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Tips on how to create a wildflower cottage garden from seed, with perennials, or by cultivating wild plants. A planting style that’s as beautiful and eco-friendly as it is low-maintenance
Ornamental gardens come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, but one of the classic styles is a cottage garden. Overflowing with foliage and color, they’re a maximalist way to grow a garden with flowers blooming from every nook and cranny. It’s a romantic style and one that’s so bursting with plants that it actually becomes relatively low-maintenance. The idea began as a traditional English cottage garden with pastel blossoms and an intimate atmosphere. More recently, the idea of filling every inch of growing spaces has translated into the tropical, woodland, and wildflower cottage garden.
Wildflower Cottage Garden
We grow flower gardens because we love their beauty and fragrance. Yet, there’s a growing trend to grow flowers for reasons other than as ornamentals; to use them as edible flowers, herbal medicine, natural skincare, and to support wildlife. If you’d like to have your cake and eat it too, then a wildflower cottage garden is for you.
There are four main ways to grow wildflowers in a cottage garden setting. The first way is by growing or buying in perennial (long-lived) wildflower plants. The second way is to broadcast-sow an area with wildflower seed, creating a patch of commercially-selected wildflowers. A more natural approach is to create a small wildflower meadow. Lastly, wildflowers exist in many of our gardens already as weeds. Encouraging them, and even sowing saved seed collected from wild plants can help you rewild your garden.
All of our commercially-bred plants and flowers started their life with a distant ancestor in the wild. Over the years, we domesticated them, pampered them, and the result can be relatively high-maintenance plants that sometimes look very different from their humble beginnings. However, if we go back to those plants’ original habitat and look to our local wild places, we can find their wild relatives.
Wildflowers often grow in poor soil, rely on the weather for moisture, and have plenty of competition from other wild plants. They’re fuss-free and can even fail to thrive if grown in overly fertilized soil. That means that if your garden has an area of nutrient-poor ground, it can be a haven for stunning native wildflowers.
Plants to Grow in a Wildflower Cottage Garden
Wildflowers include cornflowers (bachelors buttons), poppies, echinacea, Queen Anne’s lace, and daisies, but varieties can be different based on where you live in the world. You can grow types specific to your region or stretch out and incorporate wildflowers from other parts of the world too. They can be annuals that grow from seed every year and die down for the winter. They can be biennials or perennial too, and come back every spring for years. Here are some common wildflowers for temperate climates:
- California poppy
- Cow parsley
- Echinacea (coneflower)
- Field scabious
- Hardy geranium (cranesbills)
- Ox-eye daisy
- Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans)
- Viper’s bugloss
- Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot)
Grow a Perennial Wildflower Cottage Garden
Perennial wildflowers are plants that can live for many years, and many of them can be divided or propagated so that you can create more plants for free. They include hardy geraniums (cranesbill), lupins, bee balm, echinacea, wild primrose, bluebells, and even flowering shrubs and trees such as elder. Plant them in a border altogether, individually in pots and vintage containers, and in some cases like honeysuckle, you can train them to climb walls or creep over garden features. The best thing about perennials is that once planted, they’re there for good, and if they like the soil and placement, can give you beautiful displays from year to year.
Probably the most famous modern garden designer who uses perennials is Piet Oudolf. He’s responsible for the High Line in NYC, many celebrated gardens peppered throughout the world, and of course his own famous garden in the Netherlands, Hummelo. What his plantings teach us is that native perennials, even grasses, can look great year-round. Seed heads are as important as flowers, and leaf texture may be even more important than color. Also, by inviting wild perennials into our gardens, we can create biodiverse and low-effort gardens with a huge impact.
Sow Wildflower Seed Mixes
Although many may need re-sowing every year, wildflower seed mixes are probably the most popular way to grow wildflowers. They’re available from big-name seed companies, wildlife conservation groups, and even ‘Save the Bees’ seed packets that come free with bottles of honey. Most are filled with generic mixes of cornflower, poppy, and a few other flowers so if you buy a pack, make sure it lists what types of flowers are inside. Look for varieties native to your region, long-season color, and that will like the area of the garden you have planned for them.
Some specialist wildflower seed suppliers even have wildflower mixes for feeding bumblebees or butterflies or that are early/late season bloomers. Typically, you prepare a bare patch of earth and lightly scatter the seeds in autumn or spring. Rake the seeds in lightly but don’t bury them too deep. Autumn-sown seed will germinate, grow a bit, then slow down for the winter. They’ll be far ahead of the same plants that you might sow from seed in spring.
Please keep in mind that these wildflower mixes don’t take too kindly to competition from grass, and can look a bit drab once their blossoms are spent. They are incredible in their moment of glory though and it’s an easy way to grow wildflowers.
Grow a Wildflower Meadow
A level up from wildflower seed mixes is setting aside an area for a small or large wildflower meadow. Unlike the flower seed mixes, meadows are a mixture of both native grass and wildflowers and are meant to continue growing for years. Once established the only aftercare is cutting them down to 2″ tall once in spring, summer, and autumn, and take the cuttings away so as to not enrich the soil. Fertilizing the soil where you’re trying to grow a wildflower meadow is counter-productive since it will give strength to grasses, which will overpower most wildflowers. Keeping the wildflower ‘Yellow Rattle’ in the mix will also keep a check on rampant grass growth.
Wildflower meadows are traditionally what most meadows and pastures used to look like in the past. Here in Britain, they’re the last bastion for some of our native orchids and other flora but we’ve sadly lost over 97% of them. Setting space aside to recreate one, even on a smaller scale, means that you’ll be helping bring a traditional pastoral element onto your land that will positively hum with bees, frogs, butterflies, and songbirds.
Cultivating Weeds as Wildflowers
The last way to grow a wildflower cottage garden is to allow weeds to move in. It’s a radical idea that goes against everything we’re taught as gardeners, but I will tell you that all of the foxgloves, mullein, red campion, knapweed, and poppies in my allotment garden moved in on their own. If they grew from seed and are thriving in a setting, why not allow them a little space. Especially if they’re beautiful or are rich in nutrients for wildlife.
Take that a step further and actively collect wildflower seeds from your area. That way you know that they’re completely native, that they will love growing in your garden, and that they’ll benefit local wildlife. Keep an open mind and remember that one person’s weed is another person’s wildflower.
Wildflower Cottage Garden Books
- A Woman’s Garden, Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things
- New Wild Garden: Natural-style planting and practicalities
- Dream Plants for the Natural Garden
- Wild about Weeds: Garden Design with Rebel Plants
- Rewild Your Garden