By Melanie Griffiths published
If you are searching for cottage backyard ideas, then you are looking to create a garden that is a feast for the senses, brimming with color, texture, fragrance, and romantic blooms. Charming and informal rather than pristine and structured; a sanctuary for people and wildlife alike.
Cottage planting schemes are inspired by traditional English styles that date back to the 16th century. These gardens were beautiful and productive, billowing with old-fashioned flowers, seasonal produce, and home remedies.
But now the concept has evolved into more of an attitude than a rigid look – and US gardeners have taken the style as their own.
See: Backyard ideas – decor inspiration for outdoor spaces
Massachusetts-based landscape designer Margaret Hensel wrote a book on the subject – English Cottage Gardening for American Gardeners – and helps gardeners to interpret the look in their own backyards.
'There are very few thatched cottages in America but the idea of cottage gardens works very well,' she says. 'You can live in a split-level or ranch house and still have a wonderful cottage backyard. I have seen cottage gardens for Arts and Crafts-style houses in the Midwest, Berkeley California, North Carolina, century-old adobe houses in Santa Fe New Mexico. I could go on. Think effusive, informal, abundant and loved. I think love is really the key.'
While the look today is flexible, there are themes that will help you to emulate its charms, so read on to discover cottage backyard ideas to create your own dream design.
1. Let your house inspire cottage backyard ideas
A cottage backyard begins with your house. 'Look out your kitchen windows, walk in and out of your front and back doors, and imagine what you’d like to see and experience,' says Hensel.
'Think color, texture and fragrance. Imagine a fragrant mock orange (Philadelphus) by your kitchen window, or French lilacs planted where you can smell them when you walk by, then underplant them with hardy geraniums.'
Think about the areas you can best see from inside different rooms, and the immediate impact of opening out onto the backyard. Make the most of small glimpses through windows you walk by, such as on stairwells.
If you have a garden room or patio that extends off a main living space, then treat this as an extension of your cottage backyard.
Whether you are sitting inside looking out the window, or relaxing just outside, you want to be immersed in the cottage atmosphere.
See: Cottage patio ideas – to create a pretty spot for relaxing and entertaining
2. Plant abundant borders in your cottage backyard
In classic cottage backyard schemes, borders are bursting with planting. 'Although they look haphazard, some thought needs to be given to planning the effect. You are aiming for a succession of blooms that give a tapestry of color,' says gardening expert Leigh Clapp.
'Think old-fashioned favorites, including geraniums, roses and foxgloves, to create an informal, casual atmosphere, and plant them close together, ignoring standard spacing.
'Let plants flop over and weave through each other. Voluptuous, effervescent, fragrant and self-seeding choices will help you create the look. Multi-petalled flowers will give that romantic feel, such as blousy peonies and old roses.
'You don’t need to be confined to only authentic plants, though, as a colorful mix of bulbs, perennials, annuals and flowering shrubs will give a year-round vision with more structure.'
3. Add interest with tall flowers
Some of the most important plants in a cottage backyard are those that pop up in borders, towering above their neighbors to add height and drama. In mainstream gardening, taller plants are usually reserved for the back and middle of wide borders, but in cottage planting, it looks good when they are dotted throughout.
‘I quite like putting tall plants near the front of a border,’ says celebrity gardener Monty Don in an episode of Gardener’s World. ‘You don’t want them all at the back – you want to be able to look through flowers as well as up to them.’
He reveals that in his own cottage garden, he has ‘deliberately tried to cultivate a jumble of soft colors’ and adds to it with plants that offer a ‘spike or spire of color’.
Don's recommended tall flowers for cottage backyards include foxgloves, verbascums, hollyhocks and delphiniums. Bear in mind that these plants usually require supports.
4. Choose plants that are easy to grow and care for
When researching cottage backyard ideas, it's easy to get swept up in the romance of cultivating overflowing borders. However, be careful of making too much work for yourself – especially if you aren't an experienced gardener.
'You will be kept busy mulching, watering, feeding, deadheading, cutting back, dividing, planting and tweaking the design,' says Clapp.
'Start small so that it doesn’t get out of control; learn how to keep the plants fed and looking abundant, then gradually increase the size.'
