My article first appeared on the Sonoma County Master Gardener website a few years ago. It’s still relevant today as we enter our fourth year of drought here in Northern California. It’s a long article, but if you love English cottage gardens, you’ll love reading this.
Even in these lawn-eliminating, water-conserving days, the sand-boulder-gravel-dry river bed-cactus look of Arizona yards isn’t for everyone. If you want instead to have an English cottage garden, you can! If you are crazy about the colorful charm, the carefree (but carefully planned) cottage look, you can have it and save water, too. Some of the proposed plants may differ from the “original” cottage garden species, but you’ll get the look and use less water while you’re at it! The key is to PLAN NOW, PLANT LATER.
The original English “cottagers” were frugal, not frivolous, and filled their tiny front yards with a combination of vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and a few flowers, especially fragrant ones to camouflage the unpleasant odors emanating from harsh cottage living conditions. Cottage gardens evolved over time, sometimes with formally planted beds and later with a generally more exuberant and chaotic appearance. Our sentimental attraction to the style perhaps makes us feel that the scones are ready to be pulled out of the oven and tea served.
If you like the look, then you are going to be thrilled when I tell you that many of the plants I suggest are original English cottage garden varieties. First of all, no (or few) roses and hydrangeas. I know, I know, you feel they’re a must-have! They aren’t. They’re water hogs, but the trade-off will be a lovely, fruit-bearing apple or pear tree.
Think in terms of layers: descending from the back, tall to medium to short. Think ecstatic eruptions: wide variety and no commitment to a single color or species. Think fragrance: perfumes that will grab your olfactory sense and pull you straight into the midst. Think verticality: trellis or arbor cloaked with romantic climbing, twining vines. Think interplanting: edibles and ornamentals. Think endless waves of blooming. Think butterflies and hummingbirds. Think people: add a bench, stepping-stones, a birdbath. Bring your camera.
Small Trees and Shrubs Consider height, but in terms of smaller trees. Two natives come immediately to mind, one, the Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’, actually a shrub limbed up as a tree, an evergreen with brilliant medium-blue flowers in the spring. Deer can decimate ceanothus, but with this one pruned above deer-height, it ought to thrive. The second is Cercis occidentalis, another spring-blooming native, often multi-trunked but tree-like. Redbud is its common name, but the flowers are more a deep magenta. You can spot it in the early spring on the hillsides and along creeks and canyons. Or try Ribes.
Other small tree candidates include Olea europaea ‘Wilsoni’ and ‘Little Ollie’, both non-fruit bearing olive trees. Fremontodendron californica, or flannel bush, is more shrub-like, but it can become quite large and bushy if it’s happy in its location. Do not water this once established, or you will kill it. You’ll recognize the three-inch bright yellow mallow-type flowers in late spring and its hairy, rough, maple-like dark green leaves. You already know crape myrtle does well here because you see it blooming magnificently all over the county beginning in July; shrub and tree forms come in many colors from lavender to pink to red.
Another good tree (or shrub, depending upon how you prune it) is Vitex agnus-castus or chaste tree. Upright lavender, white or pink spikes bloom from late June through August at least. Or, if you want to mix in an edible, then add an apple or pear dwarf variety and keep it pruned that way. Think of how beautiful the blossoms look in the spring and how they both attract bees, a beneficial insect we need in our gardens! And, you get to eat the fruit! They do take some water, however.
Buddleia, or butterfly bush, is a welcome addition to any cottage garden, stunningly fragrant and in pink, lavender, purple, and white. They can be dwarf or grow upwards of 10-12 feet. I’ve fallen for Eriogonum, or buckwheat, a CA native that comes in many varieties, sizes, and colors. For a dramatic show-stopper, choose E. giganteum or, St. Catherine’s lace. The creamy flower heads can be 18 inches across and appear like huge bouquets of Queen Anne’s lace. Give it space and no water once it’s established. I prune it for shape and size control in late spring. A number of other appropriate shorter buckwheats will do fine towards the front of the garden: E. fasciculatum and E. grande var. rubescens, red buckwheat, more a dark pink or crimson.
Climbers In my mind, a cottage garden just about always has a picket fence, a trellis or an arbor of some sort. None of these is mandatory, nor is the cottage itself, but climbing vines or vegetables have always been part of this style garden. A sturdy arbor or pergola is perfect for wisteria, either the lavender or white variety. Solanum jasminoides, or potato vine, works well too, floriferous though not fragrant like the wisteria. The potato vine, usually white, is airier than wisteria but gets tangly and becomes home to nesting birds. Keep both these vines in check with fearless annual pruning.
Don’t forget morning glories. Of course there are always the cottage garden sweet peas, glorious in their colors and fragrance. They and their cousins the edible peas are climbers and look lovely against a wall or even trained up a small tree or shrub. Other edibles to add to the mix might be pole beans and tomatoes.
Smaller Shrubs, Herbs, Perennials Many of the plants mentioned so far share a common characteristic: their foliage is gray or gray-green, just about always signaling a certain degree of drought tolerance. It’s not 100% foolproof but always a trait at least to check on. A group of plants exhibiting exactly this trait includes yarrow, dusty miller, artemesia, lamb’s ears, Russian sage, hyssop, the succulent sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and santolina or lavender cotton. All of these are typical for cottage gardens and provide a good combination of color, texture, and fragrance.
