How many perennials do you need for the cottage garden? Well, that really depends on your layout, design, and the size of land you are working with. I have a small backyard garden area, roughly 15 feet by 30 feet, in which I have around 70 species of perennials, shrubs, and grasses. And this is my Sunny Cottage Garden area. Every time I find a new plant at work or online, I add it to my cottage garden space to see how it performs. And I am tough on plants.
What makes the following 100 plants great for the cottage garden? Besides being perennials in most of the Zones 4 to 9, they are drought tolerant in Northeast Kansas. In my garden, the average rainfall is between 30 and 45 inches per year. In 2019 I had over 70 inches of rain, and in 2022, I had under 30 inches. So drought tolerance is necessary for survival in my garden. And I do not supplement water unless the plants are new, or if there has not been significant rainfall for over 18 days combined with heat above 85 degrees F. Primarily, these plants will do great anywhere in the Central Great Plains. Beyond that, compare with your local recommendations.
Why do we call these plants cottage garden perennials? What is a cottage garden? Formerly, a cottage garden was a layout of flower and vegetable beds, intermingled, and surrounding the house, or cottage. But in today’s landscape, most people do not have the ability or desire to plant a flower and vegetable garden in their front yard. HOAs and city ordinances also prohibit such design ideas. But things might be changing back, as more people come to gardening.
Border Plants for the Cottage Garden
Now, where does the border begin? While it can be confusing, but the border is usually considered to go around the outside of the garden. And in older designs, such as those from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, that is exactly where the border is. But for our purposes, I am calling the edge or front of the bed, the border. These areas are along the edge of the lawn or pathways within the garden, and contain short plants, sometimes groundcovers, growing less than 2 feet tall. There is some height overlap among species between the border plants and the next set, the between plants. More on that in the next section.
For purposes of finding these plants more easily, I am separating them into 2 categories, native and nonnative.
Natives for Cottage Gardens
Native perennials for the cottage garden include many of my favorites, and some relatively new ones to me. They reseed easily and are tough and durable. All can be found growing native within 75 miles of my house, and some grow wild in my back pastures.
Field Pussytoes – Antennaria neglecta
One of the shortest perennial groundcovers, this low growing native has fine, silvery leaves with minute hairs. Leaves give rise to small, broccoli-shaped flowers in mid spring. It makes an attractive cover under orchard trees, as well as along paths and walkways. Also, I prefer it over lawn grass, because its soft to walk on and requires no mowing. Pussytoes are also a host plant for American lady butterflies. The flowers support bees and butterflies alike.
Mexican Hat – Ratibida columnifera
If you are blessed enough to get the red version of this plant over the yellow, congratulations! I love the red. Among my meadow garden, this perennial reseeds easily, and in the cottage garden, it is a blessing. One of the best things about it are its long lasting blooms. For perennials, it blooms for a very long time, sometimes as much as 10 weeks in summer. Mexican hat grows around 18 inches tall with gray-green, lace-cut foliage. The flowers attract many bees, butterflies, and beetles.
Perennial Salvia – Salvia hybrids
Not true natives, but hybridized from natives, these perennials are perfect for the border. Some of them may even go in the between areas of the garden, but most fit better up front. Nearly every year, I select a species or type of plant to collect, and get somewhere from 5 to 15 different cultivars or species of them. In 2021, I did salvia, and now I find myself adding new ones every year. There is just so much variety! Flower colors can be pink, purple, red, white, red & white, or purple & white. Being a K-State graduate (2007), I love the purple and white variety ‘Azure Snow’.
Salvias attract TONS of bees, especially honeybees. Also, I have seen countless butterflies and flower flies on them.
Goldenrod ‘Little Lemon’ – Solidago hybrid
There are not very many goldenrods for the garden; most belong in the meadow or a wilder area than even a cottage garden. But ‘Little Lemon’ fits perfectly into the border and clumps nicely in place. The short plant (18inches tall with flowers) adds color to late summer when some of the best perennials are fading. And you have to have goldenrod in the garden somewhere, it is a pollinator magnet. I usually find dozens of beetles, bees, wasps, flower flies, and moths on my giant goldenrod in the meadow garden each fall. And goldenrod is a host for several moth species.
