How to create a garden oasis in your backyard
If you’ve ever dreamed of creating a lush, bountiful garden that looks plucked from a children’s storybook, the style you’re after is probably that of an English cottage garden. This romantic, informal approach to gardening invites each plant’s character to shine through as your flowers take turns blooming throughout the summer and into autumn.
Helen Dolan has been a master gardener through the Cornell Cooperative Extension for 20 years—and has visited England three times to tour the legendary gardens there. “They’re free-flowing, and you see kind of a riot of color,” she says, describing the grounds that have captured her imagination for decades.
While it may sound intimidating, bringing a piece of the English countryside to your own yard—or even your patio—is attainable with the right strategy.
In Albany’s Pine Hills, visitors often remark to Don Paul Shannon and his partner and co-gardener, Aleph Ashline, that their landscape has the personality of an English cottage garden. The pair started planning the plot 30 years ago, researching roses that would grow in the Capital Region and ordering them from catalogs. They would arrive as tiny stems in pots, just waiting to be coaxed into bloom.
After planting an enormous collection of roses in their urban side yard—at one point they had 160 plants—Shannon and Ashline realized they had a splendid burst of color in June, followed by mellow greens for the rest of the season. So they changed their approach and swapped in some perennials, annuals, grasses, and even a couple of trees.
“In a cottage garden, it’s kind of organized chaos, and that’s what we have,” says Shannon, who has also visited and admired cottage-style gardens in Ireland. “We plant what we like, and we try to blend colors as best we can.”
Bringing the English garden upstate
It’s easy to fall in love with cottage gardens abroad or through pictures, only to have your heart broken upon discovering that England’s warmer, moister climate is hospitable to different plants than our own.
“There are so many [cottage gardens] in England, and as gardeners, you write down all these notes and you want to come home and do it,” Dolan says. “And then you find out, well, they don’t really grow as well here.”
Her solution is to seek out native plants that can provide the same effect. Native plants—the ones that grow naturally in fields and forests—require less water, are heartier, and tend to resist diseases and pests better than imported varieties. Dolan says she is working on adding more of them to her garden to cut down on the amount of pesticide she has to spray. “Who wants to do that your whole summer—killing stuff?” she says.
Experienced gardeners also suggest not getting hung up on specific varieties of plants but focusing instead on the essential visual elements you’re hoping to recreate. For example, choose a variety of plants that will bloom at different times, so you always have something beautiful to view. Repeat colors all around the garden to help unify a landscape that, in time, should take on a life of its own. And consider the heights of your plants, placing the tallest ones in the back and the shorter plants and annuals near the edge, where they can be seen.
Planning your garden
Beginners have plenty of local resources to help with the task of selecting plants. Experienced gardeners often gather inspiration by admiring other people’s work—and strolling through gardens is a rewarding kind of research. The Rensselaer County branch of the Cornell Co-Op Master Gardeners maintains several public demonstration gardens at the Robert C. Parker School in East Greenbush. Visitors can learn about fragrant flora, thriving grasses, and plants that attract pollinators. Then there’s the annual Garden Tour, in which Dolan’s garden has been featured twice. It has been virtual recently but is always a good place to take notes, whether online or in person.
Once you’ve got a mental picture of what you’d like to create, your next stop should be your local nursery. The staff there are often a rich resource, and many are gardeners themselves. Susan Platania has been a buyer at Faddegon’s Nursery in Latham for 22 years and has an uncanny ability to rattle off a list of plants that match just about any characteristic. For an English cottage-style garden here in the Capital Region, she too recommends buying native plants.
“With native plants, you don’t pick where they want to be and what they’re going to do,” she says. “You’ve got to leave it up to the garden.”
That said, she has plenty of ideas to help coax your garden in the right direction. Milkweed, for example, is a perennial that attracts butterflies, which then pollinate everything around. “You’ll get more plants by planting milkweed,” she says.
And if you plant black-eyed Susans, they’ll bloom all summer long and into the fall. But don’t deadhead the plants—leave the heads on for natural bird feeders that will regenerate themselves all around your yard.
And, finally, try to start small. Gardens take an enormous amount of labor, and it’s easy to accidentally overcommit yourself. Shannon, who is now retired, recalls putting on a headlamp after a full day at work so he could transplant rose bushes in the dark. Dolan suggests starting with a manageable, 15-foot plot.
For a truly whimsical cottage garden, don’t be afraid to add in a few odds and ends. Seating, like benches painted in bright colors, invites visitors (and you!) to rest and enjoy the view. Outdoor art, like whimsical sculptures and gazing balls that catch the light, add to the fairytale magic.
Larger-scale gardens often include iron gates, winding paths, trellises with climbing plants, and water features. Shannon and Ashline have a small fountain for birds, a wooden shelter they’ve covered in mosaics, and hanging sculptures placed throughout.
Finally, once you have your garden planned, be ready to welcome the natural direction it takes. Shannon remembers that when he and Ashline first began working on their garden back in 1992, he was hesitant to let go of formal, orderly elements. But Ashline, who is an artist, had some advice. He compared the garden to a coloring book, suggesting that maybe it wasn’t necessary to color inside the lines—and that a more relaxed approach could echo the beauty of nature.
“He said, ‘At the edge of a forest you’re looking at layers and layers,’” Shannon recalls, “so I got used to that, and it’s fun.”
Thinking big in small spaces
The English cottage garden philosophy is the same whether you’re gardening in a backyard, on a patio, or along a balcony.
- Think bountiful. Fill overflowing containers with plants of various heights and colors that will take turns blooming throughout the growing season.
- Put tall plants, like grasses, toward the back and let shorter plants have the front-row seat.
- Make sure everything that shares a pot also shares the same growing conditions—sun and water requirements should be the same, so everything can thrive.
- English gardens often include whimsical sculptural elements, so don’t be afraid to choose bold, colorful containers to plant in.
Plants to consider for your English cottage garden
• Bulbs: Crocuses, tulips, and other bulbs start blooming earliest, in spring.
• Perennials: Milkweed attracts butterflies, helping other plants thrive through pollination.
• Grasses: Tall, spiky clusters add interest, even in winter.
• Annuals: Cosmos, cleome, sweet peas, coneflower, sages, salvias, black-eyed Susans, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and morning glories all provide color.
• Roses: If you want to include this classic English garden staple, be strategic. Most roses need a lot of sun—and pruning them is labor-intensive. Research which roses grow best in our climate and can resist disease.