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)

Annuals/Biennials

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
  1. Delosperma Lavender Ice

    'Lavender Ice' Ice Plant has large, gorgeous lavender-pink flowers and a tidy mat of evergreen foliage that turns purplish in winter. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric)...

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    Lavender Ice Ice Plant Lavender Ice Ice Plant Delosperma Lavender Ice
    As low as $7.99 Sale $7.59
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    'Lavender Ice' Ice Plant has large, gorgeous lavender-pink flowers and a tidy mat of evergreen foliage that turns purplish in winter. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  2. Pink and Purple Delosperma ashtonii Blut, Delosperma ashtonii Blut, Blut Ice Plant

    'Blut' is one of the very best cold hardy Ice Plants. With its vigorous growth habit, durable evergreen foliage and summer-long display of deep magenta-red flowers, it is an invaluab...

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    Blut Ice Plant Blut Ice Plant Delosperma ashtonii Blut
    As low as $7.99 Sale $7.19
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    'Blut' is one of the very best cold hardy Ice Plants. With its vigorous growth habit, durable evergreen foliage and summer-long display of deep magenta-red flowers, it is an invaluable groundcover. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  3. Red and White Callirhoe involucrata, Callirhoe involucrata, Poppy Mallow, Winecups

    Commonly known as Poppy Mallow or Wine Cups, Callirhoe involucrata is a native wildflower that decorates the garden with a summer-long display of bright magenta-pink flowers. A spraw...

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    Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe) Poppy Mallow, Winecups Callirhoe involucrata
    Sale Price I Save 5%
    $8.99 Sale $8.54
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Commonly known as Poppy Mallow or Wine Cups, Callirhoe involucrata is a native wildflower that decorates the garden with a summer-long display of bright magenta-pink flowers. A sprawling grower, Callirhoe involucrata's long branches spread out across the ground to create a colorful mat of flowers and foliage. Drought resistant perennial plant (xeric).
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  4. Hesperaloe parviflora Yellow Texas Yucca flower

    Yellow Flowering Texas Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora 'Yellow') is a beautiful, uncommon yellow-flowered form of Texas Red Yucca, a low-water garden favorite. Plant it with other Hespe...

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    Yellow Flowering Texas Yucca (Hesperaloe) Yellow Flowering Texas Yucca Hesperaloe parviflora Yellow
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $12.99 Sale $11.69
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Yellow Flowering Texas Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora 'Yellow') is a beautiful, uncommon yellow-flowered form of Texas Red Yucca, a low-water garden favorite. Plant it with other Hesperaloes to create superb bi-colored combinations that are sure to draw hummingbirds to your garden.
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  5. Silver Artemisia Powis Castle, Artemisia Powis Castle, Silver Sage close up by customer Mike D.

    Powis Castle is a superb foliage plant with finely textured silver-gray foliage and an attractive mounding habit. Use this plant to accentuate ornamental grasses and other perennials...

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    Powis Castle Artemisia Powis Castle Silver Sage Artemisia Powis Castle
    As low as $9.99 Sale $9.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Powis Castle is a superb foliage plant with finely textured silver-gray foliage and an attractive mounding habit. Use this plant to accentuate ornamental grasses and other perennials with differently colored foliage. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  6. Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires

    Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires (Blue Spires Russian Sage) is the best large growing Russian Sage selection blooming with dark blue flower spikes appearing in mid-summer. Though...

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    Blue Spires Russian Sage Blue Spires Russian Sage Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires
    Sale Price I Save 5%
    $10.99 Sale $10.44
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires (Blue Spires Russian Sage) is the best large growing Russian Sage selection blooming with dark blue flower spikes appearing in mid-summer. Thought to be a hybrid of two species, this plant has amazing vigor and blooms for many months.
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  7. Salvia sylvestris May Night, May Night Meadow Sage, Purple Salvia sylvestris May Night

    Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and toleran...

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    May Night Salvia May Night Meadow Sage Salvia sylvestris May Night
    As low as $9.49 Sale $9.02
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and tolerance of heavy clay soils. Blooming in late spring with a profusion of flower spikes, it reblooms later in the summer when deadheaded.
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  8. Achillea Moonshine Yarrow Photo Courtesy of Walter's Gardens Inc.

    Moonshine Yarrow (Achillea Moonshine) is an outstanding perennial plant with silver-gray foliage and lemon-yellow flat-topped flowers that cover the plant all summer. This is a well-...

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    Moonshine Yarrow Moonshine Yarrow Achillea Moonshine
    As low as $8.99 Sale $8.09
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Moonshine Yarrow (Achillea Moonshine) is an outstanding perennial plant with silver-gray foliage and lemon-yellow flat-topped flowers that cover the plant all summer. This is a well-behaved variety, meaning it won't reseed and spread.
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Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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