Spiderwort – Tradescantia species
There are several species in among the spiderworts, although Tharpe’s spiderwort (T. tharpii) is my favorite. I love this one because it is very hairy, while most of the other spiderworts are not. Spiderworts leaves are similar to both daylilies and grasses, making it excellent for added texture in the garden. Flowers can be pink, white, purple, lavender, or multi-colored. I love the pink ones. Some of them, like T. ohioensis, can be thuggish in the garden, but most stay close to where you put them.
Rose Verbena – Glandularia canadensis
One of the best sunny groundcovers I have ever encountered. We started selling it at the nursery around 2017 and it has really taken off. I have seen it spread out as much as 4 feet in one direction a year, but it usually dies back to around a 3 foot radius with individual plants. So give it some room or let it wander across the path. Flowers of rose verbena are pink and there is a purple variation but its not hardy in Zone 5. And, rose verbena flowers almost nonstop from June to September.
Columbine – Aquilegia species and hybrids
Theses columbines are small in stature, staying under 2 feet tall even with the blooms. Another, red columbine, will be featured in the between section below. However, despite their short stature, these perennials are often double flowered, and come in a wide range of colors. Many are multi-colored. Colors can include white, red, yellow, orange, burgundy, dark purple, purple, blue, pink, and even green. My favorites are the dark purple ones, which can appear chocolate or black, depending on light saturation. They reseed easily and indeed, I help the process by scattering ripened seedheads in open areas.
Spotted Cranesbill – Geranium macultatum
A pretty little edge of the woodland plant; we have made great use of it in our sunny cottage gardens. I love it. The flowers are a delicate shade of pink and the clumps of light green leaves are tidy and do not cram themselves into other’s spaces, as some perennial groundcovers do. A handful of moths use it as a host plant while the flowers attract butterflies, skippers, and flower flies.
Prairie Petunia – Ruellia humilis
This may be one of the most little known perennials for the cottage garden, or any garden. Before I knew it was native to my lawn, I found some growing in a nursery container and bought it for a Monarch Waystation I had built for a fire station. The nursery owners (not Grimm’s) had no idea what the plant was because it had seeded into another perennial pot. Prairie petunia is a long blooming perennial, which forms a clump. The flowers look just like a petunia, and are a soft lavender pink. The plant itself barely reaches 8 inches tall.
Purple Prairie Clover – Dalea purpurea
Wow! Even though it is not a long blooming perennial, the flower power in regards to pollinators is exceptional. Purple-pink flowers come in late spring and usually last about 3 to 4 weeks. In that time, hundreds of bees, beetles, and butterflies visit the flower. But mainly bees. Besides the flowers, the foliage appears lacey, and adds texture to the border. 2 butterflies and several moths use it as a host plant.
Self-Heal – Prunella vulgaris
Although it has been speculated that pioneers from Europe brought this perennial to North America, there is much evidence to suggest it is native to both continents. Anyways, it makes a great little plant for the border in the cottage garden. The flowers are either pink, purple, or purple and white. Native Americans used this plant for a lot of medicinal needs. In the garden, it attracts bumblebees primarily.
Purple Poppy Mallow – Callirhoe ivolucroides
Another somewhat thuggish groundcover, only plant it if you have room. Another name for it is winecups, because of the color of the flowers. Indeed, they are quite deep red-pink in color and attractive to bee and beetles. A few moths use the plant as a host. I like it because it is one of the toughest and most drought-tolerant groundcovers for full sun. And, just like rose verbena, it blooms nearly all summer long. It was the first native I learned growing up in North Central Kansas.
Prairie Smoke – Geum triflorum
This is perennial almost did not make the list, because it is a short lived perennial. I have rarely seen this plant live past its 3rd season. But, while it is there, it is an excellent choice for the border. The leaves are soft and finely cut, and the flowers are so interesting, you keep wondering when they will open, and suddenly, you have the unique seedheads. The seedheads make it all worth growing.
Chokeberry ‘Ground Hug’ – Aronia cultivar
Now that we have this low-growing cultivar of chokeberry, where should it go? Where else but the border? I suppose it could also be used in large areas of sun where grass may not be an option, such as a steep slope. But I love it for the border in the cottage garden. The leaves are small and tidy, turning brilliant red in autumn, and the white flowers attract bees and flower flies. In late summer and into fall, the blue-black fruit clings on and can be used for jelly and juice.