An authentic cottage garden wouldn’t be complete without lavender, would it? Add the early-blooming Lavandula ‘Stoechas’, the June-blooming L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’, and finally L. ‘Provence’ or ‘Grosso’. You’ll have waves of heavenly fragrant lavender flowers from March through late July. You will swoon with the scent and seeds, and so will the bees, butterflies, and finches! Another aromatic plant to include is rosemary, color busting out with the daffodils in January and lasting for several months. What a joy it is to see that purply-blue in the doldrums of winter! Other herbs common to a cottage garden are oregano, thyme, and marjoram, either the ornamental or culinary varieties.
The salvias, commonly called sage, are excellent choices as well. Some standouts might include S. greggii, autumn sage, now in shades of pink, red, coral, and bi-color and a favorite of hummingbirds. The larger varieties S. clevelandii, brandegei, leucantha, leucophylla, and microphylla are all exceptional, wonderfully scented, and attractive to both butterflies and hummers. Perfect for a ground cover is our own S. sonomensis; however, it appreciates a bit of shade. There are more than 900 salvia species, many of them California natives and quite appropriate for your cottage garden. Some are airy and see-through, some are more dense and shrubby, some are woody, and some herbaceous. Betsy Clebsch’s A Book of Salvias and her follow-on A New Book on Salvias are two of the best books around on the subject.
For some brighter colors with a prairie look, add black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, milkweed, Verbena bonariensis and rigida, and the beautifully airy Gaura lindheimeri, or whirling butterflies. The verbenas and gaura can seed around a bit, so keep your eye on them. And not to be excluded are the lovable, sentimental hollyhocks, a flower that every grandmother’s garden had in it. Nowadays, they come in shades of light pink and yellow to almost black.
Spikey flowers always contribute textural and height interest that draws the eye upward from the lower mounding plants. Try watsonia, iris, ixia, liatris, Russell lupines, and red-hot poker. Mixing them in with the native grasses muhlenbergia, blue-eyed grass, or California fescue provides a provocative study in contrasting form and color.
Rooters and Runners, Seeders and Sowers Cottage gardens tend to be informal, exuberant and “natural” in appearance because true cottagers didn’t mind a little self-seeding, with plants traveling here and there, filling in empty spaces. They liked “free” seeds and plants to share with neighbors. The plants I note next have personalities and goals of their own and like to travel by seed or underground roots and runners. These are drought tolerant but assertive; give them water and they turn aggressive! They add sooooo much to a cottage garden, but they bear watching! Take heed.
Borage is an old-fashioned herb and one of my favorites, though some dislike it intensely for its seeding-around habit and its hairy, prickly, sticky leaves and stems. Despite those traits, I love it because it blooms early and long, it’s intensely blue, it attracts tens of hundreds of bees, and the flowers can be used in salads or as garnish on other foods. When it’s gone to seed, I toss the seedheads onto barren or weedy places where new plants will appear next season, or perhaps even later this year.
Cerinthe is great in sun or dry shade. It’s about 12-18” high with mottled gray-green foliage and tiny dark purple pendant flowers. A 4” gift plant can turn into hundreds, reliably each spring; I deadhead the plants and sprinkle the seedheads to places I want additional plants the following spring. I am not disappointed. When the cerinthe are spent, I pull out all the plants and recycle them, but not in my own compost pile which may not heat up enough to decompose the seeds.
The same goes for nigella damescena, or love-in-a-mist. Someone gave me a handful of seed-filled pods one year. I now have millions, I swear. They have feathery green foliage topped by cornflower-like blooms in three shades of blue, pink, or white. They’re cottage garden-perfect. However, once you have them, you will never not have them. They are prodigious seeders, but I like them anyway because they fill in the blanks between the decline of irises and other early bloomers and the burst of June-blooming perennials. And the pods are excellent for dried autumn arrangements and wreaths.
Linnaria, Jupiter’s beard, Mexican evening primrose, rose campion, and four o’clocks have habits similar to the three just noted above. They are all drought tolerant and wonderfully worthy of cottage gardens. As someone once said to me about these plants, “Be careful what you wish for.” It is their genetic responsibility to thrive and survive—and they will. It is your responsibility to decide if you want them in your garden.
And finally, one flower I have not mentioned but must include is helianthus, or sunflower. It’s so uniquely American. The books officially say it takes a “lot” of water. Unofficially I say, nonsense. I typically have a half-dozen bird-planted sunflowers in places where I would never personally plant them, on barren, unirrigated packed adobe dirt! Somehow the seeds germinate and the plants grow. If I remember, I’ll give them an occasional squirt of water, and that’s it. Sunflowers are spectacular; birds feed on the seeds, and finches love the leaves.
Many paragraphs ago, I advised you to PLAN NOW, PLANT LATER. The hot, droughty summer is coming and we’re all on water restriction. When you put in new plants, they require extra water until becoming established. Now is the time to plan your cottage garden–it is not the time to do a major planting. Fall is when you want to do it instead: mornings are dewy-damp, days are cooler, and the rains are coming. Vegetative top growth slows and stops, but the roots are actively growing and establishing themselves.
So use the hot days of summer to sit in the shade and plan which plants you want to include in your new garden. Visit nurseries and their websites to check out the plants I’ve mentioned; even take photos. Some nurseries have excellent demo gardens where you can see the plants in situ. Then buy and install in the fall and let the rains naturally do the irrigating for you (for free). Come springtime, you will be amazed at the growth and lushness of your young cottage garden. And, an added advantage of planting in the fall is that many nurseries hold sales; you will get some real deals on your new cottage garden plants!
Happy cottage gardening!