A well-designed cottage garden is a rich tapestry of colours and textures. It doesn’t happen by chance; each plant should be carefully chosen for its individual qualities, as well as its overall effect in the garden bed.
When choosing plants for a cottage garden, think of them as different types, each with a special niche in the garden. A well-balanced design will include plants from each of the following groups:
Annuals – These fast-growing colourful plants only last one season, but they’re very good for providing quick cover in new beds, filling in gaps, and plenty of colour in established beds
Bulbs – Grow these under deciduous trees or in garden beds. They require little maintenance and will reappear each year.
Herbaceous perennials – These plants die back each winter, then reappear and flower the following spring and summer. They include many of the old-fashioned cottage plants.
Climbers – These can be productive (passionfruit, kiwifruit) or decorative (sweet pea, climbing roses) and are good for screening walls and fences, or used as cover for structures such as arbors or pergolas.
Shrubs – These are good for screening, and many can be clipped into hedges. They provide a framework for larger beds, creating a presence when other plants in the bed die down in winter.
Trees – At least one small-growing tree should be included in the cottage garden. They provide a vertical accent and summer shade. They can be purely decorative (silver birches, crepe myrtles) or productive (small-growing fruit trees).
Within these groups also choose some of the following:
Scented plants – A cottage garden wouldn’t be completed without scented plants.
Self-seeding plants – A number of annuals and perennials freely self-seed and help give the garden a natural, slightly wild appearance. They can be a nuisance in more formal, controlled designs.
Foliage plants – These are excellent as contrasts and as focal points.
Groundcovers – These may be annual or perennial plants. They are good for filling in gaps, suppressing weeds and softening edges of garden beds and paths.
Herbs – Many of these useful plants have attractive foliage colours and textures, and are either grown in a separate herb bed or mixed in with ornamental plants.
How to use Plants in the Cottage Garden
Bed shape and width
Cottage gardens are usually designed as island beds divided by paths, or as rectangular borders along a fence or driveway. The bed should ideally be at least 2 metres wide, with the plants graded from low to high, starting with ground covers and small annuals at the front, building up to large shrubs at the back (or in the centre, for island beds).
It can be a real art to grow cottage plants in a pleasing and harmonious arrangement, and it may take several years to get it right. You need to consider the plants’ growth requirements (sun, soil, water, etc.), flowering season, height and dormancy period, as well as their flower and foliage colour and their overall shape or form.
The best plant combinations are based on a range of shapes and textures, including tall narrow spikes, surrounded by rounded clumps, grassy tufts, spreading groundcovers, or by plants with broad, flat, feathery or strap-like leaves, and so on.
Drift and mass plantings
It’s easy to be tempted to grow as many different plants as possible, even in a small space. This rarely looks good; the plants will have far more impact if each variety is grown in a group. The group plantings can be repeated at intervals, appearing as clumps or small drifts throughout the bed, or planted as a continuous ribbon weaving through the groups of plants.
Some cottage plantings are designed around a colour theme, using one, two or more colours. Common themes include white, silver, pastels, hot colours, cool colours, or contrasts.
Hedges form an important part of the cottage garden. Tall hedges are used for privacy and enclosure. Low hedges are used to edge the beds, giving the garden a sense of structure and definition even when the rest of the plants die down in winter. Clipped hedges will give the garden a more formal appearance.