Ornamental Onion – Allium hybrids
Most of the common allium you find in the nursery now are results from hybridizing native species with each other. I love the ornamental onions; they make the best border plants. I already have 3 cultivars and am excited about a new one coming in this year (2023). One of the beds in my backyard, the Daylily Bed, is bordered by nearly 100 ‘Milennium’ alliums. Flower color can be white (‘Mongolian Gem’), pink, purple, or blue. The flowers attract a lot of pollinators including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, skippers, beetles, and flower flies.
Butterfly Milkweed – Asclepias tuberosa
Without a doubt,. this is one of our best selling perennials. I have seen a lot of butterfly milkweed go through Grimm’s Garden, both online and out of the store. And why not? It is an easy growing perennial that monarch butterflies love. And who can resist that pure orange color? I cannot. I have dozens of plants in my yard, both native and planted. Besides the ever favorite monarch butterfly, the flowers attract bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, flower flies, and beetles.
Fremont’s Leatherflower – Clematis fremontii
Another little known native, this perennial is one of my longtime favorites. Growing up in the Smoky Hills of North Central Kansas, I spent long hours on my grandparent’s pasture ground, which was undisturbed, virgin prairie. One of the prettiest wildflowers was Fremont’s leatherflower. And it was one of the first ones I learned. Flowers are typically purple or purple and white, but pink and burgundy are also possible. The flowers hang down and are bell-shaped. They attract bees mostly.
Threadleaf Coreopsis – Coreopsis verticillata
There are many species of coreopsis, all native, and hundreds of cultivars. The threadleaf coreopsis, is a low growing member of the clan. The leaves are almost grass-like, being very narrow. That may be the reason they are so tough. I really like the cultivar ‘Zagreb’, because it does excellent as a border plant for some of my clients, and because it blooms for a long time. Flower color of threadleaf coreopsis can be red, yellow, or orange.
Spike Blazingstar – Liatris spicata
This short perennial native is the first of a series of blazingstars to bloom in my garden. It is also the shortest and the only one which works in the border. In my cottage garden, I planted pink and white flowering varieties next to each other for double the color. The flowers grow straight up and the foliage is grass-like for great texture. It is amazing how many perennials have a grass-like texture! Anyways, spike blazingstars attract a wide range of bees and butterflies.
Slender Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum tenufolium
Another threadleaf plant! I think I am seeing a trend here in response to drought. This mint is not so aggressive as peppermint, spearmint, or apple mint, but the fragrance is worthy. Plants grow around 18 inches tall in part shade and up to 24 inches in full sun. The flowers attract lots of bees, beetles, and wasps. And you can use the plant for mint tea!
Nonnatives for the Cottage Garden Border
While the following plants are not native, they certainly have adapted to the region quite well. The hard part is making sure they do not become invasive in the future. But many of these plants have been used in North America for generations. Some may be considered invasive in other areas of the country, but here they are not, perhaps due to our constantly changing weather.
Basket of Gold – Alyssum saxatilis
Not a super long-blooming plant, basket of gold shines in the spring. I actually ended up with these on accident. We had got some small pots of them from a grower and they did not sell well (most people want big plants) and had 3 left over at the end of the season. I got them from the throw-out pile and brought them home. After leaving them in the pot where I intended to plant them all winter, they came back the next spring. So I planted them and the following year they bloomed. Now that is tough! Flowers attract early flying bees and flower flies.
Silver Mound – Artemisia schmidtiana
This is another great, drought tough plant. And who would not want some silver foliage in the garden? I love my artemisia, and I have more species than just silver mound. But this one has feathery, soft foliage, making it great for softening the border of a brick or stone pathway.
Cupid’s Dart – Catananche caerula
A cute little perennial; I added this to the cottage garden in 2022. The flowers are dainty, but attractive to bees and butterflies. And the leaves are silvery-green, adding more depth to the garden.
Cheddar Pinks – Dianthus gratianopolitanus
Most commonly referred to as dianthus here in Kansas, these mat-forming flowers have silvery, gray green leaves. The flowers are strongly-scented, and edible. Flower color can be pink, white, fuschia, red, lavender, or multi-colored. One of their best attributes is how they spread, and that they do not need cut back, but are better left alone.
Lavender – Lavendula species
One of my favorite nonnatives; I get a lot of questions about how to grow this. It really is simple: do not water it. I certainly do not. Lavender is a Mediterranean herb and it loves our heat and drought. And it is edible. The flowers, which are pink or purple, as well as the leaves, can be used in many medicinal and culinary ways. And the flowers attract bees.
