Cottage gardening made easy! Avoid the common pitfalls and mistakes while creating the dreamy garden you’ve always wanted.

Cottage gardens – they’re every gardener’s fantasy, right? Bursting with color, overflowing with charm, and just begging you to wander through their winding paths. We all want that picture-perfect look, but let’s be real, sometimes it feels like a whole lot of work.

Well, guess what? It doesn’t have to be! I’ve seen plenty of cottage garden dreams go a little sideways, and trust me, it’s usually because of a few common mistakes. I’ve made some of these mistakes too!

So, let’s chat about those pitfalls and how to dodge them, so you can create the cottage garden you’ve always envisioned.

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A vibrant garden filled with various dahlias and zinnias stretches out in the foreground. In the background, partially obscured by the flowers and trees, stands a charming house with a rustic, cottage-like appearance.

Cottage Garden 101: The Basics

Before we chat about what not to do, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what makes a cottage garden special. Think informal, overflowing with flowers, and a mix of things you can eat and things you just admire. You might find herbs snuggled up next to roses, veggies peeking out from between the blooms, and winding paths that lead you on a stunning journey through the garden.

The Dream-Killers: Common Cottage Garden Mistakes

Now that we’ve covered there basics, here are some gardening mistakes that can wreak havoc on your dreamy cottage garden.

Overcrowding: Less is More

While it’s tempting to fill every inch of your garden with a riot of colorful flowers, resist the urge to overcrowd. Plants need space to breathe, grow, and access sunlight and nutrients. Overcrowding leads to competition, which can weaken plants and make them more susceptible to pests and diseases.

The Solution

So how do you restrain yourself from overcrowding the beds with too many plants?

  • Refer to plant tags or reliable gardening resources for spacing recommendations.
  • Give each plant ample room to reach its mature size.
  • Consider staggering planting times to extend the blooming season and avoid overwhelming your garden with too much growth at once.

Striking a Balance Between Lush and Overcrowding

While cottage gardens are known for their lush, full appearance, it’s essential to give each plant enough space to grow and thrive. Overcrowding can lead to several issues, including poor air circulation, increased risk of fungal diseases, nutrient competition, stunted growth, maintenance challenges, and a visually cluttered appearance.

However, there is a balance to be struck, as planting closer together can help reduce weed growth by shading the soil and limiting space for weeds to establish. To achieve this balance, consider the following strategies:

  1. Companion Planting: Use plants that grow well together and complement each other’s growth habits. This creates a dense, weed-suppressing canopy while allowing each plant enough space to thrive.
  2. Layering Plants: Incorporate plants of different heights and growth habits. Taller plants can provide shade for shorter ones, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the soil and inhibiting weed growth.
  3. Ground Covers: Utilize ground cover plants that spread horizontally and form a dense mat over the soil. These effectively suppress weeds while adding texture and interest to the garden.
  4. Mulching: Use organic mulch between plants to further reduce weed growth. Mulch helps retain soil moisture, regulates temperature, and prevents weed seeds from germinating.
  5. Thinning and Pruning: Regularly thin and prune plants to maintain healthy growth and prevent overcrowding. This ensures good air circulation and reduces the risk of disease.
  6. Staggered Planting: Plant in staggered rows or clusters rather than straight lines. This creates a more natural look and allows plants to fill in gaps more effectively, reducing weed space.

We all want our gardens to look full and lush when we plant them but it’s really important to strike the right balance based on what are growing and your garden conditions.

A cottage garden filled with vibrant yellow flowers, pink blooms, and green foliage, including sedum autumn joy, in front of a house. The house has a yellow door adorned with a colorful floral wreath. A stone pathway leads through the lush garden, creating a welcoming entrance.
One of my favorite plant combinations for summer to fall: rudbeckia, sedum autumn joy and gomphrena

Ignoring Sunlight Needs: The Right Light for the Right Plant

One of the most fundamental aspects of successful gardening is understanding the sunlight requirements of your plants. Planting sun-loving varieties in shady corners or shade-tolerant plants in full sun will lead to stunted growth, leggy stems, and fewer blooms. And we don’t want that!

The Solution

  • Observe your garden throughout the day to determine how much sunlight each area receives.
  • Choose plants that are well-suited to the specific light conditions in your garden.
  • Group plants with similar sunlight needs together for easier care.

Neglecting Soil Health: The Foundation of a Thriving Garden

Cottage gardens flourish in rich, well-draining soil teeming with beneficial microbes and lots of nutrients. Before you even start planting, take the time to assess and improve your soil health to ensure your flower garden thrives.

The Solution

So what are the best ways to improve your soil?

  • Conduct a soil test to determine its composition, pH level, and nutrient deficiencies.
  • Amend your soil with organic matter like compost, aged manure, or leaf mold.
  • Consider adding organic fertilizers to address specific nutrient needs.
A vibrant garden scene features a variety of colorful flowers, including stunning dahlias in the foreground. A stone fountain is centered among the greenery, and a green arbor can be seen in the background, surrounded by lush vegetation, reminiscent of a serene cut flower garden. The purple flowers are Dahlia 'Thomas Edison'
Dahlia ‘Thomas Edison’

Overwatering or Underwatering: Finding the Right Balance

Watering is a balancing act. Too much water can suffocate roots and lead to fungal diseases, while too little water will leave plants stressed and vulnerable.

The thing with watering is, how much or how little you water largely depends on your soil, what you are growing, how you are growing them, the season, their location in your yard, and how well you water. 

Both overwatering and underwatering can lead to plant stress, diseases, and poor growth. Ensuring that your plants receive the right amount of water, based on their specific needs and the environmental conditions, is crucial for a healthy and thriving garden.

It’s also important to water the base of plants in the earlier part of the day. This allows plants to absorb the moisture they need before the heat of the day sets in which reduces water evaporation and ensures that the plants are well-hydrated to handle the day’s stress.

Additionally, watering at the base of the plants directs the moisture to the roots where it’s needed most and helps prevent water from sitting on the leaves, which can lead to fungal diseases and other moisture-related problems.

Using methods like drip irrigation or soaker hoses can help maintain consistent moisture levels and reduce the risk of water-related issues because they deliver water directly to the plant roots where it’s needed most.

The Solution

  • Feel the soil before watering. If the top inch is dry, it’s time to water.
  • Water deeply and less frequently to encourage roots to grow deeper into the soil.
  • Mulch around plants to help retain moisture and suppress weeds.
Lush cutting garden beds filled with a stunning variety of larkspur, calendula, and snapdragons in shades of purple, pink, and yellow, complemented by green foliage and a whimsical out-of-focus terracotta pot in the background. How to support tall flowers with netting method.

Planting Invasive Species: Choosing the Right Neighbors

While some plants are beautiful and well-behaved, others can quickly turn into bullies, overtaking your garden and crowding out desirable species. If you ever planted something that completely took over your garden, then you know what I’m talking about.

But there are other invasive species that are on your state’s naughty list that you shouldn’t plant too because they ruin the local ecosystem.

The Solution

  • Research plants thoroughly before you buy them. Check reputable sources for information on their growth habits and potential invasiveness.
  • Opt for native plants or non-invasive cultivars that are known to be well-behaved in your region.

Common Garden Thugs to Be Aware Of

Here is a short list of garden thug plants to look out for when planting that can wreak havoc in your gardens. Check with your local cooperative extension before planting in your area.

  • Wisteria: While stunning with its cascading blooms, wisteria can quickly become aggressive, strangling other plants and even damaging structures.
  • Honeysuckle: Certain varieties, especially Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), can spread rapidly and smother nearby vegetation.
  • Morning Glory: Some species, like bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), are notorious for their invasive roots and twining stems.
close up of vibrant pink lonicera flower, a humminbird favorite
Lonicera Flowers (Honeysuckle)
Groundcovers and Spreading Plants
  • Mint (Mentha spp.): Mint is a vigorous spreader, quickly colonizing garden beds and crowding out other plants. Only plant them in pots.
  • Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis): While charming, this plant can spread aggressively through underground rhizomes.
  • Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagraria): Also known as goutweed, this groundcover forms dense mats and can be difficult to control.
  • Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia): This low-growing plant can quickly spread and become invasive in moist areas. I planted it one year in pots. It rooted in the ground and was very difficult to control.
  • Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina): While popular for its soft, fuzzy leaves, lamb’s ears can spread aggressively by seed and runners. I don’t have an issue in my New Jersey garden with lamb’s ear but it could be problematic in other localities.
A lush garden with blooming pink flowers, green foliage, and a green fence in the background. The garden features a vibrant mix of roses and foxglove, with a clay pot among the plants. Dense trees and greenery surround the garden, creating a serene outdoor space.
Other Flowering Plants
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Certain yarrow varieties can self-seed prolifically and become weedy. I haven’t had this issue in my zone 6b garden, but check with your local cooperative extension.
  • Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare): This cheerful wildflower can quickly become invasive in gardens.
Tips for Avoiding Cottage Garden Thugs
  • Research: Always research plants thoroughly before adding them to your garden. Check reputable sources for information on their growth habits and potential invasiveness.
  • Choose Native Alternatives: Native plants are often a safer bet, as they’ve evolved to co-exist with other species in your region.
  • Control Measures: If you already have invasive plants in your garden, take measures to control their spread. This might include hand-pulling, regular pruning, or using barriers to contain their roots.

By being mindful of these potential cottage garden thugs and taking proactive measures, you can create a beautiful, balanced garden that thrives without becoming overrun.

growing vibrant pink achillea (yarrow) flowers in a lush garden

Forgetting to Deadhead: Encouraging Continuous Blooms

Deadheading, or removing spent flowers, is a simple yet essential task for many cottage garden plants. It not only keeps your garden looking tidy but also encourages many plants to produce more flowers.

The Solution

  • Make deadheading a regular part of your garden routine.
  • Use sharp pruners or scissors to snip off faded blooms just above a set of healthy leaves.

Not Considering Plant Height: Creating Visual Interest

A successful cottage garden is a tapestry of textures, colors, and heights. Planting all your flowers at the same level will result in a flat, uninteresting landscape. And we don’t want that!

The Solution

  • Plan your garden in layers, placing taller plants at the back, medium-height plants in the middle, and low-growing plants at the front.
  • Incorporate a mix of upright, sprawling, and cascading plants to add dimension and movement.
A vibrant garden features tall purple, pink, and blue flowers, with a backdrop of green lattice fences and lush trees. There is patio furniture to the left, adding a cozy feel to this lively and well-tended garden.

Additional Tips for a Cottage Garden That Thrives

  • Embrace Self-Seeders: Many cottage garden favorites, like foxgloves and poppies, readily self-seed, adding to the garden’s charm and filling in gaps. Just beware of ones that overly reseed so it’s not as much work for you cleaning them out later!
  • Welcome Wildlife: Cottage gardens are havens for pollinators and other beneficial creatures. Include plants that provide nectar and shelter like coneflowers, black-eyed susan, and coreopsis.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment: Cottage gardens are all about personal expression. Try new combinations of plants and see what thrives in your unique space.
A vibrant garden filled with blooming hydrangeas in various colors, including blue, pink, and purple. The lush green leaves and surrounding foliage add to the lively and picturesque nature scene. A stone structure is visible in the background.

Cottage Gardening Through the Seasons

One of the most magical things about a cottage garden is that it’s a never-ending symphony of color and texture, with something new to discover in every season. Let’s take a tour through the year and see how to keep your cottage garden blooming with lots of color, no matter what the weather throws your way:

Cottage Gardening in the Spring

As winter’s chill fades, your cottage garden bursts back to life. This is the time to get your hands dirty and plant those cheerful spring bloomers. Think tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, alliums, and those delicate little grape hyacinths (muscari).

Don’t forget to add some pansies for a pop of vibrant color! As spring progresses, keep an eye out for weeds – they’re eager to take over if you let them. Regular weeding and mulching will keep them in check.

Spring blooming perennials that look incredible in cottage gardens include: foxgloves, baptisia, bearded irises, and peonies.

A vibrant display of pink tulips in the foreground with a backdrop of a lush garden featuring blooming white trees and a wooden sculpture.

Cottage Gardening in the Summer

Summer is when your cottage garden truly shines. It’s a riot of color, with roses, delphiniums, hollyhocks, coneflowers, and so many more vying for attention. This is the season for abundant blooms, but it’s also when your garden needs a bit more TLC.

Water deeply, but less frequently, to encourage those roots to dig deep. Deadhead those spent blooms to keep the flower power going, and don’t forget to pinch back leggy plants to encourage bushier growth.

And keep on top of the weeds! I know it’s really hot out this time of year. It’s always a scorcher here in my New Jersey gardens too. But the last thing you want to do is let a weed get out of control and completely take over your garden because you didn’t get out there sooner. Make it a point to go out early in the morning or later in the day when temperatures are a bit cooler and the sun isn’t as strong.

Cottage Gardening in Autumn

As the days grow shorter, your cottage garden takes on a warm, golden hue. This is the season of asters, mums, goldenrod, and sedum, all adding a touch of autumnal magic to your landscape.

Keep tidying up those faded blooms, and start thinking about which perennial plants you might want to plant, divide or move come spring. Fall is also a great time to plant bulbs like tulips and daffodils so they’ll be ready to surprise you next spring.

