Last month we explored the elements that make up a successful cottage garden, from fences to walkways, trellises to art. But flowers and lots of them are the true stars of this kind of garden. While early cottage gardens were made up of edible and medicinal plants, over time ornamentals, especially self-seeding annuals and biennials, became popular.
There aren't any rules for which plants should or shouldn't go in a cottage garden. Plant what you like, and what works with the sunlight, soil type, and climate you have. Mixing flowers, herbs, trees, vines, and shrubs will ensure there's a variety of heights and textures, and provide visual interest when flowers aren't blooming.
Consider a dwarf apple or peach tree, or plant strawberries or blueberries in a sunny spot among the flowers. Herbs are useful for cooking, sachets, or simply for enjoying their fragrances. Lavender is classic cottage garden, as is lemon verbena, mints of all kinds, and pungent rosemary. Creeping thyme is perfect for planting between paving stones. Tall flowers such foxgloves and hollyhocks wave in the breeze and are the exclamation points a garden filled with lower-growing plants needs.
These are a few of my favorite cottage garden flowers. All are easy to grow and attract bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects.
Bachelor Button (Centaurea cyanus) Annual. Also called cornflower, the modest bachelor button is a sweet and reliable filler among taller, showier plants. Sow seed outdoors once the weather has warmed. It blooms in late spring into summer and makes a great cut flower. Usually blue, it is also available in white, pink, or magenta, and in mixes. Save the seed to replant the next year.
Columbine (Aquilegia) Perennial, and also spreads by seed. These impish flowers swaying on delicate stems are cheerful proof that spring is in full force. Unlike most cottage garden flowers, columbines do well in part shade, especially in hot climates. Sow seed indoors in January for spring bloom, or sow outdoors for bloom the next year. Prefers moist, rich soil. They even attract hummingbirds!
Foxglove (Digitalis) Biennial. Tall stems studded with bell-shaped, speckled flowers in white, soft pink, lavender and purple are a magnet for bees. They like morning sun and afternoon shade, though can handle full sun in cool climates. Partner them with columbines, because they like the same light, moisture and soil conditions. Sow indoors or buy transplants. Cutting the main stem once it fades encourages side shoots to develop.
Hollyhock (Alcea) Biennial. If hollyhocks weren't so lovely, and such classic cottage garden flowers, I would hesitate to include them, because they are susceptible to a fungal disease called rust. Though mine succumbed, I've seen them grown beautifully rust-free in other parts of the country. Huge, satiny single or double (powder puff) blooms in sherbet colors grow on 7-foot stems in summer. Sow outdoors in early spring or use transplants for earlier bloom.
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella) Annual. Pale blue flowers peek from a haze of ferny green leaves. The seedpods look like tiny lanterns and can be used in arrangements when dried. An old-fashioned cutting flower that never goes out of style. Sow in spring in cold climates, in mild climates, sow in fall for spring bloom. Self-sows. Varieties are available in white, pink, and deep purple.
Zinnia (Zinnia elegans) Annual. So cheerful, ridiculously easy to grow, and dependable, zinnias belong in every flower garden, cottage or not. Seed sown outdoors after frost gives you armfuls of cut flowers in bold colors. The more they are cut, the more they bloom. Powdery mildew can be a problem, thinning seedlings and providing good air circulation helps. Save the seed to replant next year.
Everyone has their favorites, so my list barely scratches the surface, leaving out such cottage garden classics as nasturtiums, dahlias, poppies, clematis, sweet alyssum, and forget-me-nots.
And don't forget roses. No cottage garden is complete without at least a climber, and perhaps a shrub. The original old varieties usually gave only one heavy bloom, but now there are many cultivars that have the look and scent of antique roses, and rebloom as well.