Friday, July 9, 2010

Native Plants for the Cottage Garden

Ten Bold Native Plants to Update Granny's Cottage Garden

I recently read a great article in the British Gardens Illustrated magazine that took a fresh look at plants for the traditional cottage garden. I’ve always had a soft spot for cottage gardens, as they are one garden archetype that adapts as well for small American gardens as it does for British ones. Plus, the charming jumble of perennials and shrubs is a truly sustainable model for American gardens. It made me think: can we create an American cottage garden out of a purely native palette?

The answer is a resounding “yes”. American gardeners can have all the advantages of a cottage garden—the romantic appeal, the low maintenance, and the goopy prettiness of it all—with a wildlife-friendly native mix.

The key to designing a successful cottage garden is to create the appearance of abundance in small spaces. Good cottage gardens recall moments of rural landscapes: loose grasses, towering ubellifers, and architectural spires. Here a few design principles for creating a cottage garden:

1. Create volume with herbaceous plants. Good cottage gardens overflow with a voluminous massing of pernnials, grasses, and shrubs. The actual mix of species is less important than creating mass and volume within planting beds.  Americans are notoriously bad at creating this kind of massing.  If you can see mulch in your beds, your plants are too far apart. And don’t use groundcovers; cottage gardens need full, heaping beds of plants that spill over the edges.  As a rule of thumb, use plants that are two to four feet tall on average with accent perennials that reach for the sky.

2. Use a high percentage of filler plants: The trick to making a cottage garden look good year-round is to rely on a base of filler plants. Filler plants are those that lack a distinctive shape and fill in around other plants. Think about baby’s breath in a bouquet of roses. Use ornamental grasses like Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis), or cloudy perennials like Boltonia (Boltonia asteroides) as a base, and then dot in drifts of taller structural plants like Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum). The filler plants typically look good year round and create a backdrop to contrast the real stars of the cottage garden: the structural perennials.

3. Mix a variety of structural flower types: Perhaps the most recognizable feature of cottage gardens are the distinctive mix of  flower types. There’s nothing quite as romantic as a richly layered composition of architectural spires (like Baptisia), button shaped flowers (like Monarda), feathery plumes (like Aruncus), statuesque umbels (like Heracleum), and the bright daisies (like Rudbeckia).

And now, what shall we plant? If you follow the design principles above, the truly great advantage of cottage gardens is that there’s a lot of flexibility about what species you select. Here are some native plants that would be ideal for creating the cottage garden effect.


1. Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis): The colorful spires of Wild Indigo have much of the romantic effect that Foxgloves or Hollyhocks had in the English cottage garden. Used in the back of the border, Wild Indigo doubles as both a filler plant (when not in bloom) and a structural plant (when in bloom). The plant also fixes nitrogen in the soil, actually improves the fertility of your planting beds. If you like yellow in the garden, the cultivar ‘Carolina Moonlight’ is spectacular.

2. Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata): Nothing says grandmother’s garden like the billowing blooms of garden phlox. This sweet, upright perennial reaches 3-4 feet tall, and blooms in late summer when many other perennials are spent. Great for butterflies or hummingbirds. Try some of the newer mildew-resistant cultivars like ‘David’ or ‘Katherine’.

3. Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus): The great William Robinson called Goatsbeard “perhaps the finest plant for the wild garden,” and I would have to agree. This edge-of-the-woods native can handle light shade or full sun if kept moist (if you live in the deep South, keep it in the shade).  In early June, the tangle of raspberry-like foliage erupts into stately cream-colored plumes. Allan Armitage claims that the males are more sought after than the females because they produce fuller blooms, but either is great in the garden.  When it's happy, it can grow as tall as five feet, but it's usually closer to three to four feet tall.  No fence line is complete without this versatile forb.

4. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’): Butterflies can’t resist these big clusters of mauve-pink flowers, especially Swallowtails and Monarchs. ‘Little Joe’ is a more compact cultivar (4-5’) ideal for small gardens. It’s less likely to top over than the sprawling species. 'Little Joe' can handle light shade better than the species, although it does best in sunny, moist soils in the back of the border. This cultivar has all the intense color that 'Gateway' has.

5. White Dome Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’): No cottage garden is complete without a hydgrangea. I like Hydrangea arborescens species because it grows more like a loose perennial than the native Oakleaf hydrangea. The large, flat disks of the cultivar ‘White Dome’ are better suited to the wilder look of a cottage garden than the goopy ‘Annabelle’ cultivar. The lacy white disks highlight the best aspects of the native species while at the same time giving it a bit of that Victorian charm.  ‘White Dome’ also dries beautifully in the winter.

