My English Cottage Garden. Year 2.

This is year two of trying to grow an English Cottage Garden that looks like it’s been around for a century. So far it looks like it’s been growing for 2-3 weeks tops. It’s quite pathetic actually. Welcome to it!

Karen Bertelsen on the front porch of her historic red brick cottage.

This is me leaning my porch pillar in a bra that doesn’t give enough support, holding my iPhone casually while I click a button on it to take a photo with my drone all the while attempting not to crash it into a car, sidewalk, neighbour or my forehead.

Yellow daylilies growing near front of white picket fence, with open gate.

I mentioned that my English Cottage Garden, Year 2, is quite pathetic. And it is. But that’s to be expected. It’s pretty hard to fake a garden that’s been around for a century. It takes time. Maybe not a century but certainly longer than the 2 seasons of Big Little Lies that I’ve given it.

Purple/pink phlox growing in front of historic porch.

Welcome to my 2-year-old English Cottage garden, surrounding my 180-year-old cottage. Certain places are too crowded, certain places are too empty and others are just right. Actually there aren’t any that are just right, but I added that in there to make myself feel a little better about this process.

Side view of English Cottage garden with old fashioned porch, white picket fence, flowers and greenery.

Can you see the two tall groups of purple/pink phlox?  Of course you can because they stand up and out like great big giant phlox plants. The thing is, the phlox  I bought and planted last year were tiny. And I thought the variety was supposed to stay tiny. In fact I’m sure I have a tag somewhere claiming exactly that.  Because I thought they were going to stay low to the ground, I planted them in the front of my beds where they currently look like 2 pink soldiers guarding my apple espaliers.

3 Tiered apple espalier growing in front of porch.

Speaking of the apple espaliers … they’re getting enormous and I’m really going to have to throw caution to the wind and just regularly prune them instead of only pruning them on the summer solstice. Yes, I want to keep them compact and have apples on them, but I also want them to look relatively tidy along my porch. At the moment they’re a bit frenzied looking.

Corner of garden showing a variety of colourful flowers including dianthus, phlox and lavender.

Look!  That’s a nice corner. And that’s how the whole garden should be.  Free flowing, lots of colour with just a bit of garden bed showing.

My side yard and along my fence is doing fairly well in terms of its development.

Narrow English Cottage garden to the side of an historic red brick cottage.

But the front beds are a struggle for me because I want to keep things nice and low. Like ground-cover low so you get an uninterrupted view of the espaliers. 

Side view of English Cottage Garden with grass lawn surrounded by beds and classic English plantings.

I don’t want any sort of border plant or edging because that’s too structured for the look I’m going for.  I LOVE the look of little square boxwoods along the border of beds and everything looking crisp and perfect, but that’s not where I’m headed. I’m headed somewhere a bit more frantic but still controlled.  Part crazy Russell Brand part sane Russell Brand.  Understand?

Historic red brick house and white picket fence seen from the side with window boxes filled with red geraniums and parsley.

In amongst the perennials and annuals, I have a few of my vegetables. The flower boxes for instance are geraniums, but all the greenery in them is parsley.  I have a random pop up potato plant in one of the beds that I’ve left and celery tucked in beside the phlox.  There’s rhubarb, herbs and of course tomatoes.

Espaliered tomato plant growing along Year two of my English Cottage Garden around my 180 year old cottage.

I’ve espaliered this tomato by  using a variation on the string method  I use and love so much. I’ve let one stem grow from the ground up until just before the top of the fence. At that point I allowed 2 leaders to grow, one running off to the left of the stem and one to the right. By the end of August, I suspect it will run the length of my fence, spilling cherry tomatoes all over.

Black Krim tomato plant growing against back fence using the string method.

Using the string method again, I’ve planted a Black Krim tomato against my fence. On my porch trellis I’m string training another cherry tomato to grow up it.

Last fall I dug up, split and moved a variety of hydrangeas, daylillies, peonies and phlox. This fall I expect I’ll be doing the same. Digging up, moving, rearranging and rethinking.

Overhead view of English Cottage Garden and front of historic red brick cottage house.

I’ll get some more shots of the infant English Cottage Garden in late August when it will either be exploding with colour and beautiful or brown and dead.  If the flowers do well but grubs get at the lawn, it might just be a combination of both. 

Either way I’ll be taking photos of it all in a new bra.


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My English Cottage Garden. Year 2.


