Cottage Gardens & Outdoor Entertaining

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Cottages are a retreat for our soul.  Places where we can both unwind and regenerate ourselves, our families and often our perspective on life.  Generally, a cottage garden is a distinct visual & conceptual style that uses an informal design, traditional materials, dense plantings, and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants. English in origin, the cottage garden depends on grace combined with the juxtaposition of colours/tones and charm, rather than grandeur or formal structure.

Our own cottages are often nestled in areas of raw bush, craggy rock and thin inhospitable soil. The mistake many people make with their cottage garden is to ignore their rugged landscape and attempt to create a structured or “city style” garden. In effect ignoring the natural cottage setting and bringing an urban style garden to your cottage (something that never works).

The best cottage gardens are those that take full advantage of and actually enhance the stark beauty of the wild. As the saying goes, “you can’t improve on Mother Nature”.

Rather than “affecting” a design, actually survey your landscape and plant a mixture of indigenous and hardy shrubs, perennials and wild flowers that will thrive in your location. Not only will this save you needless heartache and hours of maintenance, it will save you money from continually replacing your “ill-suited” plants not tought enough to battle out with the local vegetation.

Begin by selecting a variety of shrubs that will give your garden a sense of mass and solidity, such as “Blue Rug” Junipers, Cotoneaster horizontalis and for those especially difficult area’s, Juniper Sabina. The Sabina will actually thrive in extremely rocky, poor soil areas (just remember to plant in full sun locations only).

Perennial Geraniums (known as cranesbills) are the perfect cottage perennial. The cransebill is a hardy, adaptable perennial that is disease and pest resistant. Whether your garden is a full sun or predominantly shady location, there are a variety of cranesbills all in a marvellous array of colours (white, mauve, purple, magenta, blue, and pink).
For complete shade locations try G. macrorhizum, a strong spreader with delicate mauve blossoms. In semi-shade areas try G. maculatum, particularly in a rock garden location. In full sun gardens try G. cinerum (ballerina). All of these species are drought tolerant, aromatic and will spread evenly in your garden but not invasively.

Another “perfect fit” for a cottage garden are Sedums (also known as stonecrop and orpines). This family of plants is extremely varied with species that will thrive from full sun to semi-shade. They are incredibly durable, well suited to poor soil conditions and come in a veritable rainbow of colours. Try S. spurium, a dwarf variety stonecrop best suited for billing in gaps in rock gardens and S. album and S. kamtschaticum for “clumping” or featured plants in your garden. 

Mix in with these a variety of hardy grown daylilies, irises, Martagon lilies and ornamental grasses. All of which are hardy, adaptable and beautiful. The Martagon lily is especially well suited to the cottage landscape due to its ability to thrive from southern locals to the Yukon and in nearly every soil type.

The “golden rule” of cottage landscaping is to create an oasis of peace, beauty and relaxation. “…A cottage is a friend you can visit anytime…” This old maxim conveys how we feel toward our cottages and our beliefs in their restorative powers. Our cottages are a place of hope, of exploring not only nature but also ourselves and for nurturing and deepening our relationships with our families. All of this occurs in our little slice of rural Eden.

However, when planning your Cottage garden don’t forget to take into consideration how you are going to entertain and enjoy your cottage. In effect the human element and how you will use and enjoy each and every aspect of the garden.  Ensure to create various “rooms” and positions/locations for both entertaining and for your own enjoyment. Shared moments in our garden with our family and friends become memories we cherish throughout our lifetime, so why not transform you’re mundane garden, deck or patio setting from the ordinary into the extraordinary?

Generally, our cottage garden is at its premium use during the uplifting Spring and lush Summer seasons, however make sure to keep the entire year in mind when designing your garden. An essential ingredient in creating your “Entertaining Stage” is the creation of a casually elegant and comfortable sitting/lounge area that can accommodate everything from “dinner al fresco” to lounging with a good book and your favourite cocktail.

Always make sure to include a tilt-able sunscreen umbrella (or pavilion), an expandable outdoor-table, a variety of adjustable chairs, several loungers, and numerous folding side tables. Teak furniture works especially well in a multi season climate due to its naturally inherent resilience to pests, rot and its incredible durability.

Your entertaining area should also include a variety of personal accessories such as lanterns, seat cushions and oversized rusticated garden ornaments and should always provide a stimulating and beautiful view of your “piece of heaven”.

When situating your late summer “showstopper” perennials (the time our garden’s currency is at its premium) make sure to situate them where they will be seen to their best advantage. This means that plants with brilliant red or vivid orange blossoms should be situated in full sun, prominent locations for their best display, while paler more pastel toned plants should be in a shadier location. Pale blossoms will glow in a shady location, whereas they become “bleached” out in full sun. Vivid blossoms are intense in full sun, yet become muddy or lost in the shade.

Try planting a bold clump of Rudbeckia (Coneflowers) in a prominent full sun location. Their spectacular display of brilliant yellow and gold blossoms will flower throughout the summer and fall, and will attract a variety of birds to your garden as well. Other late summer garden musts include:

1. Campanula (Bellflower) – a hardy and prolific spreading perennial that comes in a variety of blue, white and pink tones.

2. Linum perenne (Perennial Flax) – A stunningly beautiful perennial that should be grown in a large clump. It comes in a variety of colours and thrives in full sun, dry locations.

3. Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender) – An incredibly fragrant and beautiful plant that thrives in full sun, dry soil locations and rock garden settings. Situate near your outdoor sitting area to enjoy its rich fragrance.

Remember the goal of a cottage garden design is to work “with” nature by growing a variety of plants suited to your geography, while being aware of where your entertaining, playing, gardening and wildlife areas are to be located on your property.

ROBIN’S Tips for Entertaining Outdoors

A candlelit Garden for evening entertaining will leave a lasting impression with your guests. An inexpensive method for creating the “look” of dozens of hurricanes in your garden is to purchase a 2 dozen box of mason Jars and place tea lights within them. To give them a more “Designer” look, buy bags of black sand and lay a 1″layer on the bottom of each jar. Then inset the tea light into the sand. In the evening glow they will look incredible.

ALWAYS remember to disconnect any motion detector lights in your garden for evening entertaining. Nothing ruins a party quicker than harsh lighting.

Always use linen napkins and tablecloths when entertaining outdoors. However, don’t go to the expense of buying them, make them yourself. Go to your local Fabric outlet and buy a few yards of a cheerful ticking or gingham and simply serge the edges. Make sure to make them oversized (I always make mine 22″) to make your guests feel pampered.

Place a series of Citronella candles around the periphery of your garden prior to the party. Make sure to light them at least 20 minutes prior to your soiree to ensure that you will be “pest free”.

Remember the key to a successful garden is enjoying the process from beginning to end and ensuring that a part of yourself is reflected in its creation.


  1. Addy SaeedAddy Saeed03-18-2011

    Don’t have a garden yet but if I do, I’ll definitely be coming back to check out these great tips… 🙂

  2. HelenHelen03-18-2011

    Can I please have the cottage in the first picture? I love these gardens. I am so much a cottage garden rather than structured city garden! Unfortunately, the undeadly, hellhounds prevent me from having too much of a garden until they grow up a little more. They are diggers!

    I love the idea of the mason jars for lanterns.