You don’t have to live in the country or even a cottage to grow a cottage garden successfully – it can work in a small urban backyard just as much as in a rural setting, says Adrienne Wild
The romantic cottage-garden image is unkempt and informal, with bulging borders spilling on to pathways filled with a joyful jumble of old-fashioned flowers with fruit bushes, vegetables and herbs squeezed in between.
Spoilt for choice
It’s not difficult to make this dream a reality, especially if you have a passion for plants. The aim, for any garden, is to have something of interest from spring through to autumn, but cottage gardens reach their peak of beauty in midsummer.
The modern planting trend is to stick to a colour scheme like pinks and whites, or blues and yellows, or if you prefer to use a whole spectrum of colours, then make sure that the palette is soft.
For a contemporary cottage garden with style, you won’t go far wrong, if you plant hardy geraniums and delphiniums alongside roses and shrubs such as lilac, lavender and wisteria.
A cottage-style border should be a great source of cut flowers. So sprinkle a few seeds of hardy annuals, which if routinely cut will come again, like pot marigold, love-in-the-mist (Nigella), larkspur, sweet peas and Californian poppies in between perennials, which reliably come back year after year.
Maximise the potential of annual sweet peas by training them up wigwams to give borders a focal point.
They will also gladly grow through shrubby plants to give them a coat of many colours.
Hollyhocks are the mainstay of the traditional cottage garden, where their tall stems, which are clothed with striking single blooms in white, light-pink, pinkish-red, magenta and burgundy, are grown in the baking, thin soil against sunny walls. Hollyhocks are biennial and should be sown in June or July to flower next summer.
Aquilegias, which are known as granny’s bonnets, and columbines are also unsurpassed in giving borders a cottage- garden feel. Use them liberally to fill the seasonal gap between the last of the spring bulbs and the main flush of summer perennials.
They don’t live long but are promiscuous and readily self-seed. Flowers can be blue, pink and white but for something different, grow named varieties like ‘Magpie’, which has black and white blooms, and the spiky double ‘Nora Barlow’, with its pink and white petals.
Use your memories of your old granny’s garden to help create your planting list. She would have grown lupins, phlox, peonies, campanulas and foxgloves in generous beds, and pinks as edging.
The ever-popular pink, Dianthus ‘Mrs Sinkins’, is the cottage-garden classic and has grey evergreen leaves and produces double white flowers with ragged edges that are pretty and fragrant. Deadhead regularly to help encourage plenty of flowers and keep the plant looking tidy.
The reflected heat from paths also suits lavender, which makes a fairly neat edging plant, and also catmint or Nepeta, and Alchemilla or lady’s mantle, which are more exuberant plants and will spill over the path when in flower.
Add ornamental grasses and seed heads of plants like Black-Eyed Susan or Rudbeckia or coneflowers to stretch interest through to winter.
In the country garden nothing would have compared to the tranquillity of a wild-flower meadow.
If you have the space you can go all out and create one with native grasses and blooms such as ox-eye daisy, bugle, yarrow, yellow rattle and bird’s-foot trefoil.
In a small garden, simply give your existing lawn a bit of flower power with a scattering of spring and summer-flowering annuals like cornflowers and poppies.
As well as dense planting, brick paths, wattle hurdle fences and garden edges, rustic timber furniture and twiggy plant supports are useful for reinforcing the cottage-garden style along with classics such as gazebos and picket fences.
Walls, too, can play a part, especially if decorated with clematis, wisteria, honeysuckle, jasmine, and climbing roses.
The silver-pink ‘Albertine’ rose is a classic but in a modern garden, you may prefer to grow the pale gold and cream variety ‘Graham Thomas’, which has the advantage that the wonderful flowers are borne all summer making it a good choice for small gardens.