Create a Charming Cottage Garden
Charming, romantic cottage gardens are believed to have originated during the Elizabethan era. According to historians, they began as informal plantings of vegetables, herbs and fruits around English homes and probably expanded to include flowers and shrubs as families became a little more prosperous and had more leisure time to garden for beauty as well as for food.
Violets, daises, hollyhocks and many other flowers were commonly found in these lovely gardens. Today this “old-fashioned” design is still popular with gardeners who want a natural, casual look.
For a true cottage garden, choose plants with lush, many-petaled blooms; climbing vines, such as clematis, wisteria and honeysuckle; rambling roses; and a rich variety of fragrant flowers and herbs. Don’t forget lilacs, hydrangeas and other blooming shrubs.
Perennials make an excellent backbone for these gardens. Tuck daffodils, crocus and other bulbs or annuals in and around them, and add an apple, pear, or crabapple tree if you have room. Remember to let your plants mingle and blend together, and avoid putting them in straight lines. Part of the fun of a cottage style garden is letting your plants grow exuberantly.
No cottage garden would feel complete without sweet-smelling lavender. While lavender can be difficult to grow in areas with high humidity, English lavender is less demanding. Give the plants full sun and soil that drains easily. This tall, perennial herb is a good companion for coneflowers (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susans, as well as shorter flowers and herbs.
Fragrant sweet peas are the mainstay of many cottage gardens. These climbing flowers come in a wide variety of colors and many have intense perfumes. They’re annuals that prefer full sun, although they dislike hot weather and produce their best blooms in early spring. If you live in a hot climate, sow the seeds in fall. Sweet peas are usually trellised, but in a cottage garden, you can allow them to weave around shrubs and tall perennials or train them on a fence.
Heliotropes, with their vanilla perfumes, can be found in shades of blue, lavender and white. Grow them alongside pink or pale yellow flowers for a soft color combination, or with hot pink or gold blooms for a bold palette. A navy-blue heliotrope variety, ‘Marine’ is especially striking. These spring-blooming annuals need full to part sun.
Although their blooms last only one day, daylilies are beautiful additions to any cottage garden. These nearly indestructible plants crave sun, but grow even in less-than-ideal soils. Look for rainbow colors that vary from butter yellow to raspberry pink, maroon, cream, apricot, watermelon red and more. Plant varieties with staggered bloom times to keep the flowers coming until frost. A bonus: daylily clumps can be divided to help increase your cottage garden.
Drought-resistant hollyhocks add stately charm and bright color to cottage gardens. Tall varieties that grow 8 feet or more can tower over other plants, but shorter varieties that top out around 30 inches are also available. Grown as biennials or short-lived perennials in zones 3 to 8, hollyhocks are beautiful when planted alongside daylilies, delphiniums and sage. Because most hollyhocks are so tall, protect them from strong winds and rain by growing them near a garden shed, gazebo or other structure.
Look closely, and you may spot tiny white flowers popping up through the grass in medieval paintings and old tapestries. English daisies were bred from these flowers, which were low-growing plants native to Europe. Today, English daises have large blooms in single or doubled varieties, and their colors range from white to rose pink or red with yellow centers. Combine these early bloomers with pansies, violas, and other spring flowers; they take full sun to part shade and tolerate average soil.
Carefree larkspurs are easy to grow from seeds. These annuals are best sown in fall, since they don’t fare well once the summer heat arrives, but they self-seed readily to re-appear the next spring. Try them with roses and lavender for a soft color palette and a pleasing mix of flower forms and heights. You’ll find larkspurs in shades of blue and pink as well as white, but you may need to start with fresh seeds after a year or two. Self-sown flowers tend to become drab over time.
A member of the nightshade family, flowering tobacco is also known as woodland tobacco and jasmine tobacco. The plants’ trumpet-shaped flowers come in pink, white, red and pale green, and are filled with nectar for hungry hummingbirds. Grow this annual with other plants that tolerate sun to partial shade, such as love-in-a-mist or cleome. For more impact, use the tall, airy plants in masses or clumps. Note: the plants are toxic, so avoid growing them near pets or children who might chew on them.
Hardy pansies, with their cheerful faces, belong in any cottage garden. They prefer cool temperatures, so start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks before transplanting them, or sow them during the summer for early winter flowers. Pansies are available in more colors than almost any other garden flower. Some varieties have a delicate, light perfume.
When the wind blooms, scabiosa’s lavender, pink or white blooms often nod on their slender stems. Despite their rather unattractive name—scabiosa may come from a Latin word that refers to scabies, a skin disease that the plants were used to treat—the pretty, delicate flowers are butterfly magnets. The plants prefer full sun and tolerate drought and blossom until frost.
Less well-known than the classic French or African marigolds, signet marigolds are small yellow or orange flowers with fine-cut, lacy foliage. They grow 12 to 24 inches high and have a lemony fragrance. Give them a spot with full sun in beds or along paths and walkways. The light, airy foliage combines nicely with violas, nasturtiums and snapdragons. These deer and rabbit-resistant plants can tolerate periods of drought.
Sun-loving penstemons are pink, white, lavender, purple, red, or hot pink perennials with contrasting colors in their throats. There are over 200 species of these members of the snapdragon family, and their trumpet-shaped flowers are a valuable source of nectar for many bees. The blooms open in early spring. After the flowers are finished, the foliage makes a good backdrop for plants that bloom later in the season.
Hummingbirds and butterflies adore the red, tube-shaped blossoms of lobelia, also known as cardinal flowers. These native perennials thrive in sun to part shade and may need afternoon shade if grown in a hot climate. They prefer moist to wet soil, so try iris, ferns, hostas and astilbe as companion plants. Be cautious of using cardinal flowers around children and pets, since all parts of the plant are poisonous.
The nectar-rich, arching flowers of buddleja are the perfect landing pad for butterflies. Butterfly bushes are known for their fuchsia blooms, but also come in white, purple, red or yellow. Grow the shrub in mass for a striking effect, and don't forget to deadhead to keep the blooms coming until frost.
Add heirloom plants, if you wish, but don’t hesitate to try modern varieties that have been bred to resist diseases and re-bloom vigorously.