Asiatic Lilies – Lilium auratum
I was not real fond of these at first because they have no scent, unlike the Oriental and tiger lilies I have in the back of the bed. But the more I watched them grow, and spread out in an even clump, the more I liked them. It was nice to have such a uniform, healthy plant breaking the craziness of the rest of the cottage garden. So in 2022, I planted an orange variety for my son (he loves orange) to go with the red I already have. But the orange is in the daylily bed. Flowers can be red, orange, pink, white, and multi-colored.
Maltese Cross – Lychnis chalcedonica
This is another perennial I never new about until working at a garden center. But once I started growing it, I found I loved it. I have grown 3 cultivars, including a pink flowering one which is awesome. While they are not huge plants, they bloom for more than 5 weeks, making them standout in my cottage garden. And they attract bumblebees. Flowers can be red, orange, or pink.
Catmint – Nepeta hybrids
There are so many catmints! Because of how tough they are and how well they grow here, you would think they were native. When I worked in Manhattan, KS, the company I worked at used a lot of catmint. So much so that I learned to hate it. But now that their are newer cultivars which are smaller than ‘Walker’s Low’, I am beginning to love it. My favorites are ‘Blue Prelude’ and ‘Whispurr Pink’. Flowers can be blue, purple, pink, or white. They attract a lot of bees, butterflies, and some wasps.
Ornamental Oregano – Origanum hybrids
Another herb with truly unique characteristics. Oregano has mostly been used as a herb for the kitchen, but now we have flower power added to it. ‘Drops of Jupiter’ is a great cultivar. And the flowing, fragrant leaves of this plant are perfect for the border in the cottage garden, spreading out along a walkway or drooping over a short wall.
Lamb’s Ear – Stachys byzantina
I first learned this plant in high school FFA, while helping to build a children’s garden in our local park. The leaves are gray-green, soft and fuzzy. A great plant for feeling. And the flowers are purple in spikes, attracting bees and butterflies.
Betony ‘Hummelo’ – Stachys officinalis
This is one of Piet Oudolf’s favorite flowers in his planting designs across the world. Also, he likes a lot of our native wildflowers. And I cannot blame him. As for betony, it is a great plant. The leaves are symmetrical and dark green, arranged whorled. From the plant rises simple stems with purple-pink flowers. The flowers attract bees, butterflies, wasps, and flower flies.
Strawberry – Fragraria hybrids
Add strawberries to the border? What? Yes, I say, yes! I love adding strawberry ‘Lipstick’ with its pink flowers and bright red fruit to my garden beds as an edible groundcover. Strawberries also have fall color, turning red. What more could you want?
Orange Stonecrop – Sedum kamshaticum
One of my favorite sedums, this low growing groundcover has bright yellow flowers in spring. The flowers attract bees while the foliage spreads slowly across the ground. Anyplace that needs a super tough, low perennial, I like to use this sedum. In the fall, I just cut off the old growth with shears, and maintenance is done.
Angelina Stonecrop – Sedum rupestre
If you are looking for another sedum to plant alongside orange stonecrop, then try Angelina. This sedum has unique leaf structure and is attractive next to the other plants in the border of the cottage garden. Flowers are yellow, but then, so are the leaves.
Hen and Chicks – Sempervivum tectorum
Another great succulent plant for the garden, hen and chicks literally creates more of itself to give away and share. And it is so easy to pluck one off and give it to a friend or plant a new spot in the garden. Just make sure the soil is dry wherever you put it. The flowers are weird shaped, tall and pink, but not regular. So enjoy having some spiky plants in the cottage garden.
Spiked Speedwell – Veronica spicata
Our last perennial for the cottage garden border. There are new cultivars of spiked speedwell coming out every year. My favorite of the past 10 years was a variety called ‘Explosion Bicolor’ which was pink and lavender. Up until 2022, we still had one plant of it in our office landscape. Anyways, there are a lot more varieties now to try. And bees, butterflies, wasps, and flower flies are all attracted to it.
Between Plants for the Cottage Garden
What do I mean by between? Well, middle of the bed or garden maybe. Between the border and back of the bed. These plants are fillers, not spillers or thrillers. They grow between 18 and 40 inches tall and wide, typically. Most of them hover around the 32 to 36 inch sized. And just like the above border plants, I am separating them between native and nonnative.
