University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring, Summer News Article

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

Ailene King, Student Intern
University of Vermont

You don't have to travel to the English countryside to experience the charm and tranquility of an English cottage garden. They are very versatile and can thrive anywhere, even here in the states, including our northern regions.

Perhaps such gardens are popular because of the "natural" feeling they evoke. They look as if no planning was necessary to create their beauty. Not quite sure how to begin designing your own classic English cottage garden, compared to a formal border? Here are three simple steps to follow.

The first step is to select three to four main colors to create continuity within the garden. Stunning contrast is made possible by using perennial blooms of opposing colors. Variety can be achieved by using many shades (dark versions) and tints (lighter versions) of the main colors. Roses, delphiniums, and foxglove are traditional plant choices although you aren't restricted to these.

Although free flowing, English gardens do need a certain amount of structure. So the second step is to group flowers together without being symmetrical--either in width, or height. You can create balance and harmony within the bed with the shape of the blooms, leaf size, and texture.

Borders are often three feet or more wide and very curvy. They are more narrow at some parts and deeper in others. This bed design brings intrigue as to what is behind the deeper areas--the plant combinations that you stumble upon. An English garden is all about surprise.

A third important ingredient in an English garden is the "accessories" or in other words, the structures or the "whimsy." Often there is an entry--a gate, an arbor, or a trellis that has vines, such as clematis or roses, climbing on it. Other structures might be a bench or other garden furniture, or a water feature, a fountain and pool perhaps. For whimsy you might include statues, such as frogs, or antique watering cans.

If using potted plants, keep pots the same color. They can be different sizes and shapes, but keep the color because you are creating a foundation for the plantings. They don't have to be a neutral color like clay or white. Consider a bold color such a royal blue, with either blue flowers, or contrasting ones such as yellows. Such bold colors, although not traditional, are seen in some current day English cottage gardens.

If growing perennials, you can add new, changing, or continuous color with annuals. Violas, pansies, johnny jump-ups, and dianthus (pinks) are commonly used in English gardens. Don't be afraid to cut your flowers, too. The more you cut, the more blooms will come (especially with annuals and roses), and you can encourage some early season perennials like perennial salvias to rebloom.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles