An English Cottage Garden. Year 3.

An english cottage garden can’t be built in a day. But it can almost be built in 3 years.

Behold the English cottage garden in year 3. It’s almost where it needs to be. In another decade or so and it’ll be perfect. Apparently English cottage gardens run on the same timeline as jeans.

I’m going to take a minute to warn you that this page might load slowly because there are a lot (as in too many) photographs of the garden and all the varieties of dahlias. So go, get a coffee, a donut and I’ll meet you back here.

3 years ago I decided I was going to give having an English cottage garden a real try. You know? Like I’d actually put in some effort and not just expect it to appear. I love the look of neat, tidy gardens where everything is trimmed and perfect looking. But I can’t live with it myself.

I like a little bit of wild in my garden but at the same time I don’t want it to look like it’s just overgrown and out of control. You’d be surprised at how hard it is to get the perfect balance between rigid and I stopped to taking my meds.

2 years ago I started clearing things out from my front yard that I either didn’t like or didn’t think suited a typical English garden. I dug up a couple of perennial hibiscus, some day lilies and thinned out the phlox which always got powdery mildew 3 days into blooming then croaked completely the next day.

Phlox does NOT like to be crowded but if you insist on having it, thinning it so there’s plenty of space between each stem will really, really help reduce powdery mildew.

I should probably point out that I did nothing to clean up the garden for these photos. I didn’t rake, I didn’t sweep, I didn’t deadhead. Nothing.

What is an English Cottage Garden

Let’s recap what an English Cottage Garden is. It’s anything you want it to be. There are no rules, and that’s what makes it so hard to figure out.

With a classic garden you know you want things like structure and symmetry.

With a cottage garden it’s a free for all. BUT there are some guidelines.

You want lots of flowers, vegetables and things should have a proper balance to them but not necessarily symmetry.

You can read a lot more about what makes an English Cottage garden in this post that I wrote in detail about it.

I find it MUCH easier to design this kind of wild garden if I have at least a little bit of symmetry. Because of that, enter black kale.

2 huge black kale plants flanking the entrance to a heritage cottage porch with a red brick walk.

This is Black Magic kale and it is exactly as big as it looks. It’s also the plant in my yard that’s the most gawked at. Some people are brave enough to ask what it is.

I’m growing it here for decorative purposes until November. Once November hits, I’ll be using it for cooking. It should stay good until January. Actually I don’t cook kale. The only way I’ll eat it is raw for this kale salad that I eat all winter long.

The border of an English cottage garden filled with celosia, amaranth, dahlias and hydrangea.

A lot of what grew in the garden just popped up from last year. I didn’t plant any celosia for example, yet I have all kinds of it and I’ve pulled out scads of it.

A colourful mix of flowers in a cottage garden with peach Celosia, and orange and burgundy dahlias.

I’ll be saving seeds from this one but I’m not sure why because I won’t have to plant any of them next year – they’ll just grow.

2 blooms of cornel bronze dahlias in front of magenta celosia.
Cornel Bronze Dahlia

And then there are the dahlias. I have so many dahlias and half of them didn’t even grow. I have at least 5 varieties that have grown but still haven’t flowered yet.

I took part in a couple of ZOOM meetings with my local dahlia society and they described it as a challenging year for dahlias. Dahlia people are quite polite.

I describe it as a wing nut, disaster of a shitshow. Snow on the first long weekend of the summer followed IMMEDIATELY by drought & blinding heat for 3 straight months.

Ivanetti dahlias growing in a cottage garden with yellow cottage visible behind.
Ivanetti Dahlia

I’m hoping the dahlias that haven’t flowered will put forth a concerted effort to explode with blooms in the next 4 or 5 hours before frost comes. If not, the tubers should still be good when I dig them up so I can try again next year.

Hollyhill Jitterbug Dahlia

I have some favourites, but this isn’t one of them. I like it and all, but I wouldn’t be crushed if the tuber didn’t make it.

Cornel Bronze Dahlia

Next year I’ll do a better job of staking them.

The dahlias seem to take over the garden, but only for the fall. In the earlier parts of summer there are roses that bloom, hydrangeas, lavender, cosmos, snapdragons and a bunch of other stuff that I can’t really remember right now because I’m blinded by the dahlias.

