Sarah Raven shares her 5 must-haves for a beautiful cottage garden

Due to its informal style, you’d be forgiven for thinking that creating a cottage garden is simply a case of scattering some seeds and hoping for the best. But ironically, getting that perfect ‘thrown-together’ mix of tumbling plants, hidden pathways, gorgeous scent and secluded spots for reflection takes a fair amount of forethought and skill.

But fear not – expert gardener and author Sarah Raven is here to reveal her secrets for success.

“I just love the look and feel of a cottage garden; it is one of my absolute favourites,” says Sarah.

“I have found that it can be relatively simple to create one that offers a comforting, homely feel, while also teeming with diversity and character. A cottage garden is perfect for those looking to embrace nature and a self-sustaining approach, regardless of whether you live in a rural or urban environment, and no matter the size of your outside space.”

But, as with all successful gardens, you need to get the fundamentals right to create a space you’ll enjoy for years to come. And that’s where Sarah’s advice comes in.

“The primary things to consider include soil type, selection of plants, the inclusion of texture in the form of a path or walkway, and the finishing touches that really bring your garden to life,” she tells us.

Consider these five elements, and you’ll soon be on the garden path to success.

1. The right soil

“The first step is to identify the soil type of a cottage, and most can be identified by handling,” says Sarah.

“I simply roll it in my hands to assess the texture. Understanding your soil type is essential to help you choose the right plants for your garden and allow them to thrive. I find that normal loam soil is best
for cultivating a cottage garden, and this can be recognised by its velvety or flour-like feel when dry,
and its formation of a weak ball shape when wet.

Sweet pea avenue in cottage garden
Sweet pea avenue with Lathyrus odoratus ‘Winston Churchill’, ‘Princess Elizabeth’, ‘King Edward 7th’, ‘Linda Carole’, ‘Hi-Scent’, ‘Beaujolais’, ‘Mollie Rilstone’. Ammi majus and Antirrhinum majus ‘Brighton Rock’ (mixed). Image credit: Sarah Raven

“I like to add organic matter or compost to soil to help improve its structure and overall health, and
this should be forked in while the ground is slightly moist. For best results, make sure to remove any
weeds from the soil beforehand.”

2. Hardy flowering plants

“The thing that I adore most about cottage gardens is that they can be entirely unique to each of us
as gardeners. There’s really no wrong answer when it comes to selecting plants and flowers, but my
suggestion is that you select high performing, reliable, and hardy plants in the first instance to set
you off on the right foot and get your garden brimming with colour and scent,” Sarah says.

“For those of us who like a jolly mix of sharp bright colours, I would recommend a cottage garden
mix of zinnia, cosmos, and malopes. These are traditional cottage garden favourites and will flower
together for an abundant look for not just weeks, but months!”

Cosmos bipinnatus 'Sonata Carmine' (Sonata Series)
Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Sonata Carmine’ (Sonata Series). Image credit: Sarah Raven

“I personally love delphiniums, which are just the most statuesque shrubs,” Sarah adds.

“Their towering spires create privacy and are complimented by exotic colours, providing the perfect escape at home.

“My favourite varieties are the ‘Benary’s Pacific Black Knight’ and ‘Benary’s Pacific Summer Skies’.
These are best planted in groups of three or more with 75cm between them, they also love basking
in full sunlight, so make sure you plant them in a spot that catches as much light as possible.”

3. Subtle walkways

“I absolutely love the charming chaos of paths and walkways that are barely visible under a tangle of
flowers and foliage, and think they add grace and personality to your garden,” says Sarah.

Garden path through shrubs and pink and white flowers
Image credit: Amy Cutmore

Whether you have a large or small garden, it’s possible to include at least one walkway – the trick is to think carefully about materials.

“I recommend keeping the layout simple,” Sarah advises.

“I find that even just the addition of stone, brick, or gravel can bring a refreshing new texture to your garden and works wonderfully to extend the characteristics of a home into an outside space.”

4. A bench

After all the hard work you’ve put into your outdoor space, it would be foolish not to include at least one garden seating idea, so you can sit and take it all in.

“My garden wouldn’t be complete without a bench where I can sit down and listen out for the chirp of the birds or watch the bees embark on their nectar-sourcing journey,” says Sarah.

“I just love our Aqua Flower Bench, from £495, for a pop of colour, it’s naturally weathered for a touch of antique charm and fits just perfectly into a cottage garden look.”

Garden at Chelsea 2023 with circular bench around tree
Image credit: Amy Cutmore

5. Atmospheric lighting

Who wants a garden you can only enjoy until dusk? For a more usable space, incorporate some outdoor lighting ideas for a space after dark.

“I love to use path lighting to bring atmosphere and ambiance into a cottage garden, and to me, it
helps to evoke a nostalgic fairytale feeling,” says Sarah.

“If they’re solar powered…even better! I also get a real thrill when using lanterns to light up corners of the garden, it’s the perfect way to soften the mood on a summer’s evening. My favourites are weather resistant so you can keep them outside all year long.”