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Cottage gardens don't look designed. In fact, they're usually exuberant, free-flowering, and sometimes even unrestrained. To get the informal look, avoid planting in straight lines or defined patterns. Let plants cascade over paths and weave through each other. It adds to their charm. And grow self-seeding plants that pop up in unexpected places.
Cottage gardens aren't about new varieties. They're usually filled with the same traditional favorites your grandmother would have grown. Some popular examples include peony, cosmos, foxglove, snapdragon, pansy, bachelor's button, columbine, bleeding heart, and hollyhock.
Make your cottage garden into an outdoor living space by adding comfy furniture. Avoid anything contemporary. Instead look for Adirondack, wicker, or painted metal shellback chairs. The furniture doesn't have to match: Part of the charm is how informal it is. An eclectic mix fits right in.
Most cottage gardens have a romantic feel. Part of that feel comes from the flowers. Look for blooms in soft pastel shades. Also look for plants packed with petals, such as peonies and old roses. As an added bonus, many of these varieties are also wonderfully fragrant.
Create soft meandering pathways instead of those that follow a straight, structured line. Many paving materials work in cottage gardens, including wood chips, stone, old bricks, and flagstone.
Accessorize your cottage garden with antique or vintage items. You're more likely to find garage-sale bargains than high-ticket purchases in a cottage garden. An old, dented watering can or a gate with peeling paint can work nicely.
Don't be afraid to find creative uses for old items. For example, an old chicken feeder might become a fun planter, or a rusty trowel could be a great gate handle.
Though not every cottage garden has a white-picket fence, the two do seem to go hand-in-hand. You don't have to use the fence to create a boundary. A short section simply could hold up favorite floppy perennials.
While all these elements are commonly found in a cottage garden, the biggest rule is that you create a look you love. Don't get caught up in trying to follow "the rules." Plant what you like and how you like it for a delightful cottage garden to suit you.