Everything in this front bed self seeded. So if you’re looking for things that will self seed keep these things in mind.

Flowers that self seed

  • Celosia
  • Snapdragons
  • Alyssum
  • Amaranth

I warned you about the mass of photos, right?

Ivanetti Dahlia in front.

Good. Because I’m sure about now you’re wondering when this will ever end.

In case you ARE wondering – we’re only halfway through the photos right now.

Cornel Bronze, Mango Sunset, Alfred C Dahlias

All my dahlias were originally planted around 15″ apart. That’s about right if you want a dahlia border with the dahlias mixing in together and creating almost a wall while still getting enough air circulation around them.

Totally Tangerine Dahlia

They all need to be staked in some way. Dahlias are big but very fragile and the stems snap very easily. Hollow stems and big heavy flower heads is a real design flaw.

Cafe Au Lait Dahlia thinking about blooming.
Yvonne Dahlias

This peachy, sorbetish stunner is Yvonne, and the form is water lily.

This one section along my fence is the fullest. It’s where the least amount of dahlias crapped out on me. That’s a horticultural society term, “crapped out.”

I planted snapdragons once. I can’t even remember when it was but I now get a a massive amount of snapdragons in my wall every year. They mutate and cross pollinate and the colours are different every year.

I interrupt this encyclopedia of flowers for this red cabbage. I mentioned that any proper English Cottage Garden should have vegetables.

Two flank the gate to get into my yard. There’s also a couple of random potato plants, herbs, and 4 tomato plants growing in the garden.

Veronne’s Obsidian Dahlia

Welcome back. If you could all take your seats after that brief intermission the dahlia show is about to resume.

Closer to the beginning of the summer this obsidian dahlia was more black than red. In fact, just bringing it in the house where the lighting is so much weaker, it looks black.

Colleen Mooney Dahlia

Colleen Mooney was the first dahlia to bloom for me this year and that makes perfect sense given the fact that this American Dahlia Society award winner was developed just a few miles from my house.

I couldn’t have found a variety that was more local if I tried.

Alfred C Dahlia

omg I’m getting sick of this. Are you getting sick of this?

Alfred C, a HUGE dinner plate, semi-cactus dahlia. Right after the kale, this is the most commented on thing in my garden.

Pam Howden Dahlia

Pam Howden only just bloomed. The plant is still tiny so it must be taking every last bit of its energy to spurt that out. It was the victim of not getting enough water. With any luck there’s a good tuber underneath the soil that I can try again with next year.

Cafe Au Lait Dahlia

THE dahlia of the moment. Cafe Au Lait is almost everyone’s favourite and has been for the past few years. It truly is a very light blush with a centre the colour of cafe au lait.

Hot Biscuits Amaranth

This is good example of how things grow organically with no help from a human and look fantastic. All of this self seeded. The plethora of snapdragons in different colours, the alyssum, cockscomb in the centre and the tall, beautiful Hot Biscuits Amaranth in behind the fence.

Hot Biscuits Amaranth

Coming in as crowd favourite number 3 is amaranth. There are so many varieties of Amaranth and they grow so big so quickly that they’re gaining on dahlias in my heart. This is Hot Biscuits, which I bought from Floret a couple of years ago.

At my community garden I have a few other varieties growing as well. They get very tall and bushy so they fill in a lot of space in a fall garden. Some grow straight up like Hot Biscuits, some droop and trail.

And that is it. My English Cottage garden.

I started this garden 3 years ago.

Around the same time we all started reading this post.

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←

An English Cottage Garden. Year 3.


  1. Regan Freedman says:

    Where do you store all of the bulbs you dig up? I have a few and I’m pondering where to put them! Can’t imagine where you hide all of yours :)

    • Karen says:

      I used to store the big huge clumps of tubers in plastic bags with the bags open. But they take up a LOT of space. So now I divide the tubers in the fall after digging them and either store them in open bags or plastic bins with the lid off. (in vermiculite) It takes up less space. ~ karen!

  2. Sandy says:

    Bravo!! Loved the pix.

  3. Marlene says:

    I did go get another cup of coffee after admiring Alfred C Dahlia. But I came right back, and I’m glad I did. Wonderful post!

    Love your writing, and read religiously; trustingly refer to your blog when I’m stuck on how to do something.

