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Cottage garden ideas: inspiration from some of Norfolk’s prettiest gardens holiday cottages

Cottage garden ideas: inspiration from some of Norfolk’s prettiest gardens

Ruth 19 May 2022

With beds and borders stuffed to bursting with brightly coloured blooms, froths of foliage and glorious greenery, and mingled with the sound of bees buzzing and the scent of blossom and herbs on the breeze, a cottage garden is a delight for the senses and a fantastic addition to any home. 

But cottage gardens don’t have to be complicated – or expensive – to create.

Whether you dream of having a sprawling space or just want to jazz up your patio, we’ve taken inspiration from some of our cottages’ prettiest gardens and sourced some top tips from one of Norfolk’s best gardeners too.

Read on to discover the very best cottage garden ideas to transform your outdoor space.

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Cottage garden FAQS

Lizzie Fox of The Rose Press GardenCredit: The Rose Press Garden

We’ve teamed up with Lizzie Fox, of The Rose Press Garden, just outside Norwich, to answer some cottage gardening FAQs.

Cottage gardens aren't too formal, so anything goes. 

If you are looking at a blank space then I'd recommend creating flower beds, paths and seating areas. Once you have the borders dug then you may need to incorporate some organic matter to improve the soil. Then get planting! 

You could choose a colour scheme; my garden consists of pinks, whites, blues and purples, so I avoid yellows, reds and oranges. Once you know the colours you'd like, then you can get seed sowing. Cottage gardens are full of ornamental flowers so you could buy some flower seed packets and get them growing.

If you wanted to add plants for structure, then roses are a brilliant choice. Bare root roses can’t be planted until April.

Plus, a cherry blossom tree or an apple tree could be a lovely feature for adding height to a cottage garden.

Cottage gardens are beautiful, but there is no clear definition; many years ago, it was a mix of edibles, flowers and livestock but, as our gardens have developed to be more aesthetic these days; cottage gardens are now synonymous with ornamental flowers.

The hard landscaping used in a cottage garden is also very different compared to a Mediterranean garden or contemporary garden. Cottage gardens tend to use natural materials such as wood, shingle and bricks. 

A cottage garden can be as high or low maintenance as you want it to be. With cottage gardens, because there are lots of ornamental flowers, the flowers must be deadheaded throughout the summer once they have gone over. 

Plus, feeding plants throughout the summer months can prolong and increase flowering. It is cost-effective to grow a lot of the flowers from seed, so this can be high maintenance when compared to planting perennials, but will save lots of money in the long run. 

Cottage garden paths can be a huge range of options: anything from brick pavers to a pea shingle path, to a bark path that you replace and top up every year. 

The wonderful thing about cottage garden paths is that they can get away with being rustic. I'm not a landscaper but I laid some brick pavers in my garden and they're not completely straight and even, but I think this adds to the cottage garden effect. 

I'd also take a look at the natural surroundings and local landscape – if certain materials are prominent in your area then you may prefer to choose these. You'll also want to look at your materials alongside your house and any outbuildings like sheds or summer houses to ensure there is consistency. 


How to choose the best cottage garden plants

Plant an abundance of flowers

An abundance of flowersCredit: The Rose Press Garden

There are so many cottage garden flowers that it can be hard to know where to begin. Popular English cottage garden plants include geraniums, phlox, Delphiniums and lavender which will all add a mix of height and colour to any space. Other common cottage garden plants include foxgloves, sweet Williams and sweet peas.

Lizzie’s best cottage garden plants include roses, peonies and cutting flowers such as Nigella, Cosmos and hollyhocks.


Plant a range of annuals and biennials

Annual and biennial flowersClockwise from left: Hollyhocks, Ammi Majus (credit: The Rose Press Garden), and Cosmos

A good mix of annuals – plants that die after a single season – and biennials – plants which need two years to complete their life cycle – will ensure your cottage garden has both longevity and variety.

Lizzie’s favourite annuals include: “Cosmos, candytuft and Ammi majus, which are all good options for a cottage garden border.