PLANTS FOR COTTAGE GARDENS
This is only a small selection of the huge range of plants suitable for inclusion in a cottage garden. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Annuals, Biennials & Perennials
Acrolinum roseum (Everlasting Daisy)
Ageratum houstonianum (Floss Flower)
Alstroemeria aurantiaca (Childean Lily)
Aster ericoides (Heath Aster)
Bellis perennis (English Daisy)
Calendula officinalis (Marigold)
Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)
Chrysanthemum maximum (Shasta Daisy)
Dahlia old forms
Dianthus barbatus (Sweet William)
Gypsophila elegans (Baby's Breath)
Helianthus annuus (Sunflower)
Iberis amara (Candytuft)
Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal Flower)
Lupinus polyphyllous (Lupin)
Mimulus cardinalis (Monkey Flower)
Myosotis alpestris (Forget me not)
Oxalis rosea (Pink Oxalis)
Papaver orientalis (Oriental poppy)
Phlox drummondi (Annual Phlox)
Saxifraga stolonifera (Strawberry Geranium)
Senecio cineraria (Dusty Miller)
Tropaeolum majus (Nasturtium)
Verbena spicata (Speedwell)
Viola species (Violet)
Zinnia elegans (Zinnia)
Bulbs, Corms & Tubers
Anemone hortensis (Common anemone)
Crinum moorei (Velt Lily)
Crocus vernus (Spring Crocus)
Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrops)
Gladiolus nanus (Dwarf Gladiolus)
Hemerocallis aurantiaca (Daylily)
Hippeastrum amaryllis (Barbados Lilly)
Iris kaempferi(Japanese Iris)
Lachenalia bulbiferum (Cape Cowslip)
Muscari botryoides (Grape Hyacinth)
Narcissus jonquila (Jonquils)
Nerine bowdenii (Pink Agapanthus)
Polyanthus tuberosa (Tuberose)
Ranunculus old forms
Sparaxis tricolour (Harlequin Flower)
Tigridia pavonia (Tiger Flower)
Yucca filamentosa (Adams Needle)
Zantedeschia aethiopica (Arum Lily)
Climbers, Creepers & Twiners
Ampelopsis brevipedunculata (Turquoise Berry Vine)
Bignonia capreolata (Cross Vine)
Bougainvillea spectabilis (Woolly leaf Bougainvillea)
Clematis montana (White Anemone Clematis)
Clianthus formosus (Sturts Desert Pea)
Ficus pumila (Climbing Fig)
Jasminum officinale (Common Jasmine)
Lonicera species (Honeysuckles)
Manettia bicolor (Brazillian Manettia)
Parthenocissus quinquifolia (Virginia Creeper)
Passiflora species (Passionfruits)
Rosa many forms (Climbing Roses)
Thunbergia alata (Black Eyed Susan)
Vitus amurensis (Scarlet leaved Vine)
Wisteria sinensis (Chinese Wisteria)
Shrubs From Early Cottage Gardens
Abelia x grandiflora (Chinese Abelia)
Aloysia triphylla (Lemon Scented Verbena)
Aucuba japonica (Gold dust Bush)
Berberis buxifolia (Box foliaged Berberis)
Buxus sempervierens (English Box)
Chaenomeles japonica (Dwarf flowering Quince)
Cistus ladanifer (Rock Rose)
Daphne odora (Winter Daphne)
Duranta repens (Pigeon Berry)
Euonymus japonicus (Spindle Tree)
Fuchsias many forms
Gardenia jasminoides (Cape Jasmine)
Hydrangea macrophylla (Common Hydrangea)
Hypericum calycinum (Rose of Sharon)
Indigofera australis (Austral Indigo)
Kerria japonica (Japanese Rose)
Leonotus leonuris (Lions Ear)
Ligustrum vulgare (Common Privet)
Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape)
Myrtus communis (Common Myrtle)
Nandina domestica (Sacred Bamboo)
Nerium oleander (Oleander)
Photinia serrulata (Chinese Hawthorn)
Plumbago auriculata (Cape Plumbago)
Punica granatum (Pomegranate)
Pyracantha coccinea (Scarlet Firethorn)
Raphiolepis indica (Indian Hawthorn)
Ribes sanguineum (Red Flowering Currant)
Sambucus nigra (European Elder)
Syringa vulgaris (Common Lilac)
Tecomaria capensis (Fire Flower)
Weigelia florida (Weigelia)
Trees For Cottage Gardens
Because of the limitations in space that occurred in the majority of early cottage style gardens, the use of trees was usually kept to a minimum. Single, small trees such as Silver Birches can be used to provide a contrast without taking up much room, as well as providing summer shade, and in the case of deciduous species allow increased light in the winter months coupled with the supply of a heavy mulch to the surrounding garden beds. The use of fruit trees will give similar results, and in addition supply an annual crop of fruit for you to preserve or eat fresh.