To ensure success, Hensel advises to choose easy-to-grow plants. 'Old-fashioned lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), mountain bluets (Centaurea montana), peonies, all kinds of hardy geraniums, daisies, Siberian iris (Iris siberica) – mix them up and plant them close together.'
It’s a good idea to include thoughtfully placed low-maintenance evergreen shrubs as they can act as a backbone, adding structure and year-round texture and keeping things looking green in every season.
‘Every gardener learns from their successes and mistakes, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes and experiment,' adds Hensel. ’There are no set rules for cottage gardening. Most importantly, have fun.'
5. Plant a meadow area in your cottage backyard
A meadow area that's left to naturally self-seed is a vital addition to cottage backyards that have enough space. Not only are wildflowers such as poppies, marigolds, and ox-eye daisies delightful to look at, but they are self-seeding, so will fill in gaps and settle where they please.
Wildflowers are also loved by pollinators such as bees and butterflies, which are essential to a healthy garden and the wider environment.
Even if you don't have lots of space, try to find a small corner or neglected area somewhere, and create a haven for wildlife in your cottage backyard.
6. Embrace container gardening
There are so many ways to use containers in a cottage backyard, whether they are dotted around patios, used to line pathways, or grouped together as a focal feature.
'Even if you live in a busy town or city, with only a small courtyard at your disposal, you can create a container cottage garden that conjures up images of summer days,' says Isabel Palmer, author of The Balcony Gardener.
'In the past, containers would have been anything going spare – whether this was an old trough, metal bucket, basin or a wooden half-barrel. You can recreate that look at home using containers made from classic materials, such as aged zinc, beaten metal, terracotta and wicker.
'I like to use galvanized metal dolly tubs and zinc planters, which are large and can be filled with an abundance of flowers.'
7. Create a 'secret' dining area
When thinking of cottage backyard ideas, don't forget to prioritize seating areas that will enable you to make the most of the space. One of the best ways to soak up the atmosphere is by eating outdoors.
While the usual spot for an al fresco dining area is on the patio next to the house, positioning it in a secluded spot, sheltered by trees and accessed through a rose arch, adds a magical air evocative of The Secret Garden.
All the better if it's positioned near deliciously fragranced plants that will get the taste buds going.
This feature was created by H&G's sister brand, Period Living magazine
Subscribe to Period Living for more inspiration.
Period Living is the UK's best-selling period homes magazine, and is also available in the US. A subscription provides you with all you need to know about caring for and improving a traditional house and garden in a classic English style.
8. Grow climbing plants in a cottage backyard
Sweet peas scrambling up pillars, roses growing over doorways, and honeysuckle creeping across walls – climbing plants add vertical interest and abundance to cottage backyards.
These plants are often fragrant, filling the air with their sweet scent and invigorating the senses.
'Climbers give background and can also be used among the profusion on rustic obelisks, while perennials, such as delphiniums, aquilegia, phlox and pinks, planted in clumps are the backbone, popping up year after year,' says Clapp.
'Traditionally hollyhocks were planted against the cottage wall, and today they immediately give a cottage feel, whether against the wall or towering out of a border.'
9. Add a meandering path
'The traditional view of a cottage garden is that it surrounds a quaint home adorned in scented roses and climbers, is a confined space with no lawn, and intersected with paths,' says Clapp.
However, these days there is no 'typical' design – and that is one of the joys of creating a cottage scheme.
So, you certainly don't need to follow the idea of no lawn, but adding a gently meandering path will add a romantic sense of whimsy to your cottage backyard. Gravel, brick, or paving stones are all great options.
See: Garden path ideas - inspiring ideas and design tips
'Choose plants that spill over paths to soften any hard edges,' adds Margaret Hensel. 'And if you add a path give it a goal. Let the path direct your eye (and your feet) to a bench, bird bath, or a statue for a closer look. Nothing is more frustrating in a garden than a path that has no purpose and goes nowhere.'
10. Use natural materials in your cottage backyard
Rustic, natural materials are the best complement to a cottage backyard. Invest in timber furniture and fencing, and use wicker or willow to support plants.
For real rustic appeal, source salvaged timber and repurpose it in your scheme. Timeworn materials make a garden feel like it is already established, and add aged charm.
