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.

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An English Cottage Garden. Year 3.


  1. Letty L Regan says:

    I LOVE your picket fence. I’m about to construct my own and I really like the size, shape and spacing of the pickets on your fence. Coulf you please provide me with the dimensions of the individual pickets and how far apart they’re spaced? Or, did you do a video on the fence build you could reference? Thank you. Love the humor, love the writing and appreciate that you give me faith that I can do it too (I just finished installing new laminate flooring 😊).

  2. Lin Celoni says:

    OK Lady,
    Now we have a problem! I could handle the fact that you build your own furniture, and strip/replace your linoleum and make fabulous soups FROM your own vegetable garden……
    But this cottage garden is just too much! Very impressive; to look so lush and bountiful without being fussy and messy. Another gold star!!

  3. Ernielee says:

    Beyond gorgeous, I am so jealous!!! It isn’t just perfect.

  4. Lynn says:

    Just beautiful Karen, I am totally Green with Envy . I have a hope you can give me a answer too a question. How do you either control or hopefully rid entirely your beautiful plants of spider mites?

    • Karen says:

      I don’t think I’ve had to battle spider mites Lynn. :/ But if I did have them I’d probably treat them the same as whitefly and spray them off the plant with water and then treat with an insecticidal soap. ~ karen!

  5. Laura says:

    Gorgeous Karen! One question that I don’t see answered is how you store your Dahlias over the winter. Everyone seems to have a different technique.

  6. Summer says:

    Just curious how much time you spend in the fall digging all those up, and again in the spring planting them again? I love Dahlias, but I’m horrible with having to dig up and replant. I like things that just self seed and come back each year. Maybe when my kids are older and demand less time of me, I can talk myself into planting things like Dahlias and tulips and such.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Summer. This is the most dahlias I’ve grown in one year so I’ll let you know how long it takes! As for planting in the spring, it’s a matter of starting them indoors under lights and then planting them out at the beginning of June. Planting them is fun so I don’t care how long it takes! :) ~ karen

  7. Love. Love. Love! Your garden.
    Im SO jealous of your dahlias. I can only grow one or two in my zone 9b – it gets to 120F/48C this summer for two whole weeks. Nearly killed myself trying to save my outdoor plants. Even the succulents were looking dried up.

    I adore Cottage garden style and no garden is never completed- its ever evolving but this looks awesome after inly 3yrs. Be proud!

    Lastly – Lacinato Kale (black kale) is yummy to eat cook. Not as tough as regular kale & you dont need to cook it from here to infinity just to get a semblance of decent chew.

    Good job!!!!!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Tara! I’m hoping in the next year or two I’ll be 99% satisfied with the garden. I’m just not sold on cooked kale, lol. The only way I like it cooked really is with peanut sauce. ~ karen!

  8. Jane C. says:

    I love the pictures. More is better. My dahlias have been very late to bloom this year, with only the red and purple ones putting forth flowers. The fancier ones have yet to bloom and we’re probably going to get frost tonight.

  9. Carol says:

    Do you ever give kale leaves to your hens? Mine love kale and collard leaves. In the winter when they spend less time grazing on the lawn, I throw in several leaves every few days. They really scarf them down.

  10. Petra says:

    Love your dahlias. It’s nice to see some of the ones I lost to bad weather or not digging them up soon enough. Particularly, Yvonne. Love those waterlily types and they seem to be harder to acquire around here anyway.
    I’m greedy and untidy and disorganized so a cottage garden is a good fit for me ( not casting shade on you, just confessing my weaknesses). Funny- some people look at my chaos and think I’ve worked my butt off. I’m not about to tell them otherwise….
    I think the amaranth(?) in the windowbox is genius.

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