7 of the most beautiful cottage garden plants
PUBLISHED: 12:39 22 May 2020 | UPDATED: 12:50 22 May 2020
Cottage garden flowers to see and smell. Garden expert Linda Sage recommends seven of the best and most beautiful
Today’s cottage gardens are a pretty, jumble of bulbs, annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs that form a hotchpotch of colour and scent, with roses hugging archways, plants trailing over walls and tumbling onto pathways – relying on grace and charm rather than structure and formality. Mine’s a bit more organised chaos.
In medieval times, cottage gardens occupied a whole different space, with an emphasis on growing vegetables, fruit and herbs. The choice of plants was limited to tried and trusted varieties, which were hardy and always gave good results. Any flowers that were grown filled gaps in the planting and had to earn their keep. They were used as a lure to attract bees and other insects, which in turn pollinated the crops. Herbs were used for medicinal purposes and scented violets spread on cottage floors acted as a deterrent to vermin. There was often a beehive and livestock providing nourishment for poor cottage dwellers.
During the late1800s, cottage gardens became an addition to the development of formal estate gardens with boxwood hedges, greenhouse annuals and roses enclosed in ‘garden rooms.’ By the late 19th century, focus returned to the informal romantic planting style of the traditional English garden, with authors and horticulturists such as William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll popularising the cottage designs we know today.
The following plants work for me in my garden. But whatever plants you choose, whether for a stately home with a walled garden or a tiny patch for sowing annuals, there will be cottage varieties to suit your needs. Happy gardening.
ALBERTINE (Rosa Albertine)
I love this rambling rose because of its sweet perfume and beautiful display of coppery pink flowers on arching stems. Grows up to 15’ (450 cm) with a spread of 10’ (300 cm). Thrives best in an open sunny position. Mine grows on the front wall of my house and I can smell the perfume from my bedroom window. Blue tits love it too and I spend hours leaning out of the window watching them dangling upside down on the stems searching for food. They are such show-offs.
COMMON COLUMBINE (Aquilegia vulgaris)
A charming herbaceous perennial with nodding upright flowers, which can be single or double. These ‘granny’s bonnet’ come in various shades of purple, blue, pink and white. Looks wonderful naturalised among shrubs and roses. The flowers seed freely, and plants moved from an unwanted place settle easily into their new home. Makes a good cut flower. I fill vases and team them with London Pride. Bees will love you forever for including them in your borders. In traditional herbalism carrying a posy of aquilegia was said to arouse the affections of a loved one,
DELPHINIUM (Delphinium elatum)
The flowers bear tall spikes of varying exotic shades of blue (you can also buy white or pink). Despite being poles apart in appearance this popular garden plant belongs to the buttercup family. Delphiniums do need a bit of TLC, though. They are hungry feeders and flowers need staking. Revels in full sun. As the plants are short-lived under my garden conditions, I collect their seeds to keep the supply of plants going.
LONDON PRIDE (Saxifraga x urbium)
This carefree groundcover plant has been around since the 1700s. Leaves form ground hugging rosettes above which appear wiry stems with loose sprays of tiny white to pink flowers spotted with red. Flowers grow 10-30cm. Great for shady places and needs little soil to thrive. Will escape from the front of a border onto pathways and steps, which adds to the plant’s charm. I leave them each season to see how far they can creep.
One of my childhood memories is of my mum growing lupins in our post-war council house. Our cat Pickles used them for shade. The upright spikes made up of small flowers appear early summer and grow to a height of 92cm. Thrives best in full sun or partial shade in moist well drained soil. Watch for slugs and snails as the new shoots appear and inspect flowers regularly for lupin aphid – pick these monsters from the plants by hand or wash them off with water trying not to damage the plants. In autumn cut down to ground level after collecting the seeds.
PRAIRIE MALLOW (Sidalcea malviflora)
This pretty border perennial flowers from mid-late summer. Plants are not fussy but must be cut down at the end of the season to ensure flowering the following year. Divide clumps in spring or autumn. Don’t be fooled by the delicacy of the flowers, this plant is as tough as old boots. Sidalcea looks well planted in drifts and is a favourite of pollinating insects. May need support if grown in unsheltered spots. Can be used as a cut flower. My Sidelcea originates from a clump I took with me when I moved to my current garden 20 years ago. A great decision.
VIRGINIA STOCK (Malcomia maritima)
A profusely flowering annual with a mass of pink, purple, and white flowers. This plant (15-30 cm in height) certainly packs a punch with its cheerful flowers and sweet scent. Easy to grow. Tolerant of poor dry soil. A plant for the front of the border, which grows happily alongside pathways and cracks in paving slabs.
Tips for a cottage garden
Choose long-lasting flower varieties that you love
Divide plants regularly and collect seeds to increase stock
Regularly deadhead flowers to continue their display
Use natural materials when supporting plants
Add a vintage accessory like a wooden wheelbarrow or wicker basket
Making a path through the garden will offer visual relief from crowded planting
Work with your garden and soil conditions rather against them