Creating an English Cottage Garden– In The American Prairie

I have always loved the look of a cottage garden. Big and blowsy, full of blooms and a haven for bees and butterflies. They are the type of garden seen outside a little crumbly English cottage, hollyhocks bobbing against an old stone wall, and roses growing a over little wooden door. About three years ago, I set about creating my own little English style cottage garden in my backyard. The only issue— I live in the American prairie, not England!

With a little trial and error, as well as inspiration from native and arid region plants, I have created an English style garden that is able to thrive in my prairie homeland. I know a lot of you also love the look of an English cottage garden, but like me— don’t live in a gentle English climate! I live in growing zone 7– where temperatures can get below freezing in the winter, but also soar to triple digits in the summer. That means my garden needs to be able to grow in a wide variety of temperatures, some of which can be stressful.

If you’re gardening in a similar climate, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned about creating my English cottage garden dreams in a place that is very much not England….

The Beginnings of my garden….

My little cottage garden sits in the back corner of my back yard. Until fairly recently, it was a rock patio that was over 50 years old, which had started to crumble and became a weedy mess. The rock and cement patio, combines with the southern side of the brick back of our old garage (and my studio!) made this corner a hot, baking mess. We decided that we’d enjoy this space more if it were a garden, so a crow bar and mallet were found and the patio dug up.

What lay below all that rock (which we then repurposed to do all the edging of the garden) was hard dirt that hadn’t seen daylight since the 1960s. There was also a little stone shed in the garden, which a previous owner who had built for his little girl as a playhouse. I love the little shed, and wanted it to be a cottagey feature in the garden. We decided to install a gravel path to give the garden an English flavor, so with heavy landscape cloth and many bags of gravel, we created a path from the shed around the garden edge, with a step into the larger yard.

Within the garden, I used rocks (that had once been the patio!) to make little sections within the larger garden so that I can walk through the flower bed without stepping on plants. The rock edges also ‘sections off’ areas of planting so that different plants have their own smaller flower bed within the larger garden. We also tilled up the dirt and added enriched garden soil. Once the earth had had a chance to breathe, I was ready to get planting, and maybe you are too?

Go With What Grows….

It may sounds simple, but it took me a bit to learn— when making a cottage garden, you have to remember what grows where you live. If you see a certain type of flower growing wild in a field, you can be confident it will also grow in your garden. Here in my area, things like coreopsis, sunflowers and evening primrose will grow wild and unaided. However, I’ve learned that some plants— like lupine— just will not grow here, no matter how I beg and plead and tell it how much ambiance it would create in my garden. Instead, I’ve started to look around at the ecosystem of where I live and notice what thrives. This is, essentially, what cottage gardeners of England did as well. Every flower is a wildflower somewhere.

Embrace Sun Loving Herbs…

I have good news, all my gardening friends who must deal with punishing summer heat! Herbs that love a hot climate love our weather! Many of the most popular culinary herbs such as thyme, rosemary and even lavender are native to much more arid regions in places like Italy and Greece, where they are usually growing wild in poor, rocky soil in the beating hot sun. That’s good news for us, because that means that they will be able to power through our scorching weather, and yet still make it through a winter where it gets below freezing.

I’ve got several of these plants that are now a few years old, and they are reaching a fullness and maturity that I have been pleasantly surprised by— especially because I make a point to never water them! They get enough water from our natural rainfall, that they never need a drink. And because their natural habitat is dry, poor soil, they will never need mulching or compose. Save that for the more tender or temperamental plants and let these herbs thrive on neglect.

Tip- if you ever see herbs such as lavender or rosemary drooping over sideways, you may be tempted to water them because they look like they are wilting. DO NOT DO IT! Slumping over is usually a sign of TOO MUCH water. Just leave them alone and let them dry out and they should bounce back!

Cottage Garden Flowers that DO Love Our Climate….

Happily, there are many traditional cottage garden flowers that do thrive in our climate! My favorite, of course, is roses! Roses do wonderfully, especially in the spring and autumn. Some of my favorites are David Austin Roses, which are modern cultivars bred to have the look and heavenly scent of old English cottage style roses.

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised with the vigor with which larkspur grows here, especially in full sun. I’ve got some in my garden as tall as I am, and they come in a variety of beautiful shades of purple, blue and pink. There are so many flowers that are classic garden plants that it would be simpler to just give you a list!

Cottage garden plants that I’ve found that thrive in my garden include:

  • Iris
  • Black Eyed Susan
  • Echinacea
  • Perennial hibiscus
  • Guara
  • Oak Leaf Hydrangea
  • Zennias
  • Bee Balm
  • Sweet William
  • Lamb’s Ear
  • Cabbage & Kale (in spring and autumn)
  • Pansies (in spring and autumn)
  • Dill
  • Sage (several varieties)
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Roses
  • Clematis
  • Hollyhocks
  • Marigold

In closing— I’d just like to add how important it is to remember that gardening is above all, an experiment. Your garden will look a little different every year as you try different varieties of plants, and your perennials grow and change. Each year is different in the amount of sun and heat and rainfall that occurs, and that will of course effect your garden. Take it all in stride, and enjoy the things that thrive, and move on with a shrug from those that don’t.

And above all— enjoy the fruits of your labor! Take time to walk through your garden and notice what’s blooming, what’s receding, how the wildlife are enjoying your garden (and remember that they are part of the ecosystem that may very well help your garden thrive!) and make it a place where beneficial creatures (such as butterflies, bees, lady bugs, praying mantis and even some helpful garden spiders) will want to visit. And of course— humans too!

I hope this little visit to my garden has been helpful, and I hope you have a wonderful gardening year!

Take Joy,

Heather

4 thoughts on “Creating an English Cottage Garden– In The American Prairie

  1. Beautiful, beautiful transformation to your backyard space!! What a delightful assortment of lovely flowers and ruggedly defined rock spaces. It is just so pretty and peaceful and an inspiration for others to give it a try with what grows well in their areas. Your hard work has created this special space that every family member can enjoy. I look forward to photos of various flowers as the summer arrives. Your roses are spectacular and they always make such a gorgeous arrangement in vases for your home!!! The bees must be delighted to have such a smorgasbord too!

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  2. It’s so beautiful, Heather! I’m going to need you to come to New York as soon as you can and help me sort my garden out. 🙂 I did not realize that rosemary and lavender could be over watered and droop like that! Thank you for telling us. Now I know better.

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  3. This was a wonderful blog post! Thank you for the inspiration and the tour of your delightful garden. I am so envious that you are already in full bloom. The roses here in northeast Ohio still have about two weeks to go.

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