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by David Salman

Verbena, Salvia, Penstemon
Gravel paths meandering through colorful perennial garden beds in California courtyard with Verbena, Salvia, Penstemon.

Cottage gardening is a very popular both in England and the US. The mix of low-care perennials, culinary herbs and annuals combined a natural, informal style, is for many, nostalgic of their grandmother or mother's gardens. Not only is the cottage garden a paradise for songbirds and pollinators (hummingbirds, bees and butterflies) with its diverse mix of flowers, but it's also an excellent source for cut flower bouquets for the house and spices for cooking.

I feel It's important to design an informal layout of curving paths around which the garden is created. Some design ideas to make the cottage garden more livable include:

perennial garden in bloom
A full bed in bloom illustrates the whimsical and informal beauty of cottage gardens.
  • A bench - Provides a welcome retreat among the flowers for the gardener.
  • A birdbath - Nothing is better than water for attracting birds.
  • Small growing flowering trees for light shade and fragrant spring flowers.
  • Crushed gravel paths - gravel keeps down the mud and creates an excellent environment for planting the edges of the path with colorful perennial groundcovers.
  • A not-too-tall fence or wall that encloses the cottage garden - this helps to create a more intimate setting and provide support for flowering vines and climbing roses.

Enrich the Soil and Use Regionally Suitable Plants

As with any garden, a healthy living soil is the garden's foundation in which a wide variety of plant species will thrive. Prepare the soil with a mix of high-quality compost and Yum Yum Mix fertilizer at recommended rates to ensure that the drainage is adequate and that the soil is fertile. The right mix of regionally suitable plants is the other crucial part of the equation. Chose plants that are adapted to your region's climate, soil and precipitation. This is an essential consideration, as for example, the cottage garden plant palette used in England or New England will be different from what grows best in the Great Plains or the Intermountain West. There is some overlap, but a "one size fits all" approach to plant selection doesn't apply to such a huge continent like North America.

Go Tall, Medium and Short

Planting too many tight, low mounding growers is counter to the look we try to achieve. Using flowers that re-seed themselves are also a plus in the cottage garden. Over time, this will give the garden a more natural, spontaneous look and help to populate the garden with more plants. It's the gardener's job to do some "editing" as the re-seeders spread so to maintain space for the other long-lived plants that stay put.

Butterfly Paradise Pre-planned Garden
Our Pre-planned gardens are professionally designed, with the perfect perennials already picked out for the garden of your dreams. All you have to do is follow our easy directions and garden map. This illustration is from our Butterfly Paradise Pre-planned garden.

As for plant placement, the cottage garden needs a good mix of small, medium and tall plants to be scattered throughout the garden. Tall growers should be scattered in the middle and back of the beds. These tall growers help to emphasize a more informal feel and help create the look of barely controlled abundance.

A Short List of Basic Cottage Garden Plants for East of the Mississippi

Yarrow, Salvia, Red Hot Poker, Agastache Perennial Garden
Denver Colorado front yard cottage perennial garden with yellow Yarrow (Achillea), Salvia 'Blue Hill', Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia 'Alcazar'), Sidalcea 'Party Girl' and Agastache; design by Tom Peace (Weckbaugh)

Plants for Western Cottage Gardens (Arid conditions, alkaline soils, windy)


Spring Flowering Bulbs

  • Allium (Ornamental Onion) - 'Purple Sensation', 'Globemaster' and other tall selections
  • Daffodil (Narcisus) - taller varieties
  • Gladiolus (Gladiolas)
  • Muscari (Grape Hyacinths)
  • Tulipa (Tulip) - Darwin hybrids

Flowering Perennials (with selected species and cultivars)

  • Achillea (Yarrow) - 'Coronation Gold'
  • Agastache (Humingbird Mint) - 'Ava', Desert Sunrise®, 'Blue Boa', 'Blue Fortune'
  • Alcea (Hollyhock)
  • Allium (Ornamental Onion) - 'Millenium'
  • Aquilegia (Columbine) - A. chrysantha
  • Aster (Aster) - 'Lady in Black'
  • Callirhoe (Poppy Mallow)
  • Centranthus (Jupiter's Beard)
  • Coreopsis (Tickseed) - 'Zagreb', 'Moonbeam'
  • Diascia (Twinspur) - 'Coral Canyon'
  • Digitalis (Foxglove) - 'Polka Dot Princess', D. thapsi Spanish Peaks®, D. obscura Sunset®
  • Echinacea (Purple Coneflower) - E. paradoxa, 'Rocky Top Hybrid', E. purpurea
  • Echinops (Globe Thistle)
  • Eryngium (Seaholly)
  • Gaura (Appleblossom Grass)
  • Leucanthemum> (Shasta Daisy)
  • Linum (Flax) - L. narbonense, L. perenne 'Appar'
  • Monarda (Beebalm) - M. fistulosa
  • Nepeta (Catmint) - 'Walker's Low', 'Select Blue'
  • Papaver (Oriental Poppy) - various cultivars
  • Penstemon (Beardtongue) - 'Dark Towers', P. palmeri
  • Phlomis (Jerusalem Sage) - P. russeliana, P. cashmeriana
  • Salvia (Sage) - S. reptans 'Autumn Sapphire', Raspberry Delight®, 'May Night', 'Caradonna'
  • Solidago (Goldenrod) - 'Fireworks', 'Wichita Mountains'
  • Zauschneria (Hummingbird Trumpet or Fire Challis) - 'Sky Island Orange', Orange Carpet®

Perennial Culinary Herbs (with selected species and cultivars)

  • Lavandula (Lavender) - French hybrid 'Gros Bleu', 'Grosso', English 'Sharon Roberts', 'Buena Vista', 'Miss Katherine', 'Vera'
  • Rosmarinus (Rosemary) - cold hardy 'Madeline Hill', 'Arp'
  • Salvia (Garden Sage) - Salvia officinalis cultivars
  • Thymus (Thyme) English thyme cultivars
Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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