-covered trellises here, which will soften the look of the wall.

Although the plants will seem to have been situated at random, there is significant artistry involved in such an arrangement. This is why it qualifies as a design style: Not just anything goes, although this design style is less restrictive than a formal design style. Landscape design tricks, such as repetition (using the same plant types in more than one bed) and planting in 3s and 5s, will be employed initially to achieve unity. Symmetry will be avoided.

Plants of varying heights will be used and casually layered (tallest in back, shortest in front, the rest loosely in between) in a south-facing planting bed of sun-loving flowers (so as not to deprive the shortest of necessary sunlight). But avoid an overly stiff layering that would suggest formalness; "break ranks" here and there by moving a group of taller plants closer to the front. Where sunlight deprivation is not an issue, you will have even freer reign to break the layering "rule" of formal garden design. Of course, even in the cottage garden style, there's no point in burying short plants behind tall ones, where the viewer can't appreciate them.

Perennials with tall flower spikes are especially prized in the cottage garden style. But don't rely on plant height, alone to vary eye level. Install a garden arbor to enable vines such as clematis to reach for the sky. Vines can also be allowed to ramble over hedges and stone walls.

While plants are the stars of the cottage garden style, hardscape plays an important supporting role, which I'll discuss on Page 3....

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