Cottage Garden Plants

small cottage garden, with rosa (roses), house in background, june.
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Traditional cottage garden plants encompass quite a variety of showy and useful plants. Cottage gardens have an informal, flowing layout with riotous color with an emphasis on flowering plants. All of this comes together to create a harmonious balance though repetition of plants and contrasts in form, texture, and color. While most of us think first of the traditional plantings in an English cottage garden, those plants don't work in every growing zone. You can achieve a cottage garden look anywhere by selecting the best mix of plants for your area.

Typical Features 

In addition to the eye-catching colors of flowers, the original cottage gardens also included vegetables and herbs that were used in the kitchen and for medicinal purposes. The inclusion of stinging nettle on a list of traditional cottage garden plants may seem surprising. While we think of it as nuisance weed, when cooked properly nettles serve as a nutritious potherb. These plantings were essential to help feed and sustain the family.

Herbs with fragrant leaves, were popular as cottage garden plants. The sweet-smelling foliage of an herb such as sweet woodruff was harvested and used to mask unpleasant odors in an agricultural setting.

Fruit-bearing trees like apples and crabapples gave structure and shade to the garden. Hedges were formed from hollies and yews and served as a practical way to keep livestock at bay.

Traditional Plants for Today's Cottage Gardens

The table of recommended selections for cottage garden plants is based on a list of flowers in the Shakespeare Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. As their Web site says, "This charming garden in the English cottage-garden style exhibits plants mentioned in the Bard's poems and plays." In some cases where the Brooklyn Botanic Garden lists a particular species of a cottage garden plant, the list merely includes the genus, to avoid undue pedantry. Thus "garden sage" is included in the list simply as "sage." The ornamental sage, 'Victoria Blue' salvia is well regarded as a cottage garden plant.

Besides the herbs listed below, herbs with fragrant leaves, in general, would probably have been popular as cottage garden plants. The sweet-smelling foliage of an herb such as sweet woodruff would have been valued as a useful commodity. Such foliage could have been harvested and used to mask unpleasant odors in an agricultural setting in which there was no such thing as running down to the corner store to buy Lestoil.

Recommended Varieties

Cottage Garden Plants for Your Growing Zone

Not every plant in a traditional English cottage garden is going to be suitable for your growing zone. You can still obtain the look you desire by establishing a base structure for the garden with shrubs and filling in the spaces with easy-care vibrant color from flowering perennials, annuals, vegetables, and herbs.

For humid, cooler growing zones, hollyhocks, delphiniums, phlox, daisies, and lady's mantle are most often used to contribute to the cottage look. If drought-tolerant plants are a must, choose native grasses; succulents like hen and chickens (Sempervivum tectorum), sedums, and echeverias; and perennials like rosemary, lavender, yarrow (achillea species), Santa Barbara daisy (erigeron), gaura, Mexican sage, autumn sage (Salvia greggii), tall verbena (verbena bonariensis), phlomis, kniphofia, catmint, and dusty miller (lychnis).

Add climbing vines or plants to trellises or arbors to add height and the opportunity to grow trailing vegetables.