Cottage gardens originated in England and out of necessity were planted primarily for sustenance. They included many different flowers, vegetables, herbs and fruits. Over time more ornamental flowers were added and as annuals reseeded and perennials reproduced, a random carefree look developed. Plants often grow so close together that weeds are not a big problem. The tightly spaced, intertwined, overflowing look is characteristic of a cottage garden. It is important to apply a little common sense to the planning of a cottage garden because sometimes the random look needs a little help.
The first thing you should consider when planting a cottage garden is your soil. No amount of fertilizer will make up for poor soil. Your garden will have many flowers blooming at the same time and will need fertile soil to keep up with the nutritional demands of the plants. Work organic matter like compost, rotted manure, and grass clipping into your garden yearly to build healthy soil. If the garden is already established use organic matter as a top dressing. Mulch to preserve moisture and deter weeds.
To create the appeal of an old-fashioned cottage garden, you need to separate it somehow from the rest of the world. In earlier times this was necessary to keep grazing animals out and children or chickens in. The practice continues to this day and provides the gardener with a sense of privacy and is also an excellent background for the wonderful variety of plants inside the garden. A picket fence is the classic choice. You can use a row of hedges, a stone garden wall, and the side of a structure or maybe even a trellis or an arbor with vines growing on it. The important thing is to feel like you have left the busy world behind for the peace and serenity the garden provides.
Now the fun really begins. Grow as many types of plants as you can fit in your space. Include annuals, biennials and perennials, which may not bloom the first year, to ensure first year color. Layering your plants according to height, bloom time and color will ensure a colorful display all season long. Choose varieties that are fragrant to perfume the air. Include your favorite herbs like thyme, fennel and dill. A combination of fruit trees and shrubs like peaches, apples, blueberries or elderberries will complement the flowers and taste great too! Some of the classic old fashioned flower choices include: Delphiniums, Phlox, Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), Bee Balm (Monarda), Black-eyed Susan (Rudebeckia), Foxglove (Digitalis), Echinacea (Purpurea), Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), Bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), Poppies (Papaver) and Antique roses. The list could go on forever, the important thing is to plant what you like and what is native or adapted to your area. A garden will be more successful when you work with nature and not against it.
For a finishing touch, include a bench or other comfortable seating somewhere in the garden to relax and enjoy what you have accomplished. Cottage gardens are as different as the people and plants that create them, but they all have one thing in common, that is people who love beauty and nature create them. There are no mistakes, only experiments in progress. So, get out there and start gardening. Consider joining our Garden.com community and post some before and after pictures of your projects to inspire others!