I’m not exactly an Anglophile, although I greatly admire many of Britain’s magnificent gardens like Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst, Christopher Lloyd’s labor-intensive Great Dixter, Hidcote Manor Garden and Mottisfont Abbey’s rose garden. But those are estate gardens, or as the Brits say, “vast country piles.”
It’s the “mad mix” of the English cottage garden that has my heart. I’ve flirted with the style over the years with some successes and as many failures. Our climate and soil is different, and while I love delphiniums, that staple of merry old English cottage gardens, I can’t get them to come back for more than a few years in a row. No matter how much love, care and curses I heap upon them.
With age comes wisdom (and a few gray hairs from glancing at ye old checkbook to figure out how many coins of the realm I’ve spent on delphiniums). I’ve given up on some English favorites in favor of plants that I know do well on my patch of ground.
If you’re a neat-freak, the controlled chaos of an English cottage garden may send you screaming into the hills. They’re densely planted, which I love — without expanses of mulch between each plant. Flowers spill over and out of borders onto paths and tower high in abandon. Edible plants and herbs intermingle with annuals and perennials. Trees and shrubs, including roses, provide structure. We use those “good bones,” too, as part of a classic American mixed border.
Cottage gardens are practical, but fun and should not be taken too seriously, according to Monrovia plant company. Instead of mass plantings of a limited number of plants as the English have traditionally done, they suggest a more contemporary approach of planting “a little of a lot” — smaller clumps of many kinds of plants to limit loss to pests and diseases.
Here’s a list of plants they recommend to achieve the look in USDA Zone 4 and 5:
Annuals: “Double Zahara” zinna, high-impact colors and big, fully double flowers: “Black & Bloom” salvia, dark blue flowers on black stems; and “Champion Blue” bellflower, a heavy bloomer that attracts hummingbirds and lasts as a cut flower.
Perennials: “Lacey Blue” Russian sage, improved and deer-resistant form that doesn’t flop over; “Ice Cap” garden phlox, fragrant, dome-shaped flower clusters on tall stems; “Thriller” lady’s mantle, vivid golden yellow flowers over scalloped bright green foliage; “Snowcap” Shasta daisies, fuss-free and easy; “Lady Orchid” peony; “Hidcote Blue” English lavender, a fragrant, romantic beauty; “Powis Castle” artemesia, feather foliage for contrast; “Big Ears” lamb’s ear, for dressing up the edges of a border.
Edibles: “Carmine Jewel” dwarf cherry, self-fertile and loaded with sweet, purplish-red fruits; sweet basil, grows like crazy; “Raspberry Shortcake” raspberries, compact plants need no staking.
Shrubs: Dwarf Korean lilac, spring bloomer; Francis Meilland hybrid tea roses, a fragrant repeat-bloomer; “Blue Enchantress” hydrangea; “Chicagoland Green” boxwood, such an English shrub for edging borders.
Extras: Don’t forget foxgloves, bee balm, crane’s bill geranium, coneflowers, catmint, veronica, herbs like dill and lemon balm.