Create A Lovely Cottage Garden For The Pollinators ... On The Cheap!
Starting a new flower garden from scratch can be very intimidating and super pricey, too. What to plant in that new blank space? How to pull it all together so that it looks amazing? And, most importantly, how to do so without breaking the bank?
For this fantastic border garden, we are going with just flowers to keep it affordable… no trees, shrubs, not even roses. You can, of course, add anything that you want to yours, according to your budget and your wants (or, as I prefer to call them, your needs ; )
I will give you tons of ideas of what you can plant and sow for a lush, blooming flower garden, with colour and blooms from spring through fall. There are literally so many flowers to choose from, once you get started you will soon find that you are looking for just a bit more space to add something else that you found and love.
Build a Bed
You’ll need to build or prep your bed. My flower beds are all raised gardens, as we live on an island and the ground where I am is shale and hardpan. So, we either need to dig a couple of feet down with machinery or build up. The cottagey flower bed that you see in the potager is 40 feet long and 4 feet wide, faces due south.
We have several of these cottage style perennial/biennial garden beds on the property and a brand new one on the way as we get rid of more and more lawn from our 1.1 acre property. Once established, these beds are much easier to care for, look nicer in summer than brown, dormant grass, while feeding the birds and bees. The ones in the front yard are a blend of roses, shrubs, trees, flowers, and berries, the one in the potager is just straight flowers.
You do not need to have boards around your bed. The bed in the potager is a raised bed with boards but all of the others are simply mounded on top of the ground with sloping sides for a more natural look, to blend into the landscape. The potager flower garden was originally going to be a holding bed for my lovely perennials, a temporary home for them until we started on the front yard. That took a few years longer than planned as a wedding happened in between, so by then the flowers were well established, added colour to the backyard, and keep the potager buzzing with pollinators, beneficial insects, and birds to eat the bugs. Smartest thing I ever did… and a total fluke ; )
You can start by purchasing great soil right off the bat, as we do, or make a lasagna bed right on top of the grass or ground wherever you want the bed. Lay down some cardboard or thick sheets of newsprint, then layer on 12 to 24 inches worth of organic materials, like leaves, grass clippings, manure, compost… You want the bed to be at least 12” high as it will shrink down to about a third of that as the materials compost down. If you are going to plant into a new lasagna bed, make sure that the top layer, the top few inches is soil so that you can plant into it without the worry of burning.
If you have an existing bed there already, yippee! Just add a whole bunch of compost or manure to feed the bed, fork it in, get sowing and growing.
Ideally, autumn is the best time to start your new garden bed, especially if you are making a lasagna bed, as that gives the bed time to compost down a bit by spring. Also, plants and seeds tend to be on sale for more savings, plus you can sow or plant without having to worry about extra watering or heat stress. Many perennials from seed will not flower in the first year so if sown in fall you have blooms the following summer.
You’re going to fill your bed with seeds, perennials, biennial and annual flowers that self seed, and bulbs that multiply. It is easiest to get a fantastic, pulled together, classy look if you choose a colour scheme of either hot (reds, oranges, yellows) or cool hues (blues, whites, purples, pinks) and stick to that scheme from season to season. Even though it is cottage casual, it will look intentional and well thought out. You can, of course, mix it up for a Victorian colour scheme if you like to mix it up, making sure to have multiples of the same flowers throughout the bed.
For this lovely garden bed, you are going to want a few thriller plants that really draw the eye to them, either because they are so bold and colourful or because they are tall and stately. You will want to plant a thriller plant every 3 to 5 feet. My thriller plants are lilies, tall, stately, majestic lilies. They bloom at different time of the summer, a couple at a time, so that there is always something that really draws the eye to the bed. Your thriller can be crocosmia or perovskia, delphiniums, Joe Pye, or even annual tall sunflowers that you sow new seeds for each spring.
The bright gold of the rudbeckia also draws the eye as it is so very bold : )
The rest of the plants will be filler plants, equally important and gorgeous. You want to choose plants of different heights with varying leaf shapes and textures. Try to always buy in multiples of 3 or 5 so that you have repetition for a more visually appealing look. You do not need 50 different types of flowers, you only need about 10 to 15 that you keep repeating throughout the bed… less for a shorter bed, of course.
To make it look stunning, you’ll want to add blooms of different shapes, too Some round ones like daises, asters, sunflowers, spiky ones like hyssop or liatris or salvia, and some clustered blooms like verbena bonariensis, nepeta, or yarrow. This also makes it simple to put together a beautiful bouquet from your own garden, as mixing the shapes of blooms is what makes it look professional.
