Cottage and country style - BOLD VISIONS, GREAT DESIGNS - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Bold Visions, Great Designs

Cottage and country style


A small paved terrace enveloped by lush herbaceous and shrubby plants in pastel tones, with old-fashioned roses providing structure, epitomises romantic cottage and country styles.


CONFECTIONS OF FLOWERS, cottage and country gardens provide romantic settings for plant lovers. Cottage style is perfect for small plots, fusing beds of flowers, fruit and vegetables, while large gardens in the country offer space to accommodate a rich palette of shrubs, trees, perennials and bulbs.

The English tradition

If there are two styles that epitomise the essence of English tradition, they are cottage and country gardens. Although each is different in design and execution, both can be found in various permutations in gardens large and small throughout Britain. The styles also have a following worldwide and beautiful examples can be found in gardens from Japan to the United States.

Characterized by their focus on plants, the ebullience of flower and foliage is generated by all forms, from annuals, perennials and bulbs through to shrubs, trees and climbers. The balance of plant size and shape, their subsequent arrangement and the way they are managed delivers the styles’ individuality, and reflects the spirit and ambience of approach. Herbaceous perennials, which are essentially plants that die down in winter, underpin both styles and provide the main floral interest from spring to autumn. They are also the components for that quintessential English invention, the ‘herbaceous border’.

Cottage gardens

The cottage garden was born out of a stark necessity to grow food for those who worked on the land or lived in remote countryside communities. So the forerunners of the floral feast we see today were largely vegetable and fruit gardens, with perhaps a few favourite herbs and flowers included for cutting. ‘Florists’ flowers’, which are plants that were collected, grown and developed by ordinary working people, also became key elements of the design style in the early 19th century. Some, including pinks (Dianthus) and auriculas (Primula auricula), had been in cultivation for hundreds of years, but easily grown introductions, such as dahlias and chrysanthemums, were quickly embraced and added to the repertoire. A romanticised version of the cottage garden started to evolve in the latter half of the 19th century, fuelled by the social and artistic movements of the day and influenced by Victorian authors like Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson, who promoted a more natural style of planting. Swathes of new plants, brought to Britain by bands of enthusiastic plant hunters, became available to the public for the first time and were adopted by devotees to the cottage style.

Translating the style

The cottage garden remains as popular today as it was 100 years ago, but its high maintenance requirements have limitations. As such, it is a good solution for smaller, domestic spaces, where the intricacy of plant combinations is better appreciated and tending them is easier to manage. However, with careful plant selection and more robust groupings, larger schemes are perfectly possible and maintenance can be minimised.

The cottage garden planting style is one of seemingly relaxed abandon, where annuals and perennials are allowed to mingle freely, shot through with seasonal effects from bulbs, such as snowdrops, tulips and daffodils. Staple vegetables and fruit trees also find a place in these designs, with small flowering trees, such as lilac and laburnum, and shrubs, including old-fashioned roses and hydrangeas, providing a structural backbone. Swags of honeysuckle, roses and clematis are used to festoon windows and doorways. Plants are also allowed to naturalise in gravel or other aggregates, adding to the naturalistic look of the garden. Contemporary designers of cottage garden style often colour theme plantings, frequently in pastel shades, to create romantic, dream-like effects, or they may blend the flowers with ornamental grasses, blurring the line between cottage and naturalistic designs.

The flower beds in these designs are usually intersected with informal pathways made from turf, gravel, bark chips or rustic paving, such as old brick or reclaimed paving slabs.

Country abundance

The country garden is an iconic British style, which still finds a place in modern gardens, having been reinvented in countless ways over time. As the name suggests, the style developed to decorate the country seats of landowners and gentry, who had hitherto embraced the formal parterre gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries. A change in philosophy, driven by the Picturesque Movement in the mid to late 18th century, encouraged more natural planting designs, which were married to formal frameworks to create this lush, romantic style. The landscape was also decorated with recreational buildings, such as follies, statuary and decorative artifacts, while the planting, like that of cottage gardens, was influenced by late Pre-Raphaelite acolytes, such William Robinson, who advocated wild and naturalistic use of plants. The style was further embellished by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century, with the intricately woven, colour-themed plant groupings of Gertrude Jekyll, brought to life in the settings of Edwin Lutyens’ timeless architecture and use of natural materials. Examples can be seen at Hestercombe in Somerset and Jekyll’s own house at Munstead Wood in Surrey.

