Butterfly Gardeners' Quarterly

A Newsletter for Gardeners and Butterfly Enthusiasts

The Cottage Garden - a Haven for Butterflies

by Claire Hagen Dole

From Summer 1995

It hardly seems a coincidence that butterfly watching became popular in the British Isles long before it reached these shores. Hedgerows, meadows and cottage gardens have given habitat to butterflies and other wildlife for centuries.

The extravagant abundance of cottage gardens, the feeling of lushness barely kept in check--these trigger strong visual and emotional responses in all of us. To a butterfly the response is equally strong but for a different reason: the garden looks like an enormous cafeteria. Include some larval host plants, and it can be a nursery, too.

You can steep yourself in tradition, take a walking tour of village gardens across England, and prolong the enjoyment by filling your yard with historically correct flowers. Or you can take the best ideas from cottage gardening and reinterpret them in your own unique way. Read on:

Cottage Garden in History

The cottage garden of medieval England was a poor man's garden, where beauty was incidental to the plot's real purpose: to feed the cottager's family, while providing medicine, fabric dye, and scent to hide musty odors. The small yard was enclosed to contain animals. In the back yard a beehive sat under an apple or pear tree, next to the family privy. Chickens and a pig fattening in its sty shared table scraps, while contributing manure to the garden.

No space was wastedalong the cottage walls climbing roses and berry vines rambled. Herbs and flowers spilled over the straight path leading to the front door. Here a bench allowed the cottager to rest amid the fragrant rose blossoms.

The vegetables that made up cottagers' staple diet--carrots, onions, leeks, parsnips--might be grown in neat rows, and cooking herbs, as in today's gardens, were clustered by the kitchen door. Otherwise flowers, fruits and herbs were a jumble of shapes and colors, most likely plunked into any available spot as the cottager obtained cuttings from neighbors or from the nearby woods.

Many of our favorite flowers found their way into the kettle: marigold leaves in stew, peony seeds as a condiment, primrose and Sweet William in wine and flavored drinks. Lavender freshened linens and was scattered on the floor with wormwood, to repel fleas.

How did cottage gardens come to be? The Black Death of 1349 killed a third of Britain's population. It also led to the death of feudalism, as the huge estates lost their workforce. Former serfs became tenant farmers who paid yearly fees to the landowner. On small patches of land they built cottages and established garden plots to feed their families almost year-round.

Over the centuries, plants from exotic locales have been welcomed into the cottage garden. One of the most beloved flowers, the hollyhock, may have been carried from the Middle East by returning Crusaders. Far-flung trading in the seventeenth century brought tulips from Turkey and a host of hardy flowers from North America, like fall-blooming Rudbeckia and Helenium. Many cottage garden favorites like lilac and dame's rocket made the reverse journey to the New World, where colonial settlers eased feelings of homesickness by mixing old and new plants in their own gardens.

Our romanticized view of the cottage garden dates to Victorian times, when artists and poets idealized humble country life in reaction to the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution. While the landed gentry continued to favor a formal garden style and a greenhouse filled with orchids, these fresh images brought a breath of life to garden design. The colorful flower gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll did much to popularize cottage gardening for decades hence.

What is a Cottage Garden?

What do you envision when you hear the term cottage garden? If you're like most American gardeners, you probably conjure up images of thatched-roof stone cottages, hedgerows and quaint English village life. If you live in a suburban split-level bounded by chain-link fence, this fantasy may seem too remote to attempt. Indeed, it might look as out-of-place as a recreation of Stonehenge.

It can be liberating to consider what really makes up a cottage garden, apart from its powerful historical trappings. In her wonderful book America's Cottage Gardens, Patricia Thorpe defines cottage gardens as small, personal, individual, eccentric, spontaneous gardens created by amateurs. Isn't this a pretty accurate description of countless gardens tended over the centuries in Great Britain, North America, the Mediterranean, and just about anywhere else you can imagine?

Our huge country tosses out challenges in climate and terrain that can daunt the most optimistic of gardeners. Resourceful gardeners look first to native plants, which are hardy and appropriate to the region's style. Does this mean that a cottage garden in New Mexico can contain cactus and big bluestem grass? Sure, with the addition of wildflowers such as arroyo lupine, gayfeather, cardinal flower, blanketflower, scarlet gilia, butterfly weed, and a host of other drought-tolerant beauties.