6.  Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum): One of the most overlooked native flowers for the garden is the common Cow Parnsip.  Easily confused with the non-native Queen Anne's Lace (Cow Parsley for you Brits), Heracleum maximum is a dreamy addition to the cottage garden border.  This is the only member of the Hogweed genus native to North America.  In early summer, hummocks of architectural foliage emerge out of the base of the plant, providing a great textural contrast to finer textured perennials and grasses.  Lightly fragrant umbels unfold in late June.  Plant in groups of three of five in the midst of finer textured grasses like Sporobolus or Deschampsia flexuosa for a truly expansive effect.

7.  Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris): I fell in love with this plant while wading through the swamps of the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  The blackgum swamps were about the last place in the world I expected to see a rose, not to mention one as showy as this one is in June.  But there it was, loaded with single pink flowers that attracted a cloud of native bees.  The graceful, arching habit of the shrub was as appealing as the blooms, and bright orange rose hips and brilliant red fall color are some of the other advantages this rose has over it's exotic counterparts.  If you've had trouble raising roses because of damp soil, this plant is your answer. 

8.  Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum): This perennial is a flat-out show stopper, dispelling the myth that native plants are not as showy as their exotic counterparts.  Culver's Root looks like a Veronica on steroids.  Slender white spikes that look like a candelbra crown strikingly upright stems.  It blooms for up to eight weeks in mid-July and will last as long as ten days in a vase. This plant is highly effective in the back of the border where it can be mixed with taller shrubs and grasses.  Plant in clumps of seven or more for a truly dramatic effect.  Culver's Root loves moist soil but will tolerate some drought once it is established.  Newer cultivars like the lavender-colored 'Fascination' and pinky lilac 'Apollo' will make you wonder why you ever even bothered with Foxgloves.

9.  Wavy Hair Grass (Deschampsia flexuosa): Every cottage garden needs grasses.  I don't care how smitten you are with blooms, you must make room in those beds for light catching grasses like Wavy Hair Grass.  Low grasses like these are essential in giving small gardens that expansive effect, recalling larger rural landscapes like meadows or pastures.  This particular grass is a delightful and elegant native that thrives in full hot sun or dry shade.  It can even withstand the heat and humidity of the mid-Atlantic and deep South unlike its better known cousin Deschampsia caespitosa.  In spring it is topped with feathery inflorescences that capture and hold light and sway sleepily in the breeze.  Incredibly tough and attractive year-round.

10.  Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum): My former mentor Wolfgang Oehme introduced me to this plant several years ago, and since then, it has become one of my favorite plants.  This plant is easy to overlook at first, but it will quickly become one of your most effective garden plant.  This waist-high perennial is tolerant of wet or dry, sun or shade.  And it's incredibly vigorous, slowly spreading and filling in between gaps.  Mountain Mint's silvery bracts make it a lovely foil to more brightly colored roses or perennials.  This wonderfully aromatic plant is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies.  So when you plant it, you feel good about all the life you helped to sustain.  Plus, it makes you look good.  Whenever one of my perennial experiments does not work, or I get stuck with a problem spot in the garden, I place Mountain Mint in that spot and it almost always solves the problem. 

11.  Great Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima): Every year I fall a bit more in love with this plant.  The king of all black-eyed susans, this Rudbeckia grows six to seven feet in height, creating a spectacle that will surely draw comments from your neighbors.  Huge powder blue leaves cover the bottom 1/3 of this plant, adding a cool contrast to green grasses or warm colored perennials.   In June and July spikes explode with large deep drooping ray flowers with a dark black center.  Goldfinches loves snacking on the seeds in late summer.  It's easy to develop a relationship with this human-sized plant.  Interplant this among low grasses or filler perennials.

Ok, gardeners, those are my top picks.  What other American natives am I leaving out that would be perfect for the cottage garden? 


  1. Great post, the only plant I would add, here in the deep hot- as -the -dickens -and- humid South is plumbago. I love blue plumbago, and it loves my garden, thanks ! Gina

  2. Thomas, this is such a wonderful article, thanks again! Nancy

  3. Hmm, I would add other native grasses like Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’ or Sorghastrum nutans. Also the Amsonias would be great in a cottage garden. And while you mentioned Monarda in passing, I think it’s worth a starring role in a cottage garden, especially the cultivar ‘Raspberry Wine’.

