The reckless romance that defines a cottage garden is the very thing that makes it impossible to truly “plan” a cottage garden landscape. Cottage gardens grow and evolve as enthusiastic gardeners try to put as many of their favorite plants in their garden as possible.
Barbara Martin has a lovely four-part series on Cottage Garden Design you can read, but what I’d like to do today is provide you with a list of some heirloom and beloved plants that have long been part of cottage gardens everywhere. This list of plants is by no means exhaustive but will provide a starting place for beginners, and maybe bring to mind an old forgotten favorites even if you’ve been gardening for years.
The following 12 plants are all heirloom cottage garden plants and include a mix of herbs, vegetables, perennials, biennials and annuals because cottage gardens are a jumbled mix of many plants together in the same area.
Be sure to include a bench or other sitting area in your cottage garden to better enjoy this living expression of your creativity and personality!
Thyme (Thymus spp.) – A widely used seasoning herb in sauces, salads, soups and meats thyme is also a beautiful evergreen ground cover. Thyme prefers average soil and full sun and the 6” tall ground cover will spread it is not invasive. Thyme is hardy in zones 4-9. (One thyme species is even hardy to zone 2 – See Thyme Plant Profile for details)
Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus) – Scarlet runner beans grow on a rambly vine that added vertical interest to cottage gardens when grown up a trellis, wall or woody shrub. This heirloom vine prefers full sun and average, well-drained soil and will grow 6-8’ tall. Scarlet runner beans get their name from the red flowers that appear each spring and are followed by tasty beans, best cooked as shell beans although you can eat them as snap beans.
‘Green Deer Tongue’ Looseleaf Lettuce (Lactuca sativa ‘Green Deer Tongue’) – Also called ‘Matchless’ this looseleaf lettuce is easy to grow and has been enjoyed by gardeners since 1740. 45-65 days to maturity, it is lettuce is still popular for its hardiness and reliability. Cottage gardens often have vegetables not planted in strict rows, but rather in among the flowers, herbs and other cottage garden plants for easy care and access.
Bachelor’s Button (Centaurea cyanus) – A 2-3’ flowering annual that is excellent for cut, dried or pressed flowers, bachelor’s button is also called corn flower. Sow the seeds of the bachelor’s buttons outdoors in the fall or in early spring. ‘Jubilee Gem’, ‘Red Boy’ and ‘Black Boy’ are heirloom cultivars cottage gardens have had for at least one hundred years. ‘Montana Blue’ is one of the deepest purple-blues available and is a lovely cut flower choice.
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) – A hardy biennial, foxglove is a beloved cottage garden favorite. Early summer bell-shaped flowers appear in purple or white on 5’ stalks that create a dramatic and carefree focal point in any cottage garden. Foxgloves usually prefer part shade but will tolerate full sun. Many gardeners remove spent foxglove stalks after flowering but cottage gardeners often leave a few stalks to set seed because foxglove will self-sow.
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) – Hollyhocks are biennial or short-lived perennials that have been long enjoyed in cottage gardens since the 1500’s. Preferring full sun and rich soil, hollyhocks are easy to grow by sowing seed outdoors in early fall or late spring. Hollyhocks grow on 5-6’stems and individual flowers can be as large as 5” around. Popular worldwide hollyhocks are hardy in zones 3-10 and can be enjoyed by almost any cottage gardener.