If you've been growing flowers and vegetables among the fruit trees and vines, choosing plants because they're interesting to you, listen to this: You are already a cottage gardener! If you're just getting started, loosen up! Following basic guidelines of seasonal bloom and size placement, you can fill your yard with colorful flowers and shrubs to please butterflies, bees, birds, and people. And remember, no garden is ever truly finished; experiment, learn from mistakes, and have fun.

Designing the Cottage Garden

Basic garden design principles apply to cottage gardens, but in a more condensed space. Give your attention to some major considerations:

Layout. Start with the bones of the garden: the trees and shrubs. If you have a sprawling old apple tree, make it the focal point of your cottage garden. Ring it with spring-flowering bulbs and place a comfortable bench under it for lazy summer days.

To disguise an expanse of chain link, put in a privet or boxwood hedge, flowering vines like honeysuckle or clematis, or a background planting of Buddleia, lilac, mock orange, Viburnum, holly--all perfect cottage garden choices. The ever-popular rhododendron and azalea work well, too, provided the colors are not in garish tones of purple or red. Avoid lining your shrubs up like soldiers; aim for surprises that draw you into the garden. For instance, you might put a bulky shrub like Rosa rugosa at a crook in the path, creating a secret garden beyond that simply begs to be explored.

Topiary has long been a fascination of the British; if you are so inclined, set your clipped boxwood creation in a pot near the entrance. Run an old-fashioned climbing rose above the front door to greet visitors with a heavenly sight and scent.

Traditional cottage gardens feature a straight path leading to the front door. Along this path, the jumble of flowers and herbs progresses from low creepers along the path's edge to medium-sized plants in mid-range to tall shrubs and flowers along the sides. Truly spectacular flowers like ten-foot hollyhocks and delphinium are given a place of honor beside the house.

To achieve this progression from short to tall, start with perennials that will give structure and interest year-round. You can't go wrong with herbs; they're tough, attractive and only need occasional trimming. Lavender is in keeping with cottage garden style and looks great spilling over the path. Woody shrubs like sage, rosemary, and santolina can occupy the middle ground, next to currant and blueberry bushes, and perennial flowers like lupine. Foxglove, sunflowers, Joe-Pye weed and globe thistle are good background plants that are attractive to butterflies.

Spiky plants like iris, red-hot poker and mid-sized ornamental grasses add interest and structure to the garden. Rimed with frost in winter, the plumes and seed heads of grasses, herbs and flowers can look spectacular.

Fill in with clumps of annuals like cosmos, zinnia and marigold. If you seed annuals directly in the ground, give them enough space and light to germinate. You may get some delightful surprises from self-seeders of last year's garden--don't be too quick to pull suspected weeds.

Structures. An arbor entwined with climbing rose is a classic cottage garden image. Add a bench, a rustic gate, stone or brick path, birdbath and flower containers like window boxes, clay pots, stone troughs or tubs. Aim for simplicity, though--it's easy to cross the line into kitsch.

Soil Preparation. Early cottagers were practical about plant husbandry: the best soil was reserved for food crops. They gave the less-pampered flowers some advantages, however. The dense planting typical to cottage gardening suppresses weeds and allows plants to support each other, while the constant shade from leaves keeps the ground moist. Planting a wide variety of species helps to control disease and insect infestation.

It's important to start with healthy, rich soil since your plants, once established, won't be going anywhere (although you'll undoubtedly succumb to the temptation to move things around--the true sign of a cottage gardener). A fall mulch of gathered leaves will amend the soil nicely without disturbing it. This is a good time to lift and divide overzealous spreaders, too.

Water with a soaker hose or watering can in early morning. Overhead sprinkling is ineffective and fosters disease, like mildew on rose leaves.

Plant Choice. Judicious choice of plants can give you an almost year-round display without visible gaps or unsightly dead foliage. Early bloomers like witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.), pussy willow (Salix discolor, S. caprea) and Viburnum Bodnantense 'Dawn' bring color and fragrance in late winter, while providing nectar to over-wintering species like the Mourning Cloak.

Spring bulbs (crocus, daffodil, snowdrop) can be scattered in irregular drifts among perennials that surge in early summer, like Shasta daisy. Extend the show into fall with chrysanthemums, asters, autumn-blooming crocus and dahlias. Remove spent plants, if necessary, to make room for next season's performers. Stake flowers that become rangy.

The reigning cottage garden plant has to be the rose; romantic and evocative, it deserves top billing in your yard. Look for the hardier climbing and shrub roses instead of hybrid tea roses.

