There are basic principles to keep in mind when planning a cottage garden, but by nature a cottage garden is not easily defined with a simple formula or defined plotting. Each cottage garden is unique and should reflect your personality and style. There are many perennials to choose from that are traditionally used in cottage gardens.
So how do you design your cottage garden? Combine several of these elements of cottage garden design and you will have created your own personal version of a cottage garden:
Simple old fashioned plants and named cultivars rather than hybrids
Overflowing with plants with a variety of flower form
Flowers for cutting
Easy care, low maintenance plants
Food, Herbs and fragrant medicinals
Arches or pillars for climbing roses or flowering vines
Flowing curves and open grassy areas
Surprise specimen plants encountered at the end of a path or pergola, or around a curve of lush plantings.
Select traditional cottage garden plants in tall medium and short that bloom early, mid and late season for continual interest.
The best perennials to create a cottage garden will include a variety of forms from tall flowering spires, loose free flowering forms and compact edging plants and foliage, as well as food, herbs and medicinals.
Perennials with tall flowering spires:
Digitalis Foxglove are a dramatic medicinal staple of cottage gardens. Tall strong flower stems are packed with tubular flower bells. Depending on the variety, from two to six feet tall. Blooms in late spring to mid summer.
Delphinium are so tall and laden with blooms that they often need staking. Try Delphinium elatum instead of Pacific Giant for strong stems, and don’t plant in windy sites. Some varieties are 6 feet tall and bloom in mid to late summer.
Monkshood is a good alternative to the harder to grow Delphinium. Four foot tall spires of nodding bells are easy to grow.
Hollyhocks are an old fashioned favorite to grow along walls or fences. Tall stalks of luscious blooms can grow to 6 or 8 feet tall. Blooms mid season.
Campanula Bellflower are the five foot tall variety of the lovely bellflowers. Tall stalks of lovely blue blooms are wonderful at the back of a border. Blooms in early to mid summer.
Phlox have brilliant bloom colors in mid to late summer, produced in large round clusters. Grows up to four feet tall.
Perennials with medium flowering spires:
Lavender is a must in cottage gardens with tall spikes of tiny blue flowers producing a heavenly scent through your whole garden. Blooms in summer. About a foot or two tall.
Campanula Persicifolia are a shorter variety of bellflower that produces two to three foot strong stems of lovely white or blue bell shaped blooms. Blooms in early to mid summer.
Lupines are punctuation of fat dense flower spikes with rich and vivid color. Their appearance is a stunning contrast among loosely held delicate blooms .
Salvia provides vertical form in a smaller plant reaching only about two feet tall. Blooms in early summer.
Perennials with tall loose form:
Echinacea Coneflower is not only a cottage garden staple, but a medicinal cold remedy. Large daisy like flowers with reflexed petals are held high above the foliage all summer long.
Heliopsis are perennial sunflowers that will fill your garden as well as your vases with bright daisy like double blooms.
Monarda Bee Balm adds bold blooms of rich color from early summer to fall. Three to four feet tall.
Leucanthemum Daisy is an ideal plant for filling bare spots and transitioning between plant forms. White Shasta Daisy is an excellent contrast of simple white bloom to set off not only brighter colors, but the softer pastels. Most varieties are three to four feet tall. Blooms from mid summer to fall.
Perennials with medium loose form:
Heuchera Coral Bells were not long ago exclusive to the lightly shaded areas of the cottage garden, but are now widely planted in all manner of gardens and landscapes. Always neat foliage mounds are topped with loose clusters of bright blooms in late spring and early summer.
Aquilegia Columbine add a delicate touch with lacy foliage and nodding intricate blooms suspended above the plant. A broad range of flower colors brighten the shade in spring and early summer.
Dianthus Cottage Pinks are traditional in a cottage garden. Compact plants about a foot tall produce colorful delicate flowers all summer long.
Geum has long been a traditional cottage garden perennial, but is only recently making a more widespread comeback. Low mounds of foliage send up tall stems holding rose like blooms in midsummer.
Coreopsis tickseed adds sunny bright blooms from late spring to late summer. Rich golden yellows and orange blooms can be up to five inches across. Grows up to two feet tall.
Cranesbill perennial Geranium develops a compact mound of lacy foliage, then airy blooms held above the foliage in early summer.
Achillea or Yarrow are reliable, easy to care for and bloom for long periods with bright and cheerful colors. Two to three foot plants are topped with broad loose heads of tiny blooms.
Food and Produce:
Herbs, especially fragrant herbs
Foliage Plants with short bloom season:
Alchemilla Lady’s Mantle does bloom, but grow it in part shade for the foliage. Large rounded leaves form a neat mound. The chartreuse flower sprays held above the foliage in summer draw attention to the lovely foliage.
Bleeding Heart is a traditional old fashioned shade plant for the cottage garden. Delicate little heart shaped blooms suspend from tarched flower stalks in late spring and early summer. The lacy foliage is a delight all season.
Gypsophila Baby’s Breath also blooms, but the soft clouds of tiny white flowers are often used like foliage as a backdrop to bright blooms or as a transitional plant.
Hosta of just about any variety can be used as borders, fillers, or in groupings to create restful spaces. The old fashioned varieties such as Patriot or Albomarginata will not spread or multiply quickly.
Shrubs and shrubby perennials:
Hydrangea aborescens Anabelle is the classic cottage garden hydrangea with massive snowballs of white flowers in part shade. Any of the Hydrangea macrophylla are also common in cottage gardens.
Peony produce lusciously full, beautifully fragrant blooms in early spring. The shrubby perennial is rich dark green all season long. Plant as a specimen, a grouping or in a hedge row.
Miss Kim Lilac is the favored variety of lilac in cottage gardens. Heavenly scented, the perfected mounded shrub will live for 3o years. Eventually can get as large as 8 feet tall and 7 feet wide in ideal conditions.
Rose of Sharon Althea is stunning in full bloom. The tall narrow shrub is covered in full blooms from spring to frost. Eight to twelve feet tall.
Roses of course. The old fashioned English Roses and Old Bourbon Roses are full flowered and easy to grow.
A cottage garden is meant to be informal, relaxing and inviting. Combine the things you love and include a variety of color but select one or two colors and plants to repeat throughout the landscape. Use a single repeated plant or color to guide the way down a path or to a garden bench. Include hedges and ornamental trees to create structure and focal points. A pruned hedge of boxwood or yew can restore order and define space. White flowers are essential for creating areas for the eye to rest from the lively areas of the garden. Arches and pillars add solid structure and vertical interest to the garden and can help to lead visitors through the garden. Allow plants to overlap each other or peek from behind to create surprises. Use the same plants or single colors in masses, clusters of 3 or 5, or drifts for impact. An occasional single specimen plant can be used as an accent or set apart as a special beloved plant. Amid the chaos of a cottage garden it is typical to create a quiet soothing place to rest, relax and contemplate. Surround your quiet place with soft colors and drifts of delicate blooms floating above the foliage. This is an ideal place for your most fragrant blooms.
Of course feel free to grow whatever you want in a cottage garden style, no need to stick to the classics!