Cosmos 'Double Click Bon Bon Rose' is a very pretty ruffled pink Cosmos, whereas Cosmos 'Purity' is a simple white open-centred Cosmos which are great for pollinators. I like to grow a mix of varieties to create the cottage garden effect.

Lizzie also recommends growing biennials such as honesty and hesperis, which she says: “are brilliant options to grow this summer for flowers the following spring.

Foxgloves and Hollyhocks are also great options. Digitalis purpurea is the classic foxglove variety but there are some gorgeous alternatives such as Digitalis 'Suttons Apricot' which is a gorgeous peach colour or hollyhock 'Chater's Double Pink' which is a ruffled double-petalled hollyhock which look amazing at the back of borders for height.


Help the bees with pollinator-friendly planting

Help the bees by planting lavenderCredit: The Rose Press Garden

We all know it’s important to save the bees, and one of the best ways of doing this is by adding pollinator-friendly plants to your garden.

It’s not hard to do; many bee-friendly plants are amongst some of the most popular cottage garden plants in the UK, so chances are, you may have already thought of including them.   

Lizzie’s favourite is lavender, which she says is “a lovely pollinator-friendly option in cottage gardens”.

She adds: “You could try English lavender which needs to be pruned after flowering to keep it compact and bushy.

Norfolk is home to the National Collection of lavender - why not take a visit on your next holiday for some horticultural inspiration?


Include traditional varieties

Eric's CottageEric's Cottage in Whissonsett

A cottage garden wouldn’t be a cottage garden without the addition of traditional plants, which are sure to give your outdoor space that timeless, elegant feel.

Traditional cottage garden flowers include roses, delphiniums, honeysuckles and hydrangeas, which all boast myriad varieties to suit any space or colour scheme.

Take roses, for example. It’s thought there are over 150 species of roses and thousands of hybrids, so it can be hard to know where to start.

Lizzie’s favourite cottage garden roses include: “Shrub roses such as 'Boscobel' from David Austin Roses, or 'Novalis' shrub roses from Peter Beales Roses, which are both fantastic options for borders.

You could also choose a climbing rose up a structure such as Rosa 'Generous Gardener' from David Austin Roses which is a gorgeous pale pink.

Alongside your country garden roses, Lizzie also recommends adding “Spirea and Philadelphus for structure and pretty pollinator-friendly flowers that complement the cottage garden flowers.


Follow the rule of three

Follow the rule of three

Once you’ve chosen your plants, it’s time to get planting!

Lizzie has a golden rule for ensuring your planting scheme is full, aesthetic and diverse.

Always plant plants in threes,” she reveals, “as this helps to create unity and a fuller and more interesting border.

She also advises: “Avoid dotting plants around borders – particularly with bulbs too they're best planted en masse.


Think about seasonality

Amelanchier and cherry blossomAmelanchier (left) and cherry blossom

You want your cottage garden to give you pleasure from the first shoots of green in spring to the dying embers of autumn, so it’s crucial to think about seasonality when designing your cottage garden.

Lizzie recommends adding Amelanchier trees to your cottage garden which are, “gorgeous for blossom in spring, red leaves in autumn and wonderful berries for the birds”.

She also says: “Apple trees and cherry blossom trees are very pretty cottage garden trees – there are lots of varieties out there so research the best one for the size of your garden.” You can enjoy the blossom in spring and reap the rewards of the fruit in the autumn!"

You could also think about choosing some cottage garden perennials, as these plants flower year after year, and will be sure to add some structure and colour to your garden.

Perennial cottage garden plants that will last throughout the season – and come back again the next – include hostas, Rudbeckias, Alchemilla mollis, Aquilegia and salvia. 


Play with height and depth

Rose arches create height in a gardenCredit: The Rose Press Garden

To create a full and abundant cottage garden, it’s important to think about the height of your planting arrangements. Ideally you want a good mix of tall cottage garden plants and shorter varieties to create a visual spectacle.

Lizzie shares how to get the look.

When planting a cottage garden border, think about the heights – you want to place the tallest plants towards the back of the border. Great options are larkspur, hollyhocks and Ammi majus.