And it might be tempting to cut your plants back as they die down for the season, but consider keeping them deceased foliage and seed heads intact until spring. Pollinators and other beneficial insects overwinter among them and those seed heads feed the birds when food is scarce.

A vibrant garden brimming with various flowers, including yellow sunflowers and pink blooms, amid lush greenery under a sunny sky. (vibrant cottage garden in fall with rudbeckia, gomphrena celosia and sedum autumn joy)

Creating a Cottage Garden in Winter

Even in the depths of winter, your cottage garden can still offer moments of beauty. Evergreens like boxwood, holly, and juniper provide structure and a touch of greenery.

If you leave those seed heads from fall, they look so pretty when covered in snow adding interest to your cottage garden in winter.

And don’t forget about those early bloomers like hellebores, snowdrops, and winter aconite – they’re like little rays of sunshine on a cold winter day. This is a good time to prune back any overgrown shrubs and give your garden a good cleanup before the next growing season begins.

By choosing plants that bloom at different times of the year and staying on top of those seasonal chores, you can ensure your cottage garden is always a vibrant, welcoming space, no matter what the calendar says. It’s a year-round source of joy and inspiration, a place where you can always find something to delight your senses and soothe your soul.

beautiful pink hellebores aka lenten rose

My Cottage Gardening Journey: From Tiny Blooms to Abundant Joy

You know, my love affair with cottage gardens didn’t just happen overnight. It’s been a journey, full of trial and error, dirt under my fingernails, and sheer joy of watching tiny seeds and plants transform into something truly magical.

It all started in my old garden, the one you can see in this article: How My Cottage Garden Flowers Grew in 2021. It was a small space, but it was bursting with potential. I planted everything I could get my hands on, from cheerful sunflowers to delicate cosmos.

Some things thrived, others… not so much. But with each passing season, I learned a little more, my confidence grew, and my garden slowly started to resemble the whimsical oasis I’d always dreamed of.

Colorful flower bed featuring pink dahlias and yellow marigolds in front of a charming garden shed with a rustic wooden fence. Growing a cut flower garden in zone 6b
My Former Cottage Garden by the Shed Started Using the Lasagna Gardening Method

Then, life threw a curveball – we moved! But you know what? I wasn’t about to leave my cottage garden dreams behind.

So, I started fresh, this time with a whole new canvas to play with. You can see some of the results in this article: Flower Garden Ideas for the Front Porch. I experimented with different combinations of flowers, added a touch of whimsy with vintage treasures, and created a welcoming space that greeted me with a burst of color every time I stepped outside.

Through it all, I’ve learned so much. I’ve discovered the importance of choosing the right plants for the right place, the magic of composting, and the joy of simply spending time surrounded by nature’s beauty. My cottage gardening journey hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but every challenge, every success, and every unexpected surprise has only deepened my love for this enchanting gardening style.

And that’s what I want for you too – to experience the joy, the wonder, and the sheer delight of creating a cottage garden that’s uniquely yours. It’s a journey worth taking, I promise you.

A quaint house with a white porch surrounded by a vibrant garden featuring sunflowers, other colorful flowers, and a stone pathway leading to the entrance, ideal for harvesting sunflower seeds.

Final Thoughts About Cottage Gardening

So there you have it – the secrets to a cottage garden that’s more enchanting than exasperating. Remember, it’s not about perfection; it’s about creating a space that brings you joy. Embrace the chaos, celebrate the imperfections, and let your garden be a reflection of your own unique style.

Whether you’re starting from scratch or trying to revive a neglected space, I hope these tips and my own gardening journey have inspired you to dig in and create your very own cottage garden paradise. Every garden is a work in progress. It evolves, it grows, and it teaches you new things along the way. Don’t be afraid to experiment, learn from your mistakes (we all make them!), and most importantly, have fun with it!

Happy gardening!

For more information about growing a cottage garden, please read this article from Washington State University Cooperative Extension.

To drill down on more beginner gardening techniques and tips, please read these posts:

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear! And feel free to share this post with anyone you think would find it helpful too.

Thank you for visiting the blog today!

Enjoy your day! xo

Stacy Ling bricksnblooms logo
The bricks \'n Blooms guide to a beautiful and easy-care flower garden book by stacy ling
The Bricks ‘n Blooms Guide to a Beautiful and Easy Care Flower Garden
  • Have you never met a plant you couldn’t kill?
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Then the Bricks ‘n Blooms Guide is for YOU

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