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  2. plaster says:

    Nice, Easy and interesting products. ! Mine is a real mess and it is high time to clean it and to organize it! Thanks for contributing the best tips in an approachable, down to earth way. You’re talent is huge, and your practicality is quite grounding in this digital world. Thank you! 😄

  3. jessie says:

    Your cabin garden is tagging along pleasantly. Your wonderful old block home is the ideal spot for the cabin look. love what you are doing; you will have precisely what you set out to do; an exquisite cabin feel to your nursery and home.

  4. Athena says:

    My perennial flower garden mentor always says don’t loose heart, the garden won’t look full and finished until the third year.

    ‘So this link says chives and lavender and nasturtiums are companion plants for apples, they might be low growing enough for you. But if you put in that tiny, orderly boxwood hedge that you fired my imagination up when you mentioned, I would likely sigh with contentment, too.

    I’m using the string tomato method with success this year! But definitely will try the two string mod next year because it pains me to cut off one of the leaders.

    And the upper story window box? Pure delight.

  5. Mary says:

    Have you thought of hellebores? I’m in zone 5-6 and I have half dozen different hellebores. They’re evergreen, have leathery leaves, start blooming in March and I just noticed a week ago a couple flowers on one of them. They grow about 12 to 18 inches tall and all I do is cut away the last years dead stuff in the spring throw a little compost around them and ignore them except to admire the beautiful flowers. They like bright shade or early sun. I love them.

    Your house and garden are lovely.

  6. Angela Sadler says:

    Move the phlox. You’ll be much happier☺️

  7. Mary says:

    I forgot about the chickens🙄 Can you get your hands on leaf mulch or mushroom compost?

  8. Mary says:

    I love your home, it’s charming. Reminds me of a grownup doll house (And i mean that in a good way, not a twee way 😍) if I could make one tiny suggestion, the next time you mulch, consider using a darker mulch—you want it to look like dirt. I used to work in landscape maintenance for an Englishwoman who designed small patio gardens and it’s something I learned from her. It puts the emphasis on the plants and not the mulch. Just my 2 cents.

    • Karen says:

      I agree! Plants look much better against darker mulch. I used to have black mulch and I do love how plants look against it, but it’s dyed and possibly toxic for my chickens. Also the dye used to get all over my hands and feet :/ So now I go with natural cedar mulch, lol. ~ karen!

  9. Jill Marvin says:

    I enjoy your gardening stories immensely – always with humour and boy oh boy gardeners need it. I commit horticultural homicide every year but hope blooms eternal. May I just say that an honest to goodness English Cottage garden very seldom has any lawn at all. Just flowers, flowers, flowers – poppies, campanula, lavender, hollyhocks (beware the dreaded mildew) etc., and some “old” roses with fantastic scent. David Austin has lovely olde worlde variety, old fashioned very double flowers.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Jill! I have all those flowers you listed. :) And gave up on David Austin Roses years ago. My entire yard used to be roses! All types. But between black spot and bugs they were too needy. Even my oldest heirloom rose that was probably 30 years old and had a trunk on it succumbed to a couple of hard winters in a row. I’ve replaced one single rose (Hansa) but that’s it. I can’t take the heartbreak, lol. ~ karen!

  10. Kate says:

    The purply-pink flowers are Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), possibly Dianthus barbatus ‘Amazon Neon Purple’. The red ones are another cultivar of Sweet William, possibly ‘Atrosanguineus’. Sweet William petals are edible!

  11. Carlene says:

    I’ve had amazing success with perennial salvia (salvia nemorosa, NOT annual salvia). Super appropriate for an English garden, as that’s where it’s from, and added bonus that it’s also native food for honeybees. I mostly have the “East Friesland” variety, as the “May Night” variety tends to flop midsummer. Their flowers bloom early, last forever, and if you give them a good pruning after the first bloom, they usually give at least one additional bloom. One summer I ended up with 4 total bloom cycles, it was fantastic. Completely covered in pollinators the entire growing season, too. I also grow purple Veronica speedwell, which begins to bloom as the first round of perennial salvia blooms fade, so it goes from purple spiked flowers right into purple spiked flowers. I plant or divide giant allium bulbs every fall since those bloom late spring/early summer, and all the different shapes of purples are covered with happily buzzing insects from May until August. The photo I added was from early June as the garden was just beginning to fill in (zone 5).

  12. Ann says:

    Hi, your garden is lovely and the phlox is smashingly beautiful! You could move it to the outer edges and try yarrows, coreopsis, pinks and old fashioned creeping phlox (not the mossy stuff) in front of your espaliered apples. I’m so jelly of your espaliered trees. Been dying to try espaliering Asian pear and cherry trees along a fence line in the sightlines of my back patio. Next spring it is!

    • Karen says:

      I’ll definitely be moving the phlox in the fall. :) But that’s how the garden takes shape I guess. Moving things around. That’s what I did last fall and it helped. :)~ karen!

  13. Vikki says:

    Well, I think your garden is lovely and a good start. Anything would look good against that fabulous house! Patience, Grasshopper……
    (I don’t have any, but I always recommend it.)

    • Jan in Waterdown says:

      Ok I just read that link…. wtf was that? Is it funny or supposed to be? Maybe it’s like beauty is in the eye of the beholder or ya just had to be there 🙄.

      • Sarah Neely says:

        Jan, It is meant to be humorous, and I definitely have an odd sense of humor! I think they’re making fun of all of the advice we women get about how to choose a bra – why is it so dang hard?!

        • Sarah McDonnell says:

          I thought it was hilarious, Sarah! Save me a seat on the Weird Humor Bus, K?
          I had always suspected bras of having a part in original sin, as evidenced by the way so many women refer to it as a Damned Bra.

    • Jan in Waterdown says:

      Ok I just read that link and all I can think is wtf was that? Ya gotta explain it to me! Is it funny? Imho, it’s really creepy but then I dislike snakes. Maybe it’s like beauty is in the eye of the beholder or something 🤔.

    • Karen says:

      I didn’t even recognize it as a snake, but they might be right. Thanks! LOL. ~karen!

  14. Sarah Padron says:

    Hi Karen. I hope this may be able to help you with the grubs. My sister investigated milky spore. It only kills Japanese beetles but it’s non toxic to other bugs animals and people. It’s a bacterium that attacks grubs and kills them slowly. You would have to do 3 applications but after that, it not only kills the grubs but keeps the soil grub free for 10 years! We also applied liquid aeration along with the milky spore and our grass which was mostly dead has come back to life as well as the plants. You can use this along with the nematodes and that should help a lot hopefully.

    • Karen says:

      Huh! Interesting. I’ve never heard of milky spore. Thanks! ~ karen

      • Sarah Padron says:

        One more thing Karen! Get the granules, not powder and you can use it in a drop spreader. It’s much easier than the powder. The brand I use is St Gabriel Organics. Good luck and I love your garden!!

  15. Valerie says:

    Hollyhocks are a must

    • Karen says:

      You might want to let my hollyhocks know that because they’re unaware of their importance, lol. They’re coming along veryyyyyy slowly along my fence line. ~ karen!

      • Karen White says:

        Aren’t they biennials? Like delphiniums and foxglove? I have a few biennials this year I started from seed and I’m not surprised they haven’t bloomed because I think that happens the second year. Your hollyhocks will look amazing next year!! I may grow some. Have you tried growing verbena bonariensis? Or cephalaria gigantea? I started mine from seed this year. The verbena is quite tall but you can see through it so it can go in the middle of a border. The cephalaria seems to be a quintessential cottage garden plant.
        I’m always inspired by your projects and your food and garden posts are my favorites! (Karen in Colorado)

  16. Idaho Girl says:

    It’s coming along very nicely, thank you for sharing your pictures. Also, thanks to everyone for your suggestions – you remind me of plants I want to incorporate into my own cottage garden. If you need a red filler about 2′ tall, I’d suggest Jupiter’s Beard (Red Valerian). It’s bushy and has a nice flower that lasts a few weeks, and if you cut about a foot off the top right about now when the 1st blooms have gone to seed (I just did mine last night), it will rebloom. It reseeds freely, but is easy to pull up if it lands someplace you don’t want it. I will have to look for some pink phlox like you have. I have a very similar tall phlox in white and I love how long the blooms last during this hot part of summer. I’ve been keeping an eye out at the local big box store for your espaliered apples because I love them every time you show them. So far, they only have had a standard shape apple tree with multiple varieties, but I’m holding out for one like yours!

  17. Margaret K. says:

    I wouldn’t recommend lemon balm in a flower bed – it’s a voracious* seeder. It might be less invasive in your zone than mine, but here it seeds itself EVERYWHERE. Because I like it for tea, I still grow it – in a large pot that keeps the stolons under control – but I make sure all its stems get trimmed back when they start to flower.

    *[yes, I know that’s not a term ordinarily used this way]

  18. West Coast Nan says:

    Lupines are a lovely perennial, and so easy to grow. They would look great along the edges or against the fences as they get a bit tall (up to 4 feet!). Love them in the purple hues… Can’t wait to see how this space grows!

  19. carol bittner says:

    Your cottage garden is coming along very nicely. Your beautiful old brick home is the perfect place for the cottage look. Love love what you are doing; I know sometimes we get impatient but you are doing it just right. Little by little, before you know it, you will have exactly what you set out to do; a lovely cottage feel to your garden and home. ( I get my best gardening done in a comfy old bra) lol

  20. Karin says:

    I use creeping thyme as a ground cover and love it! Pretty lavender blooms plus I can just run out and cut some fresh whenever I need it.

  21. Cathy Reeves says:

    Bee balm was a good performer for me and my columbine self seeded and popped up in places hither and yon, and I was not mad about that.
    Now that we’re in Arizona I can say our rocks are looking well and so fat the jumping cholla has not attacked us—yet!

  22. Mary Kay says:

    It will be beautiful when you get it all figured out! I want to do the same in front of my house but I have a HUGE oak tree shading most of the area. Will I still be able to achieve some kind of garden curb appeal with all this shade?? Any and all help greatly appreciated!!
    BTW – the Girl Scout garden has taken a beating this summer with all the rain we have had in Ohio. But the cucumbers are growing like crazy! and it’s a good thing cause that is the ONLY thing growing well in the garden.

  23. Heather says:

    Hi Karen, Considering how hard you work, I’m pretty sure you’ll soon have an English garden that’s the envy of the neighbourhood. I’ve had an English country garden for about 15 years, and my experience is that you have to plant really tightly, and accept there’ll be a few casualties as the plants wrestle it out and settle in. I like honeysuckles, lilacs, roses, delphiniums, daisies, ornamental grasses, creeping phlox,lobellia, lambs ear, pinks, Roman Chamomile, sages and other herbs, and native plants, including milk weeds (which, thanks to you, I now raise Monarchs from), mulleins, goldenrod, black-eyed susans…on and on.

  24. Lynda says:

    Try Lady’s Mantle, Perennial Geranium, Lavender, and Chives for low growing hardy perennials. Annabelle Hydrangea, Evening Primrose, Lemon Balm, Daisies, Lavender, Chives are other English Country garden-type hardy plants. Many are self seeding.

    • Karen says:

      Oh! I’ve grown Lady’s Mantle and it got HUGE, lol. I love Lady’s Mantle, it’s one of my favourites. I also really like perennial geranium and used to have it. It croaked on me. Lavender I have and love. :) Chives, … those are up at the garden where they can freely roam. ;) I have completely run out of room for larger plants but I DO love, love, love, a garden that’s filled with Annabelle Hydrangeas. And they may only flower once but those flowers last FOREVER! LOVE ’em. ~ karen!

    • Jenny says:

      We have perennial geraniums and I love them. We are zone 5a in northern Iowa and they survive/thrive on our benign neglect (aka, we never water them, we prune them down in the late fall if we remember to, sometimes quite drastically to keep the spread in check, and that’s about it). I think ours is geranium x magnificum–it flowers once (but for quite a while) with these gorgeous purple blooms and has a nice low spread that doesn’t flop over or wilt. And they come back bigger every year. I immediately thought of them for an English garden. :)

  25. Kari In Dallas says:

    I see where your going with this, but why did you keep the espaliered apples so low, is it too late to allow a branch to grow up your porch posts? I know that’s counterintuitive to allowing the house to show through the planting, but would allow you a little bit more freedom in your cottage planting. Since so many “cottage-y” plants are pretty tall. Are you planning on including native pollinators? Maybe some Echinacea Purpura, Rudbeckia, etc. I’ll post a pic of where my small cottage pathway ended up, using native pollinators, in my backyard, on your FB post. I’m surprised how tall it got, especially the Cosmos, holy cow, they’re giants!

    I love where you’re going with this

    • Karen says:

      Hi Kari! Yes, I did indeed want my espaliers to be traditional, low espaliers. I have had Echinacea and Rudbeckia (I still have a bit of that) and I found them to be a bit hard to keep under control. The fact that 10 years later I still have Rudbeckia is evidence of that, lol. I have cosmos!! I planted them both in my front yard and up at my garden. The garden ones are like you say, they’re HUGE! The ones in my front yard have been shaded I guess and they’re still teeny, tiny. Post your pick! :) ~ karen

  26. Suzanne Reith says:

    Beautiful. My memories of English gardens suggest Aubretia as a low edger, and if you could do annuals, then Allysum (sp?)and Lobelia. For a really English look you’re going to have to toss in a Hollyhock or two against a fence or wall. The veggies you have in there give the garden an authentic wacky English feel. Well done. My gardening days are sadly over, but I am living vicariously through yours. Don’t let me down.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Suzanne! There are hollyhock against the fence, they just haven’t done well. I started them from seed this winter. :) And I should put some alyssum in there!! It would be perfect as a low border and it self seeds. I used to have alllllll alyssum in the front of my house and it just reseeded itself every year. I ended up ripping it alllll out because it got so huge. Butttttt, you’ve reminded me of how much I did love it so I think I’ll give it another go. ~ karen!

  27. Jen says:

    I’ve always had the kind of phlox you have and don’t know about any low-growing kind. Interesting! And I lovelovelove how your grass looks like a meandering path. I’d call it a success just because of that!

  28. Cheryl says:

    Yeah, definitely not creeping phlox. Scented geranium is great for low-growth, and has a lovely scent (hence the name) when you brush by it. Would be lovely for the edges, and it’s damm near impossible to kill and spreads quickly so would fill in the spots in a season or two. I also love creeping veronica (in photo), it gets tiny delicate purple flowers on it in the spring about the size of a pinky fingernail. Again low-growing and spreads easily.

  29. Joanna Lovatt says:

    I can’t remember – do you have cats? Because if you do, you REALLY need to get rid of the lilies: every single part, including the pollen, is unnbelievably toxic for cats. (Probably dogs too, but I haven’t checked that out.)

    • Karen says:

      I do have a cat but it’s an indoor cat. ~ karen!

    • Ann says:

      I have indoor cats, so not worried there. I do have a new-to-me small dog who accompanies me in my garden so… I need to do something about my lovely lilies now – damn. But pup is much more important so THANK YOU for letting me know about the lilies being poisonous!

  30. Miriam Mc Nally says:

    Your house is so beautiful Karen! Irises would be lovely somewhere in your English Cottage Garden, (I can send you the bulbs ha ha), easy to grow and beautiful cut flowers!
    I LOVE your picket fence! And your red brick path. And your porch.

  31. Suz says:

    Tall phlox? Who knew! I have never paid attention but thought phlox was always groundcover! Which is also a problem in that I have to take scissors to the grass that inevitably shows up in the middle of the phlox.

    My front and side beds are part English garden and part I dont know what. I swear that people either love it or shake their heads. I like it much more tended but that isn’t happening this year. But in this heat, its certainly lush and isn’t begging for rain, so that must be a good thing.

  32. whitequeen96 says:

    I forgot about your drone; at first I thought you had really long selfie stick! Your house is absolutely darling when seen from above. The side yard is coming along very nicely, I’ve always loved the beds next to your front gate, and that corner in the 6th photo is great! I’m also trying for an English cottage garden; not easy here in hot and dry southern California! I’m concentrated in roses, with lavender, jasmine and pink geraniums. It sounds a lot nicer than it looks, but it’s a work in progress. I await your next progress report!

  33. Sherrie Smolen says:

    Looking at your garden and hearing your desire for a loose low lying plant, Campanula came to mind.
    The bellflower in blue is pretty common and they bloom all summer. I have one with a small white flower and variegated foliage. Easy to propagate.

    • Karen says:

      Oh, I do like Campanula! I feel like it’s an annual here though. I’ll have to look into it! ~ karen

    • Eileen says:

      Well, I don’t know about your zone, but campanula in zone 7 is a total thug plant. It will end up everywhere and you will never get rid of it because it spreads by every method known (and probably some unknown) to plant life: seeds, runners, deep-growing tubers…I pull buckets of it every year and I can hear it laughing as it pops up somewhere else.

  34. Tina says:

    I am amazed by your tall phlox! I’ve never seen them like that!

    My front yard is in crappy shape, mainly crummy soil and clover and dandelions. I left the majority of the dandelions and clover because every time I go to mow, it’s full of bumbly bees and butterflies. So I dug our some spots and planted phlox and hostas. Eventually I’d like flowering plants to take over for the dandelions and clover.

    Do you have the name of the variety of your phlox? Can you suggest a perennial that is fairly self centered and low effort?

  35. Christy says:

    I started my English garden after reading about yours. ‘Cept I grew almost everything in it from seeds. I can’t explain to ppl how freakin’ (yup, New Jersey) proud I am of my garden. So thank you for inspiring me. Your garden is beautiful btw 😊. oh and Josephine… 😍

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