Early Spring Bloomers
Tulips may seem like the answer to your needs for spring, but sadly, most of them are really annuals for the most part. You can, of course, lift them each year after they die back, store them dry and cool, and then replant in fall… but that seems like an awful lot of work. There are some varieties of tulips that will last longer, are more apt to come back for a few years… look for single coloured Darwins for the longest lasting results, and also Triumph and Emperor types. They will bloom for several years before you need to replace them. Species tulips are shorter, so make great border plants, they will multiply and perennialize. Look for Tarda, Lilac Wonder, Persian Pearl, Peppermint Stick… and many more.
Other, more reliable and long lasting bulbs to consider for your early spring garden… daffodils, crocus, grape hyacinths, squill.
Remember to not plant daffodils and tulips in single rows like little soldiers. Plant them in clumps of 3, 5 or 7 throughout the entire bed for the best look.
Anemones are one of my favourites for the April garden. I like the blue or white Anemone De Caen, but there are many colours and kinds. If you can find them in fall, buy them then, but most places usually sell them in late winter. Anemones make a lovely spring border plant, and here in our zone 7 gardens come back year after year. If you are in a colder zone, you may want to choose something a bit hardier, like maybe some small tete a tete daffodils, grape hyacinths, or scilla instead.
How to get spring bulbs on the cheap… Buy bulk bags at the box stores or nurseries in fall. You want lots of bulbs in that bed in order for it to really pop in spring. Save the small bags of specialty bulbs for pots and planters where they will really shine, but in this bed, colour is what you are going for. Buy the biggest bag or box of bulbs that you can find.
Mail order is another way to get them at a great price. The company I buy from on PEI, offers different discounts to make it easy to buy volume. The more you buy, the better the discount, and the bulbs are always great.
Late Spring/Early Summer Bloomers
Alliums - purple or white flower balls on chunky stems. Tall or short, small heads or big ones, they kind of look like Dr. Suess’s truffula trees.
Anise Hyssop - tall, erect plants with purple fuzzy flowers on top, a bee favourite! This flower is from the mint family so you know that it will self seed readily. The flowers will literally last for months and months!
Delphiniums - tall and colourful flowers. Put in the middle of the bed if it is seen from both sides, otherwise plant at the back, they are that tall!
Dianthus - aka Sweet William. Another self seeding biennial. Mid height flowers in so many colours!
Foxgloves - super happy self seeders and so stunning to look at! What a pop they add to the garden and they come in all sorts of colours. These can be sown in fall this year for blooms already next year. I am tossing in some blush pink ones this fall called Faerie Queen… oh my, so sweet in a light shell pink, love!
Larkspur - Love, love these guys so much. They are so dependable, so pretty, and they self seed so you always gets more! Comes in pink, rose, white, and a bunch of different shades of blues/purples. Earl Grey is gorgeous blue grey colour. Their foliage is ferny and light. This is a must have in your new garden! Deer resistant, too.
Lavender - English, French, or Spanish, they are all amazing. Deadhead after the first blooms for a second flush of bloom in August.
Penstemon - big bell-shaped blossoms on tall spikes, this perennial comes in tons of colours and heights from short ones for rockeries to ones that are 5 feet tall. There is one out there for every situation and location. Renee’s Garden Seeds, my most favourite seed company, sells a variety called Wedding Bells, which is spectacular. Big bells on 2 foot tall spikes that are full of nectar for the birds, bees, and butterflies.
Peonies - While the flowers are short lived, they are beyond beautiful and fragrant, too. One of the most popular wedding flowers and cutting flowers.
Poppies - So many colours to choose from, red, pink, white, orange … ruffled ones, fluffy ones, frilly ones. The Shirley poppies are beyond beautiful in silky hues on grey-green foliage. Sow them in fall, let them drop some seeds each year and you will have them forever.
Salvia - perennial or annual salvias are both fantastic butterflies and hummingbirds draws. Is known as the Hummingbird plant. They come in hues of whites, pinks, lavenders, and purples. Whichever colour you choose, make sure that you put in at least three of it (the same colour) across the front to middle of your bed.
Verbascum - Shown in the picture above, is a carefree, easy perennial that both the birds and the bees adore. Flowers two and sometimes even three times in one summer, if you deadhead.
Mid to Late Summer Bloomers
Cosmos - a self seeding annual that is airy, pretty, delicate and produces for many, many weeks. It comes in different heights so you can get really tall ones like white Purity or the pink and purple hues of Dancing Petticoats. There are many more, of course, as well as knee-high types in hot or cool colours. Butterflies love these!