Contemporary interpretations

The modern country garden comprises an amalgam of elements. The garden may be divided with clipped hedges or walls into smaller compartments or ‘outdoor rooms’ close to the house, and planting designs are often themed or offer a range of visual experiences, such as single or double borders and water features. Geometric topiary or clipped and trained trees are used to punctuate the spaces, and statuary and seating, frequently made from rustic or local materials, provide focal points to complete vistas.

Architectural features, such as rose-clad pergolas and arbours, add drama and scale to the enterprise. Closely mown lawns provide the setting for these features and the planting, with gravel, brick or stone paviors used in highly trafficked areas. In larger gardens, the design is usually looser further from the house, with trees and shrubs, and naturalized bulbs and wild flowers set in grassland, and mown paths leading to secret or romantic refuges. Borrowed scenery and views to the countryside beyond may also form a part of the design, influencing the arrangement of the various elements and orientation of the design.


Decorative plantings of herbaceous plants have long been a feature of British gardens. In the 18th century, desirable perennial plants were collected together in the borders of country cottages, and these informal flower gardens were at the time acclaimed as a revolution in taste and sentiment. In 1844 the first double formal herbaceous borders were created at Arley Hall, near Manchester, which can still be seen today, but it was the creative influence of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that popularized their development and secured their future as staple elements of garden design. Notable examples are at Parham House in Sussex and Newby Hall in Ripon, North Yorkshire, acknowledged to be the longest in Europe.

Colour-themed plantings, such as the red borders at Hidcote in Gloucestershire, or progressions of colour, as seen at Killerton in Devon, also became popular in the 20th century. The ‘mixed border’, where shrubs are included to add structure, provide height and prolong the season of interest, developed as a way of alleviating the bare earth in winter, and many 21st century designers use this technique in modern settings, finding their inspiration from classic examples, such as the famous Long Border at Great Dixter in East Sussex.


Tom Stuart-Smith’s borders at his own garden in Hertfordshire


Colourful flowers and textured foliage flood an intimate terrace, the focus of which is the imposing pastel-coloured period-style furniture. Box topiary adds a formal architectural note among the melee of plants.



Eye-catching tulips throng these spring borders, tonally complementing the flowering shrubs. Self-seeding perennials, such as aquilegias, primulas and foxgloves, could also be included into the scheme.



Relaxed naturalistic-style planting adds the right stylistic note to this open, sunny garden in the country. Rusty-coloured foxgloves, white echinacea, purple sedums and ornamental alliums provide the mainstay of this summer display.




A country garden

The centrepiece of Arabella’s 30-year old garden at Gresgarth Manor is a series of colour-themed gardens, including the ‘Blue Border’ (left), comprising a mix of blue, mauve and pink-flowered perennials, interspersed with foliage plants. The beds, which run east-west, are 22m (72ft) long and 4.5m (15ft) deep, allowing generous plantings to create sumptuous effects. Drifts are repeated across the borders in a rhythmic, but not symmetrical, way to avoid predictable formality, and enveloped by yew hedges with intermediate buttresses subtly subdividing the spaces. Careful planning lies behind a succession of seasonal interest. Spring bulbs fill gaps until the plantings swell in summer, while spent stems and seedheads provide winter interest. An intricate cobbled pathway by artist Maggie Howarth surrounds four box cones, and an avenue of pleached limes truncates the view at the end.


One of the UK’s leading landscape designers, Italian-born Arabella has created more than 400 gardens worldwide during her illustrious 40-year career, including six RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal-winnng exhibits. She also won Best in Show in 1998. She has served as a trustee of Kew Gardens, a member of The Historic Parks and Gardens Panel of English Heritage and was awarded the RHS Veitch medal for her outstanding contribution to horticulture. Her practice is in central London.



1 Box cones

Eye-catching focal points and preludes to the planting beyond, this quartet of box cones anchor the scheme into the landscape.

2 Structural hedging

Clipped yew hedges enclose the garden and create a visual foil for the plantings; yew buttresses subdivide the expansive borders.

3 Formal pleaching

An avenue of pleached lime trees and a yew hedge truncate the vista through the blue borders, while white alliums and variegated Miscanthus grasses catch the eye.

4 Herbaceous borders

Perennials are woven in asymmetric drifts, with tall Delphinium and Eupatorium at the back, fronted by Nepeta, Achillea and geraniums.

5 Creative paving

Cobbles in various sizes and tones were used to create this intricately patterned decoration. Cobbles can be inserted in situ or made into preformed units.