When we come to look at plant sales, every year, month on month we are all always astounded in the growth of sales in the group of plants known as herbaceous perennials. These are the plants that die back to nothing each winter (well, back to their roots) and grow again when things start warming up. They can magically transform, bare beds in the winter into luscious borders in a few months and have an amazing range of heights, textures, colours and fragrances. They are most commonly used for cottage garden planting, often in a fairly informal way.
Picture a garden surrounding a thatched cottage with a front door adorned with scented roses and climbers, flower beds bursting with blowsy blooms. A profusion of plants like hollyhocks, roses, catmint, Alchemilla mollis, fragrant lavender and pinks all growing in an apparent glorious muddle. The beds intersected by brick or shingle paths and the plot enclosed at the front by a pretty picket fence covered with scrambling honeysuckle. That’s the typical cottage garden loved by me and so many, but that chocolate box look isn’t just for quaint cottages. It can be replicated either entirely or by just taking some elements to create a border in any sized garden and can look just as attractive in an urban setting as a country one.
The cottage garden owes its origins to poor labourers who had little land but needed to grow food for their family and herbs to treat illnesses so they planted vegetables, herbs, and fruit interspersed with a few flowers to ward off bugs. Then around the end of the eighteenth century, members of the middle-class gentry began to favour the cottage garden look and so began the transformation into the flower-filled setting that we love today.
How to Create it
So how do you create your cottage garden? Although they look haphazard, you will need to put some thought into planning it. You are aiming for a succession of blooms to achieve a tapestry of colour. Think of old-fashioned favourites, including geraniums, roses and foxgloves, to create an informal, casual atmosphere, and plant them close together allowing plants to flop over and weave through each other. Blowsy, fragrant and self-seeding choices will help you create the look, and a colourful mix of bulbs, perennials, annuals and flowering shrubs will give a year-round vision with more structure.
Consider the height and spread of the plants but try some taller plants like delphiniums with their impressive flower spikes in the middle to give some random spikes of colour. For focal points have honeysuckle scrambling up fences and over obelisks and wisteria, roses or clematis around the front door. Perennials such as phlox, aquilegia, hellebores and violets planted in clumps to create a backbone when they flower year after year.
What to Plant
For that true cottage garden look make sure you sow annuals like calendula, nigella, cornflowers, cosmos, lavatera, nicotiana, zinnias and biennial foxgloves that so beautifully fill in gaps. Once up and going these will self-seed year after year.
For winter interest include some evergreens and if you have the room just like the original cottage gardens incorporate edibles. Try step-over-apples for boundaries with lavender or chives to edge the paths, intersperse medicinal and aromatic herbs like lemon balm and perhaps some chard or cabbages between flowers.
When it comes to paths take inspiration from your property so you create a harmonious feel by using materials such as wood chip, weathered bricks or gravel and they should meander rather than being straight lines with plants such as Alchemilla mollis trailing over the edges and even get some groundcover to grow in the path itself such as Thyme, chamomile or Soleirolia (also known as “mind your own business”.
Keep it Looking Good
This is not a low-maintenance style and keeping a cottage garden blooming takes work with mulching, watering, feeding, deadheading, cutting back, dividing, planting and constant tweaking of your design but it will definitely reward you by attracting wildlife and pollinators to your garden. Remember you can always start small by just creating a single cottage style.