Ask a (Local) Master Gardener: Achieving the controlled chaos of a cottage garden

  • Roses and clematis share a trellis at a Hadley home. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Local Master Gardener Priscilla Touhey. FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 4/9/2020 9:21:29 AM

Q: I have a small deep purple clematis that will only get three feet tall. What can I add to the trellis so it doesn’t look so skimpy without crowding out the clematis? Also, we would like a garden that looks lush and full with lots of different flowers, like an English garden aesthetic. How do you get plants to grow into each other without overcrowding, and taking different heights into account? — Lauren Anderson, Northampton

A: Wonderful springtime questions, Lauren! English cottage gardens are a terrifically mad mix of contained exuberance. Delightfully personal, their enthusiastic blooming seems effortless. And it is, sort of. While strict maintenance is less, they do take some control and a slight bit of planning. I am no garden designer, but I have some suggestions for you.

First, the clematis question. One could go down a very long rabbit hole here. My short hop of an answer is to consider planting a longer-vined clematis of another blooming period next to it. And add a second small one of your current variety if space allows. Clematis look charming when they wind into and through each other. Control growth by physically moving the vines as you choose. Clematis come in three different pruning groups. Read labels when you buy to confirm which kind you have and maintain accordingly.

Now, let’s talk charm. English cottage gardens are a fun excuse to grow a little of a lot. Regarding installation order, think layers. First, anchor your garden with shrubs/trees/tall plants. You shared with me that, together with the deep purple clematis, you have a climbing peach-orange floribunda rose near a hydrangea whose bloom evolves from antique paper white into dark mauve toward fall. Simply lovely. Rose, clematis and hydrangea are quintessential cottage garden plants. There is your anchor layer — check!

Next, add seasonal plants. These are your flowering perennials and annuals. You additionally shared that your mostly border-style garden spaces face Northeast and get morning sun/afternoon shade. Focusing on plants that enjoy part sun or full sun/part sun is likely your best bet. Given you successfully grow roses, you must get good morning sun. 

Loosely order borders by tallest in back, mid-size in middle and shorter in front. Add a tall, upright plant/grass or two around the middle for punch to keep the eye moving up and down. Alternate colors, textures, forms. Feathery next to spiky. Sprawling next to upright. Repeat plant and color groupings. Create a visual rhythm.     

Alternating forms also helps keep plants from overtaking each other as does staying on top of pruning maintenance. Not sure how many plants to use? Start with groups of three, five or seven. Select plants with different bloom periods.  Choosing flowers that seed themselves lends to a cottage garden’s casual aesthetic, if you are up for the related thinning. It is the gardener’s job to edit the re-seeders for controlled chaos. Again, read the plant label! Plan for a plant’s full grown 3D maturity size to help avoid overcrowding. 

Chartreuse, purples/purple-blue/blue, oranges, yellows, and a touch of white or silver would go well with your existing colors. Start with tall perennials like delphinium and foxglove or a grass. Cheery annuals if you have the sun could be cleome, zinnia or cosmos. 

Mid-size options abound. Ideas include yarrow, coreopsis, purple coneflower, bachelor’s buttons and goatsbeard. Deep-pink bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) adds grace in spring. By the hydrangea, consider heucherella  (cross between heuchera and tiarella) and foxgloves. Nepeta or part-sun salvia varieties would shine around the peach rose. Research part-sun cottage garden plants for more ideas.

Lastly, fill in spaces with ground cover or mulch. Perennials for edging could include lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), heuchera, hardy geranium (cranesbill) and violas. Native, yellow-blossomed barren strawberry (Geum (Waldsteinia fragarioides) is lovely, too. Complement with annuals like angelonia, nasturtium or sweet alyssum. 

Want more inspiration? Check out books and gardens by Gertrude Jekyll, Piet Oudolf, or Doug Tallamy for a swath of ideas stretching from cottage gardens to native and wild gardens. Also, Sissinghurst castle and New York’s High Line garden never fail to impress. Remember, planting from seed is always an option, too.    

Have fun with this, Lauren! Try something this year, see what works and adjust next year. Gardening is always a work in progress. Thanks for asking a (local) Master Gardener.

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at One question will be selected and answered per month.

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