Tame Your Cottage Garden

A mass of purple clematis cover a lamppost, swaths of daisies wave in the wind and roses drape over a picket fence. It’s summer, and after months of neglect, cottage gardens are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Whether it’s on a lake, pond or other rural setting, cottage gardens vary widely, but all seem to emanate an unfussy attitude, evoking an informal harmony with nature.  They tend to be populated with hardy perennials, interspersed with splashes of annuals and biennials for steady color. I recently surveyed a dozen cottages on Conesus Lake, part of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. Here are few ideas when you go about planning your cottage garden.

Trellises, arbors and pergolas beautifully accent many cottage gardens. One the most popular climbers are clematis, which depending on the region, bloom at different times from June through September. Depending on the type, they either grow on new growth, old growth or a mix of the two. So, consult your specific variety before trimming. All like “cold feet” or roots, and sun or partial shade. Some varieties need more help then others to make that climb. One small arbor I came across used clear fishing line, in a criss-crossed pattern, to support a pink-and-white striped Nellie Moser clematis. Another arbor constructed from grapevines, was draped a profusion of self-supported purple clematis.

clematis on arbor

Nellie Moser clematis is growing up this arbor via invisible fishing line


grapevine trellis

A grapevine arbor festooned with purple clematis provides an elegant entrance to a small vegetable garden.

Blend in natural and found objects: Along one road, I spied an old wheel barrel and then a small rowboat, both filled with container plantings. Nearby were two rain boots containing flowers. Roses covered a twig arbor made of locally sourced wood, leading guests from the driveway into the path down to the lake.


A lake resident commissioned this twig arbor from locally sourced wood; roses climb up one side and clematis the other, making for a dramatic entrance.

Take charge: Even if you’re aiming for that carefree, classic cottage look, it takes vigilance to achieve that balance. Original English cottage gardens got their look from self-seeding perennials, which spread easily. It was only later that gardeners exerted more control. A little too much neglect, and voila, vigorous plants and weeds can quickly overtake more delicate varieties, and ruin the look. I recently freed a bleeding heart and astilbe being crowded out by more aggressive neighbors.

Variety rules: Map out your garden by seasons, staggering bloom times. Also use different colors to accent each other. Take into consideration varying textures, forms and heights. My Mom uses plants such as hydrangeas, lilacs, Japanese Maples and a tree peony at her lake house to generate long-lasting visual interest.

mixed beds

Cranesbill geraniums, lady’s mantle, Flower Carpet roses and just a few perennials in this cottage garden.

Definition: Even if you’re going for that bushy look, your garden needs some kind of definition, like a picture needs a frame. It could be a walkway, a house or picket fence. And with the cottage look, often the more beat up the better. A rusty fence makes a perfect support for sweet peas.

sweet peas

A rusty fence makes a perfect support for sweet peas.

Sure, cottage gardens require work, but if you find yourself slaving over it constantly, then rethink what you’re growing, and consider something that requires less care. The whole point of a summer retreat is to relax and a garden can be part of that.

, , ,

15 Responses to Tame Your Cottage Garden

  1. Libby Turner July 11, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

    A cottage garden provides a quintessential summer scene of beauty, bounty, and life. But as you said, must not require maintenance time that robs from relaxation hours and active time playing in the sun and water. In northern Michigan, I find that hearty varieties of daisies and lillies are perfect in landscaped beds for that carefree splash of color and new life.

  2. Danielle Mergner July 11, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    I love the cottage garden look! Thanks for the tips.

  3. Theresa July 11, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    I love the many creative ideas. Thank you!

  4. L.Uhm July 12, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    I love cottage gardens. Good to know that they do take quite a bit of judicious planning and maintenance to achieve a “casual mixed-up look”. I am working on one of my own.