    Thanks for cracking me up/enlightening me on a regular basis – so very much appreciated!

    With admiration from western New York,

  4. Leah says:

    I just moved out of a house in the city with sizable gardens and was feeling quite smug about the amount of free time I will now have and the fact that I can actually have real manicured nails and wear clothing on the weekend that is not splattered with garden mud. But now I am determined to transform my tiny new garden space into an English garden come spring. D@mn you Karen Bertelsen! 😏

  5. Anita says:

    WOW what a beautiful garden. With the dahlias, do you dig them up before the snow flies??

  6. Looks great and welcoming. I’d love to get some of that “ambiance” in our little yard but wouldn’t have a clue on how to even get started. Thanks for the tour!

    • Karen says:

      I didn’t know where to start either. It’s taken me years to figure it out and I’m still not there! Just start planting things, lol. Then next year you move them. Then the next you rip half of them out and so on. ~ karen!

  7. teri says:

    LOVE your garden and love your sense of humor even more! :) thanks for the info and the laughs!

  8. Amy says:

    SO LOVELY. Thank you for this burst of beauty. We needed it!

  9. Cindy Courtney says:

    Check out the Martha Stewart recipe from a couple years ago with lacinato kale, roasted squash, pine nuts and smoked goat cheese.

  10. Mary C says:

    Your garden is beautiful, but you seriously have to dig ALLLL those dahlia tubers up every year? That’s way too much work for me! The only thing I have that I have to dig is canna lilies and they are on my deck in a planter. Otherwise everything I plant is a perennial. Now, of course, I’m going to have to plant a few dahlia’s because they are beautiful. Thanks for more work in my garden, Karen.

    • jennie nicolayev says:

      My question, too: you dig up ALLLLLL of those dahlia tubers every year???

    • Karen says:

      You’re welcome! ;) Like I mentioned to someone else, if you don’t mind losing the $$ of the tubers every year, you can just leave them in the ground to rot and then plant new ones in the spring. ~ karen!

  11. Debbie says:

    Just gorgeous! I too would like more pictures, (but I am a total plant/flower nut). Congrats on all your hard work. It is just delightful. I don’t dare get any Dahlia’s. I know they would become an obsession for me just like my roses are and I have no space. So I get to enjoy yours! Thanks for posting the pictures. I look forward to your garden pictures all year long.

    • Karen says:

      I could see myself becoming completely obsessed with peonies. I have 3 varieties now and have to control myself not to get more because l ike you I don’t have anymore space! ~ karen

  12. KimS says:

    So beautiful! Love seeing all the pictures. But I’m afraid anything you have to dig up and store…well, probably not happening…

    • Karen says:

      You don’t HAVE to. I mean you do, but you could just plant the tubers and let them die in the ground then plant new ones in the spring. It’s just going to cost you the cost of new tubers every year. ~ karen!

  13. Ellen says:

    Hi Karen

    If your phlox (or corgettes, come to that) get powdery mildew, spray them with a white vinegar and warm water wash. Keep them airy and in the corgettes case, remove all the bottom hollow stemmed leaves back to the main stalk, up to the first fruit.

    Thanks for pics, well done with the dahlias. They can be tricky Little blighters!

    Ellen in uk

    • Karen says:

      Hi Ellen! Thanks! I actually have a whole post on how to get rid of powdery mildew with vinegar and water. I use it on my zucchini. But I have to keep things as low maintenance as possible in the front yard garden believe it or not, and if anything requires extra attention like spraying for powdery mildew, aphids or black spot – it gets ripped out. Oh! And here’s my zucchini post (corgette) that might have a trick in it you haven’t heard of ~ karen!

  14. Jim Plummer says:

    Really attractive Cottage Garden!

    I like the slightly wild and random effect. Kind of the way nature is.

    The dahlias really put on a show. They are a lot of work but it pays off this time of year. Have you figured out a way to reduce the time required for maintenance–planting, and digging, and staking, and storing?

    Not enough photos for my taste!


    PS– Hard to believe that some newspaper has not signed you up as a full time columni$t. Newspapers used to have “humor” writers. Given the up-side-down, stressed out world we are living in, someone with your humor, writing talents, and content rich articles should be in high demand!

