How to create a modern cottage garden – for a quintessentially English look with a contemporary twist

Experts share clever landscape design tricks that can help cottage gardens work in a modern space

Modern cottage garden with planting borders, lawn and hedging
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Cottage gardens paint the most idyllic of pictures: old stone walls laden with moss, climbers creeping and tumbling over fences, colorful borders full of flowers, and the scent of roses perfuming the air. Romantic, no? 

Indeed, cottage garden ideas have remained popular for decades, showcasing elements of what we might consider quintessentially English - or British - garden design. Cottage gardens have maintained favor, I think, for their closeness to nature. They are less curated than formal gardens, and far more welcoming and encouraging of the natural world. 

Many homeowners might enjoy the aesthetic and feel of the cottage garden look, but seek a more contemporary twist on this age-old style. Here, experts share how to create a modern cottage garden, that celebrates tradition while valuing a more contemporary feel and aesthetic. 

Cottage garden border with yew topiary and perennial planting

(Image credit: Getty Images/David Burton)

How to create a modern cottage garden

The modern cottage garden incorporates elements of traditional garden ideas but with a contemporary edge. Homeowners can do this in their backyards by carefully selecting and using hardscaping materials that suit a more modern aesthetic, and softening these elements with blousy, romantic borders that are expected of cottage gardens. 

What is a modern cottage garden?

Cottage garden border with daisies and perennial planting

(Image credit: Getty Images/Jacky Parker Photography)

To achieve a modern cottage garden design, you do not require a picture-perfect countryside cottage set amongst tumbling green hills, although this can certainly help. 

As a reminder, traditional cottage gardens are full of self-seeding annuals and perennials cascading over garden walls, and a vegetable patch that could be lifted from the writings of Beatrix Potter. 

Modern cottage gardens, however, are inspired by these romantic and quintessentially English elements of garden design but incorporate this with a modern look. 

'This is one of my favorite aesthetics to create,' says Cate Singleton, garden expert and Director of Design at Tilly. 'I love the juxtaposition of the informal cottage style with a more structured modern flare,' Cate adds. 

For those asking how to create a modern cottage garden, this can be achieved by combining modern materials and hardscaping styles with traditional planting selections. Think modern or geometric paving cutting through flamboyant borders that are loaded with roses, daisies and cornflowers. What's not to love? 

Cate Singleton headshot
Cate Singleton

Cate is a garden expert and Director of Design for Tilly. Tilly is a landscape design company that serves homeowners nationwide. Homeowners are matched with a professional designer to create a custom plan for their yard based on their geography, goals and needs.

Hardscaping advice for modern cottage gardens

Garden path cutting through lawned area

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When thinking about how to plan a cottage garden, hardscaping elements should be a primary consideration. Traditional cottage gardens tend to rely on old stone walls and boundaries, conjuring up images of the English countryside. 

However, certain hardscaping elements can help to modernize this look. For example, instead of winding gravel pathways, instead consider linear or straight paved areas or paths with sharp, neat finishes that can help to create a modern aesthetic.

Clay brick pavers are a functional material for any garden project that should be a consideration for those asking how to create a modern cottage garden. These pavers are useful in the backyard or front yard paving ideas, evocative of arts and crafts garden design elements from the 20th century. 

However, traditional materials, such as clay brick pavers, can be laid in a modern way. The stackbond paving pattern, for instance, is one idea, whereby the pavers line up neatly to create a perfect grid. Laying such a traditional material in a contemporary and clean way can help to create a modern look. 

In addition, combining modern materials with traditional paving or stone walls is also a good idea. Concrete or metal stools, with a smooth or colorful finish, can help to elevate and modernize a cottage garden. 

Planting advice for modern cottage gardens

Chamomile and salvia in bloom in a garden border

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When thinking about the best cottage garden plants for a modern backyard, I would recommend pursuing a maximalist approach to your planting beds and borders, albeit with a modern twist... more is more, as they say.  

Combining and clashing textures, shapes and colors in planting beds is typical of traditional cottage garden design, but there are ways to modernize this. 

Evergreen topiary and hedging that is regularly shaped can help to add impact to an otherwise fairly loose and wild design. Sharp topiary set amongst cottage garden planting can help to add a contemporary feel, and many landscape and garden designers regularly combine soft perennial planting with clean and crisp hedging
or topiary domes. 

'Provide an evergreen structure that highlights the architecture of the house,' says Cate Singleton. 'Think upright shrubs or ornamental trees as focal points. Clean lines of evergreen hedges can also help define the structure of the landscape beds,' Cate adds. 

'Fill in the framework that has been created with layered plantings that include flowering shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grasses,' Cate says. 'These can be planted in groups to further push the modern feel.'

Finally, Cate recommends that gardeners 'have fun with color. The structure has been created with the modern evergreen topiary and hedging, so you can push the envelope by creating complimentary color combinations and play with different textures while filling in the landscape beds,' she says 

It is a good idea to use plants that flower at different times of the growing season to maintain color and interest in the flower beds for much of the spring and summer. I would recommend combining foxgloves, poppies and geums, which are early to flower in the spring, with dahlias, cosmos and chrysanthemums, which are late to flower from early summer. All of these planting suggestions would fit well into a modern cottage garden border. 

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What long-lasting flowers would work in a modern cottage garden?

Many popular cottage garden plants tend to flower for long periods across the spring and summer months, which is good news for gardeners.

Calendula, for example, can flower from early spring right up until the first frost. Russian sage is another great example of a long-lasting flowering plant. This purple-blue flowering perennial is a useful addition to the garden borders as it will provide interest for much of the growing season. 

It is a good idea to combine long flowering plants with evergreens, such as English yew, which will maintain interest even during the winter months.

When considering how to create a modern cottage garden, incorporating traditional ideas with modern design elements can help to develop a cottage garden with a contemporary twist. Modern cottage gardens show that the past and the present can be complementary in design. 

For more planting inspiration, see our guide on what is prairie planting, with organic and natural planting, such as sweeping meadows, today a popular design element.

Thomas Rutter
Content Editor

Thomas is a Content Editor within the Gardens Team at Homes and Gardens. He has worked as a professional gardener in gardens across the UK and in Italy, specialising in productive gardening, growing food and flowers. Trained in Horticulture at the Garden Museum, London, he has written on gardening and garden history for various publications in the UK.