  5. jasmine July 12, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    I so wish I could be a better gardener! Patty, you inspire me in so many ways, but every time I have tried my hand at it, those aggessive types overwhelm not only the garden but also the gardner! (read: me.) And then it becomes, as you aptly write, work — more work than I have time for. (I even contemplated hiring a gardener to tutor the brown thumb out of me.)

    I have tried a trellis for our clematis–just like the ones you write about. Guess what? They died. I was so bummed that I vowed I would leave the others by our property line alone. Guess what? They flourished! And just yesterday, we drove past Washington Street in our neighborhood and saw a trellis BURSTING WITH PURPLE CLEMATIS! I wanted to stop and take a photo and show you.

    (BTW, what does it mean to have “cold feet” or roots”?)

    These are gorgeous photos and ideas. Thank you for the vision!

  6. Helen C July 15, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    It’s been a dream to get a trellis covered with clematis….just didn’t know where to start.
    Thanks for the helpful hints.

  7. Your Easy Garden Team July 15, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    Hi Jasmine,
    We’re glad to hear that you’re inspired – keep at it! “Cold Feet” and Cold Roots refers to plants that perform better if the base of the plant and/or roots are shaded rather than baking in the sun. The shade can simply be from some nearby plants, or from a fence or structure. Hope this helps. And please send those photos to our Your Easy Garden Facebook page – we’d love to see them!

  8. Patricia Riedman Yeager July 17, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    I used to put a garden gnome in front of my clematis to keep its “feet” or roots cold. I had another clematis that’s growing up behind my air conditioner condenser cell outside, which is a nice way to detract from the ugly machinery. In my Finger Lake travels I also found a clematis growing up a lilac bush. The options are endless. Good luck with your gardening!

  9. Jennifer Gervasio July 23, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    I have a clematis called “Princess Diana that is just gorgeous and a vigorous bloomer. I always mean to stake it in the spring and typically it gets out of hand before I get around to it. I’m trying to direct it toward my gutter downspout and I love the fishing line idea! Is anyone else getting attacked by Japanese beetles lately? They’ve destroyed my climbing roses!

  10. Your Easy Garden Team July 23, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    Hi Jennifer,
    We’ve found that some of the Neem products work well on Japanese beetles and are generally a safe, organic approach. Bayer Advance makes a spray that is also very effective but can end up killing the good and the bad insects at the same time. If your schedule allows, the best option is to go out with a container of hot soapy water in the early morning and/or early evening when they’re the least active, and knock them into the container (and obviously, leave them there until you know they’re dead). They are nasty little pests, that’s for certain!

  11. Cristina Burke July 26, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    We have been thinking of making some changes to our garden. This information has given us a starting point. Thanks!

  12. BJ July 29, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    I love the wildflowers in a cottage garden. Brown-eyed Susan’s Bloom proficiently in June July and Aug a do not require much water. I like the field daisy’s earlier in the spring. Hosta’s and Iris , Day Lilly’s and Gladiolas, I plant them with the Iris, Ascribe, help keep something in bloom at all times. I also like hollyhocks are very nostalgic and give it an old garden look. Can’t forget the favorite Peony, I love them. A beautiful plant even when not blooming dark green and glossy. La ender, Basel, Rosemary and with larkspur and marigold to help with fragrance and bug control. I love my garden and I like it full.

  13. M. Palermo July 30, 2013 at 1:52 am #

    I love the cottage garden look. Black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) mean summer to me along with Coreopsis, Monarda (Bee Balm), & Cone flowers. Once you plant a few Rudbeckia & coreopsis, you’ll always have plenty, thanks to the wind & the birds. They spread like wildfire, but just pull up unwanted ones in the spring after it rains or give some to a new gardener.

  14. sharon denning April 6, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

    Where can I get a large grapevine arbor like the one pictured with the purple Clematis?

  15. Your Easy Garden Team April 9, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

    Sharon, the best bet is to check with your local garden center or to go online. This one was purchased from the writer’s local supplier.

Leave a Reply