Crocosmia - The common one is the red one called ‘Lucifer’ but also comes in an orange and a yellow. All are amazing. Tall flowers with curving spikes of blossoms that the hummers fight over!
Dahlias - Now, if you want, you can add your lovely dahlia tubers in this garden, as well, knowing that you will need to lift them each fall in order to not lose them. I like to add the dahlias grown from seed as they are less pricey, you get tons of dahlias. This somehow seems to give me permission to leave them in the garden for the winter… if they come back, yay, if not, I will grow some more. Seeds are cheap : )
Echinacea - Coneflowers come in many colours and have super long lasting blooms. The clumps get bigger each year so in a couple of years, you have a really nice bunch of ‘daisy’ like flowers. They also self seed just a wee bit so you get occasional babies that you can move to another part of the garden if you have an empty pocket to fill. They are drought tolerant and deer/bunny resistant.
Lilies - I have lilies of all kinds in the garden but tend to prefer the really tall trumpet and martagon lilies as my focal points. I then add the shorter asiatic and tiger lilies here and there for colour. I will not usually add many of the oriental lilies as they have such a strong scent that they soon overwhelm. One or two is nice, more than that is kinda stinky, lol. If you like them though, you go for it!
Monarda - also known as Bee Balm or Bergamot. This great perennial is super easy to grow, very hardy, a draw for the pollinators, they love it so much! It quickly grows into a nice, big, eye-catching clump, is a terrific addition to your cottage garden.
Monkshood - purple spikes of flowers, similar to larkspurs, but they flower later in the year. Monkshood will slowly multiply in the bed to form bigger clumps and the flowers last a really, really long time. I must have a thing for the spiky ones, as this is also one of my all time favourites.
Nepeta - aka Catmint. Another blue and silver plant with spikes of blossoms, similar to lavender but with a licorice scent. Is drought tolerant, deer resistant, not attractive to cats (lol), but is a magnet for the pollinators, hummingbirds, and butterflies.
Nigella - also known as Love in a Mist. This fun, low growing flower has many layers to make it look extra special. The delicate ferny foliage helps add to the romantic look. Is so very pretty in bouquets. The seed pods are said to look like fairy lanterns… I don’t know about that, but they are cute and if you leave a few seed pods to mature on the plant, it self seeds so you have it year after year.
Perovskia - also known as Russian Sage. Comes in several heights to suit all gardens. I like the Blue Spire as it grows to about 4 feet tall to really make a statement, but shorter ones like Little Spire are equally stunning. It has silvery foliage and purple-blue flowers, blooms all summer long, is drought tolerant and deer resistant. Just a real winner in all ways.
Rudbeckia - Black-eyed Susans come in a few different heights, kinds, and colours. They are very hardy, deer resistant, drought tolerant, and beloved by the bees and pollinators. Just as the coneflowers above, the flowers last for a really long time and the clumps get bigger each year. They self seed a bit, too, so that you will get extra plants to either keep or share with friends.
Snapdragons - These self seeding tender perennials are a lovely addition to the bed. They come in so may colours of flowers so fit in with whatever your colour scheme happens to be. Black Prince has deep purple foliage for extra added interest. The more you deadhead, the bigger they get and the more they flower.
Verbena bonariensis - one of my all time favourite flowers. They are very tall and wiry with the poof of purple flowers on the ends of the tall stems, should be planted in the middle or back of the bed with shorter flowers to fill in around it.
For easy grow late summer perennial colour with hot colours, look at Helenium, Gaillardia, Kniphofia, tickseed, poppies, daylilies, and some of the chrysanthemums and asters.
For more easy grow summer perennials in cool colours, look at liatris, veronica, sedums, asters, and chrysanthemums.
Tips on when and where to get all of these flowers from … for really cheap…
Seeds - The first thing you are going to do is pick up whatever you can from seeds… most all of these plants can be grown from a packet of seeds, so you get literally get hundreds of flowers for about $3.
Check your favourite, local seed companies, go to the local garden centre to see what catches your eye, or order on line. Most all of my seeds come from Renee’s Garden Seeds. I think they are just about the best quality seeds ever, with great germination and a great selection of flowers, and the colours … to die for! So pretty, like this Earl Grey Larkspur above!
Bulbs - Then you want to get a whole bunch of bulbs for as little money as you can get. In both spring and fall, most hardware stores and garden centres sell all kinds of bulbs. You can also order from catalogues, order some in spring and another batch in fall.
