By Jan Phipps
Cottage gardens started in Medieval England when poor cottagers grew their own food, medicine, fabric dyes and scents right out the back door. During the Victorian period, artists and poets romanticized cottage gardens to escape the harshness of the Industrial Revolution.
In America, they were originally grown as farmyard gardens and were jumbles of flowers, herbs and vines grown close together to maximize the area close to the house. The plants were those that could be grown from seed or starter shoots and easily shared with neighbors. Today we call them “pass-along plants.”
What is a modern cottage garden, and what are the plants grown there? Compact, colorful, fragrant, informal and utilitarian are all adjectives used to describe cottage gardens. Think rose-covered arbors, cascading window boxes, riots of color and texture, a slightly unkempt, blowzy look of variety, and you will have the mental picture of a cottage garden.
Cottage gardens are not individual specimen plants surrounded by a sea of mulch. Instead of fussy hybrid tea roses, you will find climbing roses. Instead of symmetrical, carefully delineated sidewalks, you will find foliage spilling over the edges onto pathways.
Cottage gardens are individualistic because the first rule is to grow plants you love. The second is to choose plants that are easy to grow in your conditions. Here are a few suggestions of plants that do well in Illinois.
You will need some climbers, which means they will need something to grow up. Traditional cottage gardens were fenced in to keep the family’s food animals out. Today an arbor, trellis or partial fence is all that is needed for vines. Clematis, morning glory, bittersweet and climbing roses are a few suggestions.
Next you will need some tall structural plants. How about hollyhocks, Joe-Pye weed, Buddleia (butterfly bush), the taller rudbeckias and even sunflowers?
The middle layer needs some mid-sized plants such as cosmos, zinnia, cleome, columbine, rudbeckia, echinacea, liatris, sweet rocket and goldenrod. There are many more annuals and perennials from which to choose.
Finally, you will need some low growers. Consider tulips and daffodils, lilies, Iberis (candy tuft), dianthus, marigolds, petunias, pansies, mums and asters. You can even mix in some herbs, such as chives, parsley, thyme, sage, marjoram and oregano.
If you choose the plants you love for your cottage garden, you will enjoy it immensely. Once the garden is mature, you can start sharing your seeds and volunteer plants with fellow gardeners.