Whether you are a gardener or not, strolling along a meandering cottage garden pathway through fragrant, rainbow-dappled, flowers, herbs, and shrubs, is a delightful experience. Countless flowers with a variety of colors, fragrances, textures, and occasional surprises in cottage gardens, provide memorable and seasonal experiences for both neophyte and expert.
Cottage gardens have an aesthetic appeal of looking like every plant and flower just appeared naturally. These gardens seem to spring up without any apparent design and thrive wherever they are planted, but don't be fooled. Mother Nature's designs do take a little research and planning on your part.
The first step in planning a cottage garden is to understand what they are. Cottage gardens are to landscapes what George Seurat's pointillistic paintings are to art. Pointillism incorporates thousands of tiny individual dots, blending a variety of shades and colors in harmonizing sweeps. Cottage gardens, too, can look messy, weedy, and hard to create; but if planned correctly from the start, can be stimulating, energetic, and a work of art where your guests, pollinators, and wildlife feel welcomed.
First, your property or garden bed needs to be assessed for its soil moisture, soil pH, and sunlight. Knowing what you're working with, your cottage garden then needs a purpose. Whether it is attracting birds and butterflies, having a cutting garden to enjoy flowers indoors, or creating a colorful, no-turf yard in mind, your cottage garden can have one or all these goals incorporated in your design plan. Once you have established your goals, you can begin to select the design shape and your palette of plants.
Here in Florida, many new residents pine for their northern gardens and automatically assume that they cannot have them with our tropical climate. But you don't need the exact northern plant. Once you know what you would like, then you can select a similar tropical-zoned flower or shrub to take its place! To do this, take a cottage garden design from any other zone that has a plant list. Research those plants' specifications of flower color, height, leaf texture, bloom season, sun, and moisture needs. Find tropical and subtropical plants that have those similar specs and requirements. Take, for example, northern lilacs: Lilacs have beautiful, tall, fragrant flowers on a small tree that herald in springtime up north. Lilacs do not grow in southern zones 8b through 11b. A similar flowering shrub are butterfly bushes, Buddleia spp. They do resemble lilac blossoms, come in multiple colors, have fragrance, and can lend height to your garden beds. 1.Another popular tree or shrub is a Crapemyrtle. It can substitute for lilacs with many choices of colors and heights. Crape myrtles love the sun, are drought tolerant once established, and need very little maintenance, not even annual pruning. We can't grow crocuses in the South, but we can enjoy similar blooms in orange, pink, white, and yellow, all summer long using Rain lilies, Zephyranthes spp. They truly are a joy in your tropical cottage garden. Plant northern, normally blooming, spring annuals like alyssum, baby's breath, carnations, delphiniums, four-o-clocks, hollyhocks, pansy, petunias, snapdragon, and stock, in October and November in Florida.
One shortcoming of cottage gardens is that they are not low-maintenance landscapes that most people desire. Up north, the winter snow cover annuals and perennials that have gone to seed, allowing plants to rebloom in spring. This seasonal aspect of cottage gardens is important to remember because winter can make your cottage garden look like it's messy or even dying. Create your cottage garden where it can go to seed in the fall without judgmental eyes. To provide year-round interest, mix in evergreen shrubs and flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Go through any gardening book, magazine, or website, (no matter what zone) that provides a cottage garden plant list. Substitute your comparable Zone 8 - 11 flowers, herbs, and shrubs. Add a small water feature, bird bath, or whimsical art. With a little research, you will have a beautiful cottage garden in Florida.
TW's note: This post was originally published in August 2007, Gardening with Soul, icangarden.com. It has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.