I order my lilies on line, usually. If I order a pack or two in both spring and fall, I have different types of lilies that all bloom at different times of the year so that I literally have blooms from spring through fall. I personally like this company from PEI but you can get them from any mail order company, most box stores, even grocery stores. Order a whole big bag of different colours or, if you have more self-control than I do, stick to your colour scheme.
Perennials - on the cheap.. things like lavender, verbascum, perovskia, catmint, etc..
So, here is an insider tip… I talked to a grower friend of mine and she said that in fall they tend to sell the flowers in big individual pots that sell for more money. Things like black eyed susans and coneflowers, for example, will be sold in one gallon pots for $10 or more, depending on the variety! The advantage to this is, of course, that you have more varieties to choose from, like red coneflowers, yellow ones, green, orange, double decker… and all the different black eyed susans, too. Lots more variety. So, maybe if you have your heart set on a certain colour? I must say that I have a soft spot for coneflowers, so I might get 3 orange ones and pay the $30 … maybe.
However, the best time to buy the perennials on the cheap is in spring or summer, when there are lots of different flowers of all kinds, not just fall bloomers. They will all be in 3 or 4 inch pots for about $3 a piece. So, you can buy a whole big tray of perennials for about $40 to $60! Seriously a great deal. Buy a whole tray of plants, get at least 3 of each kind, and go crazy. It is so worth it.
Fall is also the perfect time to move perennials or to lift and divide them if they are overgrown. Share with your friends and maybe they will share back ; ) You can divide most all herbaceous perennials, the plants that die down to the ground in winter time.
To move or divide, cut back your perennial to 6 to 12” tall. Push in the shovel all around the plant, lifting slightly each time. By the time you get all around the plant, it should be ready to come out of the ground fairly easily. Lift the clump out of the hole, shake a bit of soil off of the roots and move to the new bed. If dividing it, stick the shovel into the centre of the plant and push down, you now have two plants. Depending on the size of the clump, you may be able to get several decent sized clumps to plant into your new bed. Heel them into their new hole, water them in well, you likely will not have to water any more before the fall rains (or snow) come.
Another great tip is visit the local garden centres every 3 or 4 weeks to see what is in bloom at that time. Pick up 3 to 5 of each plant that you like that is in bloom each time you go. Plant those in your cottage garden. So, you are spending about $10 to $15 per variety each time you go. The only problem with this technique is that you may be tempted to buy way more than just what you need ; )
This way might add up to a bit more money in the long run, but you would be guaranteed to have colour from spring till fall. While I have used this method in the past, I did not do so with my 40 foot long cottagey potager bed, which cost me under $100 to do in year one and a fraction of that to fill in the empty spots in year two.
In just about 2 years, this bed will be so full of flowers that no weeds will have room to germinate in the bed. They will also be flowers that are drought tolerant and so will be happy with just a good thorough soak once a week or two. I lay out the weeping hoses in early spring, while the beds still look pretty empty, and they are soon hidden by all the flowers and foliage.
Add a few perennials plants or seeds in spring and/or fall wherever and whenever you need more colour. Self seeding flowers can be very generous with their seedlings, move some of them around in spring as you thin them out.
At this time, early on in the year, is easy to see if you need to add a bit of annuals to fill up the bed for the year. Zinnias, calendula, and cosmos are my preferred fail safe ways to add lots of pizzazz to your garden, but it can also be annuals such as sweet peas, marigolds, statice, tagetes, annual salvia, clarkia, or any other kind of flowers that you can buy in seed or 6 packs in April or May.
I still add a new pop of colour with annuals in the corners each year, sometimes it is sweet peas, sometimes calendula, maybe dahlias… whatever strikes my fancy at the time : )
Do not mulch. This bed is not one that you will mulch as you will be seeding into it and you want the flowers to self seed really to fill it in.
Thick layers of mulch help to retain moisture but will also keep weed seeds from germinating.. and thus your own seeds, too. Leave this bed free of mulch, just add some manure or compost to the top in fall to feed the perennials for spring next year. Add some all purpose organic fertiliser, if you like, something like the Gaia Green 4-4-4. If you want to add more seeds in late fall, sprinkle them on top and lightly scratch them in.
Some seeds are best sown in fall for blooms in year one, like larkspur, ammi, cornflowers, calendula, foxgloves, snapdragons, nigella, poppies….
Spanish and English Lavender are perfect for your cottagey garden, and the pollinators adore them.