Then you want to plant the middle height plants in the middle of your borders – Cosmos and Godetia are great options. Then sow candytuft, Gypsophila and Nemophila at the edges of borders at the front. This will help when you look at borders to see all the plants.

You could also consider adding cottage garden trees, like apple and cherry mentioned above, to add more variety.

Rose arches and pergolas are also lovely features in cottage gardens for adding height and even more flowers,” Lizzie adds. 


How to find the best cottage garden layouts

Make the most of your space with borders

Mews CottageMews Cottage in Binham

If you want a good mix of cottage garden flowers and lawn or patio, borders are a great cottage garden design. You can stuff them full of flowers and trees to create that rambling, relaxed garden feel while still preserving space for playing, dining and lounging or a patio or lawn.

Lizzie agrees that a cottage garden border layout is a great way to make the most of your space.

Wide borders are my favourite thing to see in any garden as there is plenty of room to grow flowers. I recommend borders be at least 1 metre wide to create an impact,” she advises. 


Create order with paths and edging

Ivy CottageIvy Cottage in Ingoldisthorpe

Another great idea for a cottage garden layout is to incorporate a classic English cottage garden path leading through the foliage.

It’s up to you which materials you use for your path, or whether you also choose to incorporate cottage garden path edging – whatever you opt for, a garden path is one hallmark of some classic English country garden décor.

If you’re using brick for your path, Lizzie advises: “Think about the way the bricks face. Having them sideways can slow the person down, whereas facing them long ways further up the path has scientifically shown people to speed up. If you know there are areas where you'd like people to slow down to take in a view or a certain planting scheme or feature, you can change the way you use the brick pavers.

I'd also think about the 'line of desire' in any garden – there is no point adding a wiggly and winding path around the edge of a garden if it is easier and quicker to walk straight through the middle as the outside path simply won't be used. Really think about how you're going to use your garden before you add any paths.

And, if you have grass edges then get a pair of edging shears – this creates a sharp neat edge to your borders and will really make a difference to how your garden looks overall.”


Build in some secret seating areas

Garden CottageGarden Cottage in Wellingham

If you want your outdoor space to feel like the Secret Garden from the novel, then building in hidden zones and secret seating areas is a great trick.

In my garden I have a seating area close to the house and also under a pergola towards the back of the garden,” says Lizzie. “I like cottage garden layouts that have areas for seating and hidden places for benches.”


Add some pizzazz with a water feature

A cottage garden water feature

If you really want to bring some flair to your garden, just add water. A cottage garden water feature can add serenity and tranquillity to your garden, reinforce the rustic, natural look and add a stylish focal point.

Ideas for cottage garden water features include a pretty wildlife pond, a stone fountain that could either be free-standing or wall-mounted, or a pouring jug into a trickling stream. And don’t forget the classic bird bath, which will ensure that feather friends flock to your cottage garden all year round.


How to work with the space you have

Create a low maintenance cottage garden

LittlewickLittlewick in Northrepps

Cottage gardens don’t have to be big and blousy extravaganzas; in fact, there are plenty of low-maintenance cottage garden ideas which will save you time and effort.  

Choose long-flowering perennials for your cottage garden such as geraniums, yarrow and lavender – these will not only last all season but will return year after year too.

Annuals such as Nigella, poppies and Cosmos also have long flowering seasons and often can be sown directly into a prepared site in your garden.

Grass can be high-maintenance and will need frequent mowing come the spring and summer, so you could incorporate paved or chipped areas as well as hardscaping such as rocks and other sculptural elements to add visual interest.

When it comes to the warmer summer months, watering can be a chore, but by investing in automatic watering systems, the hard work is done for you leaving you more time to relax and enjoy the pretty views with a drink in hand!


Think about light and shade

Harvest MoonHarvest Moon in Aylsham

If your cottage garden dreams are dashed by a shady spot, no need to worry. There are many cottage garden plants for shaded areas that can thrive even in darker conditions.

