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Get a Stress-Free Cottage Garden

Develop a low-maintenance garden without surrendering color or charm.

Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens®

By Julie Martens; Tips by Luke Miller


What Is Cottage Style?

"Cottage garden style is relaxed, colorful, and fun," says Darrell Trout, avid gardener, writer, and lecturer, whose own garden reflects his passion for easy-growing beauty. He believes that a cottage garden has perhaps less regard for rules than for doing what you really love.

The biggest difference between a formal garden and a cottage garden is that a formal garden tends to thrive on order and well-defined spaces; a cottage garden bubbles in cheerful tangles of flowers forming a kaleidoscope of hues and textures.

By following these six guidelines you’ll be able to cultivate your own corner of wild delight.

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  1. Small steps. "Don't create a monster that you don't have time to feed regularly," Trout says. "Keep your cottage garden small, and most of all, fun." Over time, as your confidence grows, increase the size. 
  2. Choose the Right Soil "Starting with good, rich, organic soil where plants will thrive with a minimum of watering and fertilizing cuts the work from the start," Trout says. He also recommends doing a soil test to learn the type of soil you have. Add organic matter yearly, either by purchasing compost or making your own. 
  3. Pick the Best Spot Much work in a garden comes from not having the right plant in the right place. As you gain gardening experience, Trout says, you can push the envelope. "But the healthiest plants -- ones that need less care -- are those that are in ideal conditions," he adds. 
  4. Select Strong Plants. "Choose high-performance, almost bulletproof plants," Trout says. "There is no absolutely right way or wrong way to create a cottage garden, so choose what you love."

    Some of Trout's favorite plants include spring-flowering bulbs, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), wild indigo (Baptisia australis), 'Stella d'Oro' or 'Happy Returns' daylily (Hemerocallis), New England aster (Aster novae-angliae 'Alma Potschke'), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Blue Spire').

    For foliage interest, try lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), lambs' ears (Stachys 'Helene Von Stein'), or blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca). Avoid high-maintenance roses. Trout suggests growing tough, disease-resistant 'Knock Out' shrub roses, Meidiland landscape roses, 'Betty Prior' (a Floribunda), or the old-fashioned climber 'Blaze'. 
  5. Cover soil. "Mulching helps maintain soil moisture levels and prevents weeds from growing," Trout says. "As organic mulch (bark, compost, or leaf mold) breaks down, it improves soil. Mulch also gives the garden a neater, unified look." 
  6. Make it automatic. Trade dragging a hose around for hands-free watering. "I like drip hoses, as it's easy to put the water exactly where you want it -- and not on the foliage or flowers," Trout says. "It's also more environmentally correct: Less water evaporates into the air." 

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Top Four Cottage Tips

Rely on hardscaping. Rocks, laid out in natural-looking formations and dug one-third of the way into the soil, are good year-round anchors that complement their flower companions. In addition, a picket or rustic fence makes a fitting backdrop to a cottage garden, adding order to the visual chaos of mixed plantings.


Add a fun accessory. It provides a convenient focal point, and, if you use it as a planter, a stage for plants so they're not lost among their peers. Old wagons, fertilizer spreaders, bins, and baskets make good additions. Use them in moderation to avoid a junkyard effect

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Use long-lasting annuals. Melampodium blooms all summer without any coddling. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella) can't match melampodium's length of bloom, but it offers ornamental seedpods that last into winter. Love-in-a-mist also reseeds itself without becoming a pest, making your job easier.



Make a path through the garden. Paths offer visual relief from crowded plantings. More important, they make the garden more welcoming and easier to maintain. Consider who will be walking through the garden and in what kind of shoes. This will help you decide whether to go with a soft surface such as gravel or wood chips, or a firm surface such as concrete. A grass path is an easy alternative where foot traffic is low, but it will require regular mowing.




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