  4. I *love* that photo of Culver's Root!

    I think without properly articulating, this is the garden that I'm going for. A (mostly) native cottage garden.

    Of course, California might as well be Mars, in terms of "normal" growing seasons, so I'm looking at different plants than the ones you mentioned.

    (I did plant various coneflowers when I had a tiny urban garden in Baltimore.)

  5. Thomas, what a brilliant idea. Perhaps this post will serve as a foundation for a future book.

  6. Thomas, I love all your choices. For my New England garden, I would also consider the native Astilbe biternata, Coreopsis, Cimicifuga, Echinacea, Monarda, Heliopsis, Liatris, and Tradescantia. -Jean

  7. I enjoyed your post and your choices! I have a swamp rose and it is the only plant that has survived in a damp location in my garden. I was happy to have found such a pretty rose for that spot.

  8. Hi, I love your choices, but I would add coneflowers and agastache into the mix too!

  9. hi Thomas, i was mulling this one over and one quality of 'cottage' plants is that they are easy to propogae by division. the cottage garden comes from humble origins, before the invention of garden centres, and gardens were made by plants divided and passed over the cottage garden gate....

  10. I'm curious. Are these pictures you have taken yourself? If so, this is tremendous work! Regardless, a great and informative post.

  11. Cow Parsnip is a familiar plant that I've often thought of bringing home. It certainly is something that would stand above everything else.

    Joe Pye-weed followed me home and has taken up residence in my 'pond' garden.

    I'd suggest Coreopsis verticillata (Whorled coreopsis) for sunny dray areas. It's a southern native but the hybrid 'Zagreb' thrives in my north of nowhere area. It's a spreader and great for a mass planting/filler among taller stuff.

  12. I'd follow on from Dorset Michael's point and add some self seeders, it's the interweaving of uninvited but welcome guests that make the cottage feel of informality, and by popping up and threading themselves through the other plants the Nigellas, Poppies, Foxgloves and Hollyhocks etc add harmony by repetition. As to whether any of the above are natives to you.. you'll have to tell me please! Thanks for a thought provoking post as usual. Marian

  13. Terrific post! I love the feel of this kind of garden. That it can be all native all the better. Wonderfully presented! Glad to have found your blog over at blotanical. :>)

  14. Thomas-

    Stumbled upon your site while trying to determine whether there was anyone out there using Heracleum Maximum in naturalistic landscape designs. I discovered a prolific patch of this wonderful native (along with ostensibly native Cimicifuga Racemosa) while inspecting the borders of the property of a home where I was installing gardens early on this summer and was fascinated to watch this veritable jungle of beautiful, deeply cut foliage mature and flower over the course of the season. It took me several guesses to properly identify it, and now I have to wonder out loud: why is this plant- with its unique, architectural form and imposing size, along with beautifully contrasting deep green foliage and pure white umbels- seemingly neglected as a candidate for garden use by everyone but you? Do you know of any prominent (or not so prominent) plantsmen or designers championing this plant? I have strewn seeds gathered from the aforementioned property as well as from local ditches and fields in the hope of possibly "propagating" (loosely speaking) at least for eventual use in gardens I may install: do you suppose it will 'catch'? or is it possibly too associated in peoples' minds with roadside ditches, and hence thought of as a weed? I gather Piet Oudolf has had some success championing Aster Umbellatus (another beautiful roadside plant, at least here in Southern Maine): Let us pray that someone will do the same for this one!

    A voice crying in the wilderness?,

  15. Great Article, I am just in love with the Wild Indigo. Keep up the great information/articles!

  16. I would add the native honeysuckle 'Lonicera sempervirens'. Bright red flowers make it attractive to hummingbirds, and its vining habit can be used in the cottage garden in lieu of the invasive Eurasian vines. We have one vining around an obelisk in the center of the vegetable garden.

  17. Cottage gardens are often dense, so you want many sizes and shapes of plants. For your trees, shrubs and vines, choose delicate and lightly colored variations. Old-fashioned roses are definitive of a cottage garden. They are perfect for white trellises on the side of your home or even in front of a porch.

  18. Another good tall structural plant would be Ironweed (Vernonia altissima) and its kin. I'd use Tradescantia carefully; it dies back in the heat of late summer, but it's a stunner until then.

  19. Awesome post! Somebody recommended me mounten mint a while ago and doing some research on it now. Love the information on the other plants as wel.


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