11. Choose a soft pastel palette…
'Gentle, soothing tones and soft colors are the order of the day,' says Palmer. 'So look out for flowers in shades of purple, mauve, lilac and pink, and add whites and creams to lift the scheme.'
These soft shades will create a harmonious, romantic feel to your cottage backyard, and set a relaxing atmosphere.
12. …Or go bold with a riot of color
'Some cottage gardens, however, are a veritable riot of color, so don’t hold back from using hot and fiery colors,' adds Palmer.
As seen in this design, dahlias are wonderful for adding rich, late-summer color to a cottage backyard.
English Cottage Gardening for American Gardeners author Margaret Hensel is a big believer in using any color you like in a cottage backyard. 'Mix and match whatever suits your fancy,' she says. 'That’s the joy of cottage gardening – it's your palette.'
13. Add a swing seat
Perhaps one of the most delightful cottage backyard ideas is the addition of a swing seat.
What better way to while away a lazy summer's afternoon, than by gently rocking back and forth in the breeze, taking in the sights and scents of your garden?
Adding one beneath a timber frame or pergola gives the opportunity to grow climbing plants to surround yourself with beauty.
14. Fill your cottage backyard with roses
Few plants possess the beauty, fragrance and symbolism of roses. They are the perfect romantic addition to a cottage backyard, whether filling out borders, climbing walls or bursting out of pots on the patio.
Roses are hardy perennials, and require an annual prune, as well as feeding and mulching. You can deadhead repeat-flowering varieties to keep them blooming, but some species have beautiful red rose hips that you should leave alone to make a stunning feature in the autumn.
See: Rose garden ideas – for a colorful and sweetly scented outdoor space
15. Plant produce among the flowers
Traditionally, cottage backyards are productive as well as beautiful, supplying their owners with seasonal produce.
The fruits, vegetables and herbs are planted alongside other plants, which is a companion planting technique used to help ward off pests.
Consider incorporating raised garden bed ideas into your cottage backyard, as these will define these productive growing areas and enable you to better control your soil mix.
'No self-respecting cottage garden would be without a collection of herbs, as these were the mainstays of the cottage cooking pot and medicine chest,' says Palmer. 'Fragrant lavender is ubiquitous, but so are other herbs such as sage, marjoram, rosemary and thyme.'
See: Kitchen garden ideas – 10 easy ways to get started
16. Use an archway to frame your cottage backyard
One of the most simple yet effective cottage backyard ideas, archways add structure and definition. They also informally divide the garden into different areas and guide you down pathways.
Roses, clematis and jasmine are all great choices for growing over an archway in a cottage backyard.
17. Add character with vintage pieces
Cottage backyards should feel homey and lived in, not new and pristine.
Visit your local fleamarket or vintage store to pick up timeworn furniture and planters. Items such as milk jugs or troughs can make great planters.
Zinc and metal pieces make the perfect foil for flowers, while wooden items will blend in naturally with the garden.
18. Grow your own plants from seed
'One of the most intimate ways to form a relationship with your garden’s plants is growing them from seed,' says celebrity gardener Carol Klein, in a cottage garden special of BBC's Great British Garden Revival.
'Watching your seedlings grow into tall, proud plants will transform the way you see your garden. There are so many plants that you can grow from seed.'
See: Cottage decorating ideas – charming ways to get a characterful look
Many cottage garden plants will also happily self-sow, turning your backyard into a partly self-sustaining sanctuary with a life of its own. Over time, it will naturally evolve and take on its own unique personality.
As editor of Period Living, Britain's best-selling period homes magazine, I love the charm of older properties. I live in a rural village just outside the Cotswolds, so am lucky to be surrounded by beautiful homes and countryside, where I enjoy exploring. I am passionate about characterful interiors and heritage-inspired designs, but I am equally fascinated by a house's architectural elements – if I spot an elegant original sash window or intricate stained-glass front door, it fills my heart with joy. It's so important to me that original features are maintained and preserved for future generations to enjoy. My other passion is my garden, and I am slowly building up my planting knowledge, and becoming more confident at experimenting with growing my own. As well as editing Period Living, I am also co-editing the Country Channel of Homes & Gardens. In my previous roles, I have worked on Real Homes and Homebuilding & Renovating, writing about modern design and architecture, so my experience is broad – but my heart belongs to period homes.
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