You're likely to be overwhelmed by the choices; seek out a nursery that specializes in antique roses or pick up a book on old-fashioned varieties (see book list). Amongst the Bourbons, Chinas, Damasks, Gallicas, Noisettes, Rugosas, and other types, two highly recommended varieties are Rosa gallica 'Tuscany Superb' and Rosa rugosa 'Blanc Double de Coubert.' David Austin, or English, roses are hybrid offspring of old and new varieties; 'Mary Rose' is a small (3') shrub rose, long blooming and highly disease-resistant.

Many cottage garden plants rate highly for their butterfly appeal; the following are especially attractive. Adults are likely to nectar on a wide variety of flowers; larval host plants are noted by species:


Calendula officinalis (pot marigold)
Ceanothus spp. (wild lilac). Spring Azure, Brown Elfin, Pale Swallowtail, California Tortoiseshell
Centaurea cyanus (cornflower)
Cheiranthus cheiri (wallflower). Cabbage White
Cistus spp. (rockrose)
Dianthus spp. (pinks)
Hyssopus officianalis (hyssop)
Iberis spp. (candytuft)
Lantana spp.
Lobularia maritima (sweet alyssum)
Scabiosa spp. (pincushion flower)
Spirea spp.
Syringa vulgaris (lilac). Tiger Swallowtail
Viburnum spp. Spring Azure
Viola odora (violet). Fritillaries


Achillea spp. (yarrow)
Alcea rosea (hollyhock). Painted Lady, Gray Hairstreak
Allium spp. (ornamental onion)
Anaphalis margaritacea (pearly everlasting). American Painted Lady
Antirrhinum majus (snapdragon). Buckeye
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed). Monarch.
Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush)
Centranthus ruber (red valerian)
Chrysanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisy)
Coreopsis spp.
Cosmos spp.
Foeniculum vulgare (fennel). Anise & Black Swallowtails
Gaillardia x grandiflora (blanketflower)
Hemerocallis spp. (daylily)
Hesperis matronalis (dame's rocket)
Lavandula spp. (lavender)
Liatris spp. (gayfeather)
Lonicera spp. (honeysuckle)
Lupinus spp. (lupine). Common Sulphur, Blues
Monarda spp. (bee balm)
Phlox spp.
Salvia officianalis (garden sage)
Santolina spp. (lavender cotton)
Tropaeolum majus (nasturtium). Cabbage White
Verbena spp. Buckeye

Late summer/fall

Anemone x hybrida (Japanese anemone)
Aster spp. Pearl Crescent, Field Crescent, Painted Lady
Chrysanthemum spp.
Dahlia spp.
Echinea purpurea (purple coneflower)
Echinops exaltatus (globe thistle)
Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan)
Sedum spp. (stonecrop). Variegated Fritillary

BooksCottage Gardens

America's Cottage Gardens. Patricia Thorpe. Random House, 1990.

The Cottage Garden. Christopher Lloyd and Richard Bird. Prentice Hall, 1990.

A Country Garden for Your Backyard. Marny Smith, with Nancy DuBrule. Smallwood & Stewart, Inc. for Rodale Press, 1992.

Creating a Cottage Garden. Sue Phillips. Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. English Cottage Gardening for American Gardeners. Margaret Hensel. W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.

English Cottage Gardens. Ethne Clarke and Clay Perry. Viking, 1986.

Making a Cottage Garden. Faith and Geoff Whiten. Salem House, 1985.

BooksPlants and Butterfly Gardening

The Butterfly Garden. Jerry Sedenko. Villard, 1991.

Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden. Xerces Society/Smithsonian Institute. Sierra Club Books, 1990.

A Cottage Flora. David Macfadyen. Webb & Bower, 1982.

David Austin's English Roses. David Austin. Little, Brown & Company, 1993.

The Heirloom Garden. Jo Ann Gardner. Storey Communications, Inc., 1992.

How to Attract Hummingbirds and Butterflies. Ortho Books, 1991.

1995 Handbook for Selecting Roses. Send $3 to American Rose Society, P.O. Box 30000, Shreveport, LA 71130-0030.

Old Fashioned Roses: 150 Favorites. Trevor Griffiths. Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1995.

The Old Rose Advisor. Brent C. Dickerson. Timber Press, Inc., 1992. Roses. Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix. Random House, 1988.

Article by Claire Hagen Dole, Publisher/editor of Butterfly Gardeners' Quarterly. Summer 1995. Back issues available from BGQ, PO Box 30931, Seattle, WA 98103.

Claire Hagen Dole is publisher and editor of Butterfly Gardeners' Quarterly, P.O. Box 30931, Seattle, WA 98103. Subscriptions are no longer accepted. She may be contacted by email at skipper@scn.org

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