Lizzie agrees: “I think there is a misconception that shady gardens are dull or that there isn't much choice, but this really isn't the case. There are plenty of absolutely gorgeous shady plants, especially lots with really beautiful, lush foliage.

I'd recommend plants which have white flowers as this can lighten up a shady dark area.

The thing that can really make a shady area shine is the choice of spring and summer bulbs- I love recommending bluebells, snowdrops and wood anemones in any shady or woodland areas.”


Tell the difference between dry and damp shade

A shady cottage garden

It’s also important to learn the difference between dry shade and damp shade, as this can influence the plants you choose for your shady cottage garden. So how do you know which is which?

Take a look at your garden – if your garden is too wet and has many damp patches, this is damp shade. However, if there are areas in your garden where rain seldom falls and the water is instead drawn up from the soil, this is dry shade.

For damp shade areas, I'd recommend plants such as Hostas, Solomon's Seal and Astilbes. Thalictrum and hydrangeas can look beautiful planted together,” recommends Lizzie.

For dry shade options such as foxgloves, hellebores and Astrantia can be great choices for colour and interest.”


Work within your budget

Share seedlings with other gardenersCredit: The Rose Press Garden

You may have dreams of your cottage garden rivalling something created by the RHS, but maybe your bank balance doesn’t quite match your ambitions.

There are plenty of cottage garden ideas on a budget to help you realise your horticultural dreams, from getting free seeds to reusing items you already have around the house.

Lizzie agrees: “What is so brilliant about cottage gardens is that they can be created easily and on a relatively low budget. 

For example, you could ask a keen gardener for some of their spare seed. There will be plenty of gardeners out there with a seed box bursting with surplus Cosmos, candytuft and calendula. 

You can also swap seeds with others to ensure you have a lovely mix without having to buy whole packets.


Get crafty with recycled materials

Use branches and twigs as structural supports in your gardenCredit: The Rose Press Garden

Another way to save money while creating a cottage garden is to repurpose materials you already have, or that other people are getting rid of.

Lizzie suggests activities like, “foraging for sticks to create sweet pea teepees or looking out for old bricks that people want to get rid of – these can be used to create paths”.

You can also find old pots and containers on sites such as Gumtree or Facebook Marketplace which make quirky – and free – planters for your garden.


Get free plants to save money

Divide your plants to fill your garden for freeCredit: The Rose Press Garden

What’s better than plants? Free plants!

As well as sharing seeds with other keen gardeners, plants can be split at certain times of year in order to make your garden even more abundant while keeping costs low.

Lizzie advises: “From autumn through to spring, you can lift perennials and divide them, creating two plants! 

Plant the half back in the hole you've dug and then you have a spare plant to plant elsewhere – this is the most cost-effective way of creating full borders.

It’s not just good for your bank balance but for the plant too; the RHS recommends dividing perennials such as geraniums, hostas and Agapanthus every two to three years to encourage healthy growth – it’s a win-win!


Get the wow-factor even with small gardens

Norfolk DumplingNorfolk Dumpling in Horningtoft

Even if you have a garden the size of a postage stamp, there are plenty of cottage garden design for small gardens that can transform your patch into a verdant wonderland.

Lizzie recommends to, “create the cottage garden effect with pots and containers,” where you can plant out all your favourite cottage garden plants in a variety of containers and group them in threes for maximum effect.

This design has the added bonus of being flexible; if one pot is blooming beautifully but one is looking less than spectacular, you can rearrange them to maximise your display. You can also play around with colour combinations that look great together or move your containers into brighter or shadier spots.

However, Lizzie warns: “If you're growing in containers and pots then you will need to ensure you water your pots thoroughly throughout the summer and any dry spells.”


Stay with us on a Norfolk holiday

Whether you want to stay in one of our fantastic Norfolk cottages with beautiful gardens, or spent some time visiting some formal and landscaped gardens on some of Norfolk’s best days out, a trip to this beautiful county is sure to be filled with some wonderful time in the great outdoors.

Click the button below to view our full collection of Norfolk cottages and start planning your next getaway.

Norfolk cottages

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.

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