Creating a Cottage-Garden Bed

The gentle hues and varying textures of cottage garden perennials can be used to create beautiful combinations in an informal planting design. This is the classic sun-loving border of many gardeners' imaginations, with spires of lofty delphiniums piercing through lower mounds of colorful flowers.

When to Start: Fall
At Their Best: Midsummer
Time to Complete: 2 hours preparation; 3 hours to plant

Materials Needed:

  • shovel
  • finished compost
  • delphinium, Black Knight group
  • Italian bugloss (Anchusa azurea)
  • Chilean lily (Alstroemeria ligtu hybrids)
  • yarrow 'Gold Plate'
  • white clary sage (Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica)
  • Greek mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Prepare the Soil

In fall, clear the border of all weeds. Dig in organic matter, such as garden compost. Ideally you should dig down one shovel's depth, incorporating organic matter into the top 6 in (15 cm) of soil. On heavy soils, spread a layer of grit over the whole area, and dig it in to improve drainage.

Set Out the Planting Plan

Buy plants in spring and set them out across the border, taking time to arrange them and to visualize how they will grow in relation to each other. The classic arrangement is taller plants at the back and shorter plants at the front, but consider using tall, airy types, such as Achillea or Verbena bonariensis, farther forward.


Some of the plants will need staking as they grow, and in their first year they will require regular watering to help them establish. Although these herbaceous perennials die back in winter, where possible, leave their stems to stand until spring. Then cut everything back to the ground to neaten the border and allow space for new growth. This is also a good time to apply a general-purpose granular fertilizer and a mulch of well-rotted organic matter.

Top Tip: Staking

Many perennials, such as delphiniums and Achillea, become top-heavy and require support. If you provide supports early in the season, plants will grow through and disguise them, and they will still look natural and attractive. Plants staked at a later date, once they have already flopped, tend to always look trussed up.

Use short stakes to support tall flowers, such as delphiniums (Image 1). Plants with moundlike growth will grow through and be supported by twiggy sticks put in place in spring (Image 2). Linked metal stakes serve a similar purpose (Image 3).

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