English Cottage Gardens
You CAN have an English Cottage Garden--and be WaterWise too!
by Sonoma County Master Gardener Sandy Metzger
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! Don’t let the “water patrol” tell you otherwise. If you are crazy about the colorful charm, the carefree (but carefully planned) cottage look, you can have it right here in Sonoma County. 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.
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. All are sun-loving and on the Master Gardeners’ Top Plants list, some among the 30 Superstars, and many in our uber-drought tolerant section (www.sonomamastergardeners.org). First of all, no 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
Let’s 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 I’d say the flowers are more a deep magenta. You can spot it in the early spring along Fountaingrove Parkway, along 101 north, and along I-5 heading to Oregon.
Other small tree candidates would 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 Santa Rosa beginning in July; there are both shrub and tree forms and 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.
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. And then, of course, there are always the cottage garden sweet peas, glorious in their colors and fragrance. They are not on our Top Plants list nor are their cousins the edible peas. Both 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, stachys or 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.
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. Also, these are not among our Top Plants.
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. My single 4” gift plant has turned 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 I don’t believe heats 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
And finally, one flower I have not mentioned but must include is helianthus, or sunflower. I think it’s a must for our cottage gardens; 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 where your new garden will be and which plants you want to include. Visit nurseries and their websites to check out the plants I've mentioned; even take photos. Some nurseries like Emerisa, California Flora, and Jail Industries 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, especially with plants on the MG Top Plants list! It’s win-win.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners