Our mission is to share the wonders of the natural world by publishing books from experts in the fields of gardening, horticulture, and natural history. Grow with us.

Cultivating Garden Style: Cottage au courant

by Timber Press on October 21, 2014

in Design

Informal, quirky, and engaging characterize this garden style.

Cottage gardens hold near-universal appeal, as they are often the gardens of our parents and grandparents. Born of necessity, the cottage garden was the original homesteader’s paradise. Always an overflowing, informal place where chickens might mingle with kids and bikes and vegetable patches, as well as the occasional artistic work of a neighbor or the homeowner, the cottage garden remains a lively place where there is always something going on.


Image: Karen Arnold

Nothing marks a cottage garden more clearly than lots of purposeful plants grown for your own unique uses and desires. Do you love strawberry rhubarb crisp, blowsy flowers, and the smell of lavender (as I do)? Well then, your first priority should be to figure out where a rhubarb plant will thrive (for some reason, I have always had the best luck at the base of a wall or fence) and start planning around it. You may as well line a path to get to it with lavender and peonies, and use strawberries as ground cover. But perhaps you will find the rhubarb grows best right smack in the middle of your existing lawn, and if this is the case, you will have to resolve a way to make it look like something other than a strange, leafy weed in the middle of a grassy desert. So you must anchor it, plant around it, create a logical and practical reason to go to it, and a beautiful way to enjoy it once to you arrive. And suddenly you have the start of a cottage garden plan. This grow-it-because-you-love-it attitude is the basis of this style and you can use the practical attributes of what you love most to map a layout that will fully emerge with time.

Keeping the cottage garden modern, or au courant, requires a healthy avoidance of messiness and chaos, which can easily take over. Repeat plants—avoiding as much as possible the idea of one of each. Tie the garden together with color or a strong redundancy in materials. Treat your cottage garden like any other room in your actual cottage or home. Make sure there is a tidy put-away place for everything—from plants and garden tools, to bikes and toys and chickens or small livestock. If everything has a place, the garden will be full but retain a calming sense of organization.

Found objects turned focal-point sculpture, edging made from repurposed objects, and plants traded over the fence should always find an easy home in a cottage garden.

There are some rules (though not many) to follow when planning and shaping your modern cottage garden. Let paths meander as they need to. Let travel routes and destinations evolve from either necessity or desire. Necessity might dictate quick access to the compost heap and a straight line to the front door; desire might lazily navigate you to the base of a beautiful tree or a sunny spot offering the perfect view of a favorite flower.


Image: Michael Garland

Indeed, abundance is the soul of this garden style. Encourage plants to self-seed, migrate around the garden, and bump elbows with each other. Don’t fret when one thing starts tumbling down over another; in fact, celebrate unexpected successes.

Populate your cottage garden with plants you love or for which you have special uses. Homegrown bouquets of cut flower favorites are particularly rewarding fruits of your labor, as are tinctures from herbs and special preserves.


Images: Yoko Nekonomania, Kealan O’Neil, Acid Pix, Ryan Somma

Perennials and self-seeding flowers are common in the cottage garden, but they should be anchored with evergreen shrubs or trees that will provide a backdrop to the early spring ephemerals, give height to the garden, and provide interest in winter.

Cottage gardens typically have a defined boundary—the white picket fence is a classic—but think about using plant materials instead. A low boxwood hedge will work, but perhaps more interesting is a hedge of santolina, lavender, catmint, germander, or dianthus. Varieties of grass, holly, pieris, or (if it is perennial where you live) rosemary can provide somewhat taller hedging options.

Plant in multiples, then have multiple clumps to keep messiness at bay. As you do with textiles, take care to choose complementary and harmonizing colors and styles. Embrace ornamental grasses or native plants that are atypical of the historic cottager’s garden. Unexpected twists on a style give a place personality. Try picking a couple favorite plant pairings (I love white daisies and bright orange poppies) and repeat the combo all around the garden.

Consider adding clematis, roses, or other climbing plants to soften the vertical architecture of the garden. Let them romantically meander as they wish.

Modern takes on classic furniture, industrial-looking containers, and playful checkerboard paving toughen up the feminine lines of the cottage and can help to organize space. But don’t lose the classic charm of the style. A cheeky (but subdued) leopard print fabric for accent is unexpected, yet works with the urban styling.

Avoid ornate pieces to keep the look airy and modern. And remember, what looked good in your grandmother’s garden will likely look good in this garden—be it French bistro chairs or something found at your local resale shop. Often all that’s needed is a slick of new paint in a fresh hue. Recurring shapes help the garden come together. Bee skeps, willow plant supports, and similarly cone-like shrubs will lend a nice rhythm. Add classic French striped cushions to the chairs in a cheery set of colors for a spark that keeps the rhythm from putting you to sleep.

Since the cottage is all about casual and homey, feel free to mix and match shapes (furniture sets are beyond boring), but avoid a lot of bulky pieces that can overwhelm. Opt instead for easily moved furniture—you want to always keep your options open so you can make like a cat and follow the sun, or perch yourself near the prettiest, best-smelling thing in bloom. From hanging planters to wicker chairs, the cottage garden is full of charm and functional quirk. Play with a single color theme to define a space, bring personality, and set off plants. A flower-picking basket and eccentric plant supports will help you grow and enjoy fresh cuttable flowers such as peonies.

A walk through the arbor and down the path to the comfortable glider sofa is made all the better with layers of beautiful details such as wire bed edging and festive bunting overhead. Bunting is an easy garden craft and can add flair when strung between trees or across a lawn. Cut it in scallop shapes rather than traditional triangles for an unexpected twist. Layers of exotic kantha blankets continue the pattern theme and will make the glider sofa all the more cozy.

In an updated cottage garden, the typical riot of color and plants can be kept tidy with a controlled color palette, a balanced layout, and trimmed hedges.

Marquette created this garden to go with his cottage-style house in Oklahoma City. The site is not particularly roomy, but by editing and making good use of what was available, he managed to make the garden feel quite expansive. The many shades of evergreen (provided by wintergreen and Japanese boxwoods, foster holly, Thuja ‘Green Giant’, lilyturf, and fescue sod) not only provide structure but give a restful, year-round color palette—important in this region, where autumns and winters can seem long. Add a fresh green door, green container plantings, and just a few splashes of purple-leaved plants, and the edited cottage garden stays serene and peaceful.

You can see more of Marquette Clay’s cottage au courant in this article from Southern Living.

You can also find more cottage au courant garden style ideas on Rochelle’s Pinterest page.


greayer_rRochelle Greayer is editor of Pith + Vigor, creator of the popular blog Studio ‘g’, co-editor of Leaf Magazine, and weekly columnist for Apartment Therapy. A graduate of the English Gardening School in London, she spent ten years designing gardens for international clients and earned a coveted medal from the Royal Horticultural Society for her garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower show. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, studiogblog.com.


Click image for a look inside this book:


“Offers needed guidance for designing outdoor space in a way that helps gardeners bring unique personality to their living, growing outdoor décor.”—Publishers Weekly

Previous post:

Next post: