A lot of people like to have their gardens ship shape and all neat and orderly, hedges sheared and borders well defined. If this is you then you may have trouble with a cottage garden because a cottage garden is not that way. The best way to describe a garden like this is to imagine taking a whole bunch of different plants put them in a bucket and shake them up a bit, then just fling them out and where ever they land that is where they will be. This is not exactly how you would do it but they end product has much the same look.
A true cottage garden can be traced back to the days of the English Tudor period when peoples gardens use to provide them with fruits, vegetable, and medicine needed for their survival. Along with these necessities were flowers that helped attract pollinators. Now a days though a garden such as this is more for enjoying and relaxing then help in the struggle to survive.
There is no real design in a cottage garden it is a mixture of herbs, fruits and vegetables along with flowers to bring beauty and texture to the garden. The main design part of your garden is knowing the growing conditions sun, shade, soil type, and exposure. Most of the plants in your garden will be perennials or shrubs and small trees, although annuals do play an important role in establishing the garden.
The first thing you will want to do is lay out walkways and hardscape items such as trellises or arbors to help establish your gardens borders. After the hardscape you will want to plant the trees and shrubs that will be the anchor plantings. For trees you can plant dwarf fruit trees or small ornamental like redbud or crape myrtle.The next thing will be your plantings the main rule of thumb here is that you want to incorporate some herbs in the mix as well as try and keep the taller plants towards the back so the shorter ones are not overshadowed.
Throwing in some vines such as clematis and trumpet vine will bring some beautiful color combination into the garden. Most plants will be native perennials and will not require a lot of care once they are established. The first year or two you will also be adding some annuals to fill in those areas that the perennials have not established themselves in yet. Even though it is not mandatory it is traditional to have a rose bush or three.
The main idea is to have all sorts of plants and color so have fun and let your creative side show through.