Designing a Traditional English Garden

//Designing a Traditional English Garden

The English Cottage Garden

An English Cottage Garden – the very words put one into a dreamy, scented state of relaxation.

Informal borders and winding paths, eccentric wheelbarrow sculptures, veg patches and roses drapped over every fence and up every tree- a Tom’s Midnight Garden for every plant lover.

Like a local cafe, the most common garden we are asked to design is a Full Traditional English.

Yet I ask people in quite a lot of detail what they mean as this can mean many things to different people. Do they want ornamental grasses? Topiary? A fountain in a formal pond?

Indeed the very idea of an English Cottage Garden is a recent one that is evolving all the time

It was only in the Elizabethan times, when an expanding middle class became more prosperous, that livestock and medicinal herbs, plus basic edibles like apples and potatoes gave way to the growing and appreciation of Flowers! Pretty colours and shapes for their own sakes were normally only the province of the wealthy.

Today if you did an inventory of the most famous plants in a typical English Cottage Garden today most of them come from all over the world! Lavender from France,Azaleas from China, Tulips from Afghanistan!

One example to mention here. The Penstemon range is so long flowering with its delicate bell flowers on tall spikes it is a perfect English Cottage Garden Plant even though it is from North America and Asia!

So can we squeeze out an essential definition to help us in the design process?

To help us let’s take a classic combination of English Cottage border plants.

Tall Hollyhocks at the back of the border, with great windows of the transparent structure in front in the form of 5 foot Fennel plants letting us see through to the big Hollyhock blooms. Floating in front like clouds around these two taller plants we might have Gypsophila ‘Bristol Fairy’ and the coop parsley Selenium. As our focal point we might have a lovely deep pink shrub rose and if we are going for a blue and pink colour scheme we might have Catmint, Penstemons, spikes of pale purple Delphinums and Lupins. At the front we may have a splash of Red Valerian, some softer Lavender and silver Lamb’s Ears with bright green Oregano foliage and some white Allysum. And though all this great Allium Mount Everest and Purple Sensations bursting though like fireworks.

And maybe a path that runs through this border to a vegetable patch so that you feel enveloped by the planting.

This planting combination says everything. The informal grace of the plants, combined not just for their colour but also for their different heights, leaf size and tonal qualities. There is a lack of straight lines, edibles are mixed with flowers and heights are irregular. Another quality is the woven tapestry effect. A good English garden derives its power from appearing artless, as if it had never been designed but that the plants grew and found cohabitation with each other harmoniously. A kind of relaxed democracy of plants compared to the more formal gardens where rows of Yew and Buxus march up and down the drive. A Garden that is friendly and bountiful, supporting the day to day activities of a family.

So if you are thinking of designing your own Cottage Garden think also about these principles not just particular plants.

Below are some categories of plants that will help with creating the atmosphere that you want.

Rambling plants

The garden we have in mind is tumbling and plants have the permission to be curious.

Grapes, Roses and Clematis grown on pergolas, fences and up trees. Nasturtiums at ground level with their bright orange and yellow edible flowers or climbing up a shed. Fragrant sweet peas grown near the back door in generous pots.

Focal point plants

These are ones that grab attention. They are bursts of colour and shape with the other plants around them chosen to compliment them. They might be a succession of shrub roses, Hydrangeas, Lilacs or a stand of miniature Philadelphus Manteau d’Hermine.

For focal pint you could introduce some evergreen structure like Buxus or Hebe balls or Yew columns and of course antique pots and fountains.


The English Cottage Garden is always reinventing itself, no more so with the mixing up of flowers and edible plants. Vegetables like Chard and Rhubarb, small fruit bushes like Gooseberry and Raspberries, plus herbs such as Sage, Mint, Sweet Woodruff and Feverfew can all hold their own in a mixed border. Plus you can have the clean lines of a raised vegetable bed surrounded by the rest of your beds and only reached by a journey through the more informal tumble of other plants.


Try these for scent: Jasmine, both deciduous and evergreen, Daphne odora, Wallflowers, Lavender ‘Hidcot’, old Heritage Roses and Lilly of the Valley. Plus you can grow Camomile between the stepping stones and use annuals such as Nicotiana.


Many people are trying out hot coloured borders. In some case you may need to introduce more exotic plants, yet in most cases you can choose the more passionately coloured version of old classics like Calendular, Monksood, Peonies, Lillies and Oriental Poppies

For the more gentle pallet of colours you have your Sweet Williams, Primroses, Stocks and Phlox.

Trees and Shrubs

Bearing in mind we are looking for more relaxed shapes with an eye to being both beautiful and practical, small feature trees might include the Crab Apple and Sorbus varieties as well as Pear and Apple trees (they can come as dwarf, column or spreading shapes in different sizes)

Also don’t forget the maligned Buddlea- it is so generous for insects and the unsightly trunk can be hidden by planting Choysia, Hardy Fuchias or a good Rosa rugosa in front of it.

Maybe the main thing to say is don’t panic- an English Cottage Garden by its very nature is woven together with different plants used for different functions. If you put your design hat on the questions are quite simple:

Is the garden working hard for me?

Is it beckoning me with tastes, fragrances and bright flowers?

Is it a graceful place in which I can immerse myself, both magical and unpredictable?

What to do in April?

Lots, basically!

Start planting Perennials and Shrubs- the soil is nice and moist and warming up.

The majority of vegetables can be sow outdoors now as with annuals and wildflowers directly into cleared spaces in your beds.

Feed and mulch all your plants.

Lawns can be scarified for the last time and given their first mow.

Towards the end of the month you can take a trip to your nursery and buy some Dahlias and they can be planted in well draining soil.

Begin your snail and slug sentry duty

Where to visit in April?

Pashley Manor, East Sussex

Pashley Manor Gardens is known to be “one of the finest gardens in England” It was once the home of the Boleyns and is a romantic landscape full of colour and interest. Bluebells, wisteria and thousands of tulips are just some of the plants are the things to watch out for this month. The Tulip Festival at the end of this month features over 100 different varieties.

By |2019-03-02T11:30:15+00:00March 2nd, 2019|Articles|Comments Off on Designing a Traditional English Garden

About the Author:

In 2006 I formed Glorious Gardens, gathering together skilled practitioners to offer not just design but implementation of these designs and maintenance packages where we could look after the gardens once we had created them. Throughout my career I have designed gardens to inspire people with the heart aching beauty of nature, with shapes, colours, moods and proportions to pleasure the body and calm and delight the mind. I am also an artist who works with colour and abstract shapes and I bring this sensitivity to the 4 dimensions of a garden. I am very good at listening to clients and I’m able to draw out the essence of what a client wants for their outdoor space.