How to create English Garden

When I first pitched the idea of an English garden, or cottage garden, to my husband, Nico, he asked, “How will we mow the lawn?”

There won’t be a lawn,” I replied. He looked at me like I was an alien with six heads.

I explained that an English garden or cottage garden is a garden where the plants are grouped so close together that they crowd out the weeds and grass. It’s basically organized chaos. However, it’s also a very effective use of space. The original idea behind the English or cottage garden was to use the land available to produce the highest possible yields. Since cottage gardeners typically had small plots of land, they planted herbs, flowers, and vegetables all together. They practiced crop rotation to get the most of what they had and to follow the pattern of the seasons. This means that when one crop’s cycle was done, they planted another crop.

Since we didn’t want to spend the money for expensive lawn care, and since we’re both from the country, we decided to go ahead with the English garden. To help Nico visualize what the end product would look like I shared some pictures from Stephen Westcott-Gratton’s Creating a Cottage Garden in North America.

Creating an English Garden
Creating an English Garden

Decide what kind of English garden you want – large or small, grass or no grass

While some people choose to have grass and small English gardens, I chose to fill my whole front yard, which is fairly sizable, with plants, trees, fruits and vegetables. (Raspberry bushes, asparagus, and strawberries are good filler plants for an English garden). There are many beautiful yards with nice grass and areas cordoned off for what I call min-English gardens that are quite lovely. For me though, there is something liberating about planting flowers and plants all over the front yard with abandon.


Work around existing plants and trees in your yard

To start, pick the main plants you know you want. Determine which areas in your yard are full sun, partial sun and shade. Think about how much space you’d like to utilize. Do you have large trees you need to work around? Or do you have an empty yard with virtually no trees and plants? If you don’t have many plants, decide upon the trees and larger plants you’d like first. In my yard, I had two large Weeping Norway Spruce trees to work around. In order to make the best use of my available space I chose smaller semi-dwarf and dwarf tree species (Weeping Cherry, Japanese maple). You may also choose larger trees that can easily be pruned to the size you desire, for example, smoke trees and paw paw trees. I then worked around larger items, first planting roses, since they take up a significant amount of space, then filling in the garden with peonies, irises, Canterbury bells, phlox, bee balm, English thyme, cloud meadow rue, baby’s breath, astilbes, Canterbury bells, etc. You may have noticed that not all of the plants I’ve used are typical English garden plants. You may choose to use all English garden plants or just to apply the English garden concepts to plants that you like.

Creating an English Garden
Creating an English Garden

Kinds of Borders

Decide if you want borders and where you want taller plants. Some people like to use hedges of roses or short fences as borders. I chose irises and rocks as borders in many areas of my garden. Remember in an English garden, you want the plants close together. After you’ve planted your border plants, dig holes as close as a foot apart, and just start planting. Once the plants begin to grow, they’ll crowd out the weeds. I suggest using markers to make sure you remember where you planted! I’ve dug up plants I’ve already planted a number of times when I’d forgotten they were there. Fortunately, most of the time I was able to replant these plants. I now use circles of rocks to mark where my plants are! It’s a good way to make sure plants don’t get stepped on. Also, it helps you keep track of where you’ve planted when planting time comes around again.

Creating an English Garden
Creating an English Garden

Easy starters or gap fillers – bulbs/wildflower seeds

Drifts of plants are another lovely way to design an English garden. For example, I planted groups of tulips and wildflowers (cottage garden mix) around my Graham Thomas and Abraham Darby English roses. Not only did these other flowers create beauty, they shaded the roses from some scorching sun when it was over ninety degrees for a month straight this summer. The first time my tulips bloomed en mass and everyone commented on how nice the yard looked, Nico didn’t bother me as much about mowing the lawn. It came up a few more times, but I think as the plants started to grow more closely together, he really started to understand the concept of an English garden.

Mass bulb planting helps to fill in space around trees. I did another mass tulip planting in addition to a mass crocus planting under my Weeping Cherry since the tulips and crocuses flower before the Weeping Cherry blooms. Thus, there is still plenty of light for them before the Cherry leafs out and creates more shade. I then added bee balm, mint, and red creeping sedum, around existing iris and cornflower plants.


Suggested plants

Full sun: bayberry bush, lilies, blue angel climbing rose, Abraham Darby English rose, Heritage English Rose, Fair Bianca English rose Graham Thomas English rose, Japanese irises, Dutch iris mix, peonies, sage, tomatoes, strawberries, curl free peach tree (if you have room), wisteria, forsythia, wooly thyme and English thyme, dill, delphiniums, lavender, cottage garden wildflower mix, Canna lilies (best to plant in plastic pots in New England – that way pots can be brought inside and left in basement over the winter), sedum. Harry Lauder’s walking stick tree (non-grafted).

Partial shade/shade: hostas, astilbes, mint, lilies, cinnamon fern, smoke tree (though may have the prettiest blooms in full sun), bleeding hearts, lily of the valley, hellebore, primrose, ostrich fern, creeping myrtle, bugleweed, fairy wings, Bethlehem sage.

Creating an English Garden
Creating an English Garden

The colors and kinds of plants you like will determine the look of your English garden. There’s plenty of work to do so if you are looking forward to a new project, an English garden may be for you!