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Learning to Grow: Must-have plants for the cottage garden

Published: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:44 p.m. CDT
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(Provided photo)
A cottage garden can create a whimsical landscape.

Characterized by its informality, a cottage garden often combines flowers, herbs and edibles together in beds that overflow with an abundance of fragrant blooms in soft pastel shades.

Pebbled paths meander and wind their way through and around, and sometimes even under, shrubs and flowering trees, perennials and trailing vines. Gates and arbors make eye-catching focal points, and provide additional surface area for roses, perhaps the mainstay of the cottage garden, and other flowering climbers to ramble up and over.   

Here in the Midwest, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, daisies and daylilies thrive. They’re reliable growers with a long bloom season, and they fit beautifully in a cottage garden setting.

Hydrangeas, peonies, cosmos, pansies and clematis all serve to enhance the motif,  as well. In addition to these, there are just a few key plants that no self-respecting cottage gardener should be without.

• Hollyhocks. Among the most quintessential of the cottage garden ornamentals, hollyhocks are sweet and friendly and they add the perfect note of whimsy to the landscape. Their tall spires billow over the rest of the garden – they can reach a height of 8 feet – and are available in an array of colors that look lovely when grown along a fence or against the side of the house. Sun-loving and easily grown from seeds, hollyhocks are biennial, which means they grow foliage the first summer, flower the second, and die in the fall. Fortunately, they are aggressive re-seeders, so once established they will provide you with continuous blooms year after year.

• Delphinium. If hollyhocks are the charming and pretty party host, waving softly on the breeze, holding court at the punch bowl and beckoning passersby to drop in, then delphiniums seem just a bit more reserved, and are often to be found standing demure and shy at the edge of the crowd.

Perhaps best known for their exceptional blue spikes, delphiniums are actually grown in a range of colors from white to pale pinks and purples. They are perennials and will grow in full to part sun, appreciate a cool, moist climate and protection from winds.

• Foxglove. Another biennial, foxglove is a standard in the cottage garden. Producing tall spires covered in speckled tubular shaped flowers above a mound of basal leaves, foxgloves resemble something found in a fairytale, and they’ll happily turn a shady corner of the backyard into the proverbial enchanted woodland.

They can be grown in a variety of colors including pinks and purples, yellow, white, and red, and are low maintenance re-seeders that multiply quickly. Plant foxglove in spring or fall, or sow from seeds in early summer.

• Climbing Rose. What would a cottage garden be without a climbing rose? Whether trained along a fence, over an arbor, or even up and around the doorway, climbing roses perfectly represent the balance between artful design and unpredictability that sets the mood in this garden. And they’re showstoppers, too.

There are a number of varieties that perform well in the Midwest, including the Canadian Explorer series, a group of extremely hardy roses (to Zone 3 or 4), with names like William Baffin, Alexander Mackenzie and John Cabot. Once established in the garden, these roses will need to be pruned and trained to climb a structure. Plant roses in full sun in the spring or early fall.

Now, even if you don’t live under a thatched roof at the end of a cobbled lane, or are, sadly, still without the white picket fence, a romantic and fanciful cottage garden is easy to create by incorporating some of these time-honored selections into the landscape.

Take things a step further by adding an eclectic mix of vintage furniture, a couple of well-placed birdbaths or feeders, and maybe a croquet set or a pie cooling on a windowsill. Just keep an eye out for witches with shiny red apples.

• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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