  15. Didi Walker says:

    Thanks Karen! Your garden is fascinating and
    lovely! I am no astrologer but I see a garden of amaranth and dill in your future (after just one glass of wine). All of your ‘volunteers’ know right where to settle beautifully. You tire me out (in a good way) with your
    energetic and enthusiastic talent and liveliness…so many things, so little time.

  16. Katharina says:

    Your garden looks amazing! I just planted my first Dahlias this summer…and transplanted them in pots from one of those Canadian Tire sawdust and tubers kind of bag for $5.99 figuring if they didn’t grow, then my loss was under $10. I only researched that they are thirsty all the time, so shocked them with cold water every evening with the garden hose. The vegetation became enormous, but no flowers until mid August…then WOW! Talk about showstoppers! The deep burgundy with white tips one was the crowd pleaser. So now am hooked on Dahlias for next year and will have the foresight to stake them with poles instead of the mishmash of old wood and rocks I found lying around. Thanks for the tour!

  17. Susan Clay says:

    I am loving the Dahlias, in all their shapes and colours. I have started a collection also including some along one edge of my veg garden, which has attracted so many bees, I can hardly get in to deadhead. They really are a late summer, fall delight.

    I grew red amaranth two years ago and while it was certainly an eye-stopper, it has self seeded everywhere in the veg plot. You have me convinced to grow the black kale next year but in the meantime, I will try massaging my green kale just for the fun of it.

    And are the large trees in the background on your property? If not, what a glorious ‘borrowed landscape’ to set off the perfect English Garden.

    • Karen says:

      It’s a very, very old neighbourhood so those are neighbourhood trees you see, plus there’s a huge escarpment that’s covered in trees as well. From above the neighbourhood looks like a forest! ~ karen

  18. Hannah says:

    I”m just going to sit here in my zone 2B garden (what’s left of my long frozen garden) and seethe in envy. I somehow miraculously got some peonies to take and that’s the crowning achievement. Them and the 10000000 violas and sweetpeas that appear in random spots-including in the middle of my lawn- all summer.

    Your garden looks lovely and casual but planned and put together- like how some people in big straw hats and long dresses look fashionable unlike me who just looks like somebody’s old-fashioned Oma.

  19. Peggy says:

    Love your garden! Bet it’s the most popular garden for walkers in your neighborhood.
    I think you have sucked me into trying to grow your Black Kale next year. Just to see if it is even marginally better than regular grocery store kale. Which I also massage the you know what out of with EVOO and sea salt before I try to sneak it into salad with as many type of greens as my fridge will hold. Maybe this would go over better. I might have to try the 24-hr kale quarantine you recommend. And maybe some garlic in those croutons.

  20. Kim says:

    Love the Dahlias! I’ve tried to grow them before, but mine seem to dwindle instead of flourishing. I notice you dig up your bulbs. I’m in zone 9 in California and have always left them in ground. Should I dig them up?

    • Cheverly says:

      I think if yours are coming back year after year, you can get away with not bothering to dig them up. I’m in 8b (Waco, Tx), and am wondering how they’d overwinter in my yard, too.

    • Karen says:

      No, if you’re in zone 9 California you can leave them in the ground, although it’s good to split them every few years. They have to be dug up here because the cold would kill them. ~ karen!

  21. Sara says:

    Hollyhocks? I saw everything else. But do have hollyhocks. They are lovely. Great garden

  22. Victoria says:

    My favorite kind of garden!!! So beautiful!! It really looks fantastic and so nice with your house! I’m trying to recreated a cottage garden in Los Angeles….. with drought tolerant plants. 😏

  23. Nan says:

    Thanks for sharing your English cottage garden. It is lovely!

  24. Ellen says:

    Your dahlias look pretty good! I had a new one that I planted in April and it didn’t bloom until October. So not happy with it. I think it was partially bugs, aphids or something. But in the last month it has had milder weather and no water and it suddenly thinks it should bloom? So weird.

  25. Claudine says:

    Your English Garden is just beautiful! I compliment you on it and all the hard work you must have put in to it.
    All I can seem to have in Texas is burnt flowers especially after the month of May or June, and that is even with regular watering and putting up sun shades. That damned blast furnace south wind dries everything out and burns it to a crisp. So I’ll just have to resign myself to looking (and longing) at your beautiful garden.
    Thanks for the beautiful pictures.
    Claudine in Fort Worth, TX

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