Native Between Plants
Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ – Rudbeckia hybrid
When this perennial came out in 2019, I was so excited. I had been waiting for a reliable replacement for ‘Goldsturm’, the long standard for landscape black-eyed Susan’s. Why replace ‘Goldsturm’? Because it has a nasty habit of getting septoria leaf blight, which lessens the already short bloom time. ‘American Gold Rush’ is disease resistant ( I have never seen it get septoria) and it blooms from July to September. In 2022, I had checkerspot butterflies use one of my plants for a host, and the flowers attract bees, butterflies, and flower flies.
Aromatic Aster – Symphyotrichum oblongifolium
One of the most flower power, late season perennials for any full sun garden. I have had aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ in my garden since 2016 and every year it blooms past both the first frost and the first hard freeze of the year in autumn. Usually, it continues to bloom until we get continuous nights below freezing. And it often starts blooming before September. The flowers attract bees, moths, butterflies, skippers, and flower flies. The flowers are purple.
Ironweed ‘Iron Butterfly’ – Vernonia lettermanii
I was introduced to this species by a friend of mine who grew native plants from seed. He gave me about 3 dozen different plants, including 6 of these. I have been in love with them since. Short in stature, but still over 2 feet tall when mature, they bloom with bright purple flowers in late summer, attracting bees and butterflies.
Golden Alexanders – Zizia aurea
An early blooming perennial for the cottage garden, golden Alexanders have bright yellow flowers with flat parsley like foliage. The flowers attract bees, flower flies, butterflies, and wasps. And the plant is a host for the black swallowtail butterfly.
Nodding Wild Onion – Allium cernuum
I first found this one at a plant sale and added it to my woodland border. Since then, I have used it in full sun and seen amazing results. The flowers are either pink or white and they do nod or droop downwards for a unique appearance. Bees and butterflies are seen on the flowers during bloom, which is late spring to early summer.
Red Columbine – Aquilegia canadensis
This one was actually growing in my front yard when we bought the house. Turns out it was native and I did not know it. Red columbine can be a bit thuggish in the garden, but when surrounded by enough plants, they stay mostly in place. The key is too remove spent flowerheads before they form seeds. Why grow it if it is so thuggish? Because it is beautiful and it attracts hummingbirds and bumblebees.
Common Boneset – Eupatorium perfoliatum
Another of my favorites! In late summer and into fall, common boneset is absolutely covered in pollinators. Bees, butterflies, skippers, moths, wasps, flies, and beetles love the pure white flowers. And it is tough. I forgot about a plant I dug out from a job tear out, left it in a plastic crate in the garden, and have not moved it yet. It has bloomed in that crate for 3 years so far! Several moth species use it for a host plant.
Late Boneset – Eupatorium serotinum
A companion to common boneset, late boneset is also a pollinator magnet. I found it growing wild in a glade near my home. There were many bees, moths, and more all over the white flowers. Some moths also use this one as a host plant.
Curly-Cup Gumweed – Grindelia squarrosa
You may have never heard of this one. I accidentally added it to my garden by bringing seeds home in my pocket and scattering them when I went for a handkerchief. The seeds came from Cloud County, KS. They took in my backyard, and have done quite well. My wife even uses the flowers for arrangement. Watch out though, they are sticky! A few moths even use it as a host plant. The flowers are bright yellow.
Drummond’s Aster – Symphyotrichum drummondii
This aster has light blue flowers beginning to bloom in early fall. The leaves are semi-heart shaped and basal. It grows best on the edge of the woodland, or in part sun, but I have found several plants growing along the edge of my paved drive, in full sun and heat. And thriving too. The pearl crescent butterfly and more than 30 moths use it as a host plant. Butterflies, bees, and flies visit the flowers. It is also great for cut flowers.
Wavy-leaf Thistle – Cirsium undulatum
What, put a thistle in the garden? Yes I say. I actually allow 2 native thistles to grow in my garden. This one, which does well in the lawn or the garden, and tall thistle, which is a bit to thuggish for the cottage garden. Both have silvery undersides on the leaves, designating them as native. And both are great for butterflies, bees, beetles, bugs, and flies. Painted lady butterflies and several moths use it as a host plant.
Round-headed Bush Clover – Lespedeza capitata
This is one of my favorite plants for fall arrangements. The dried seedheads are so easy to work with. In the summer, I feel as if I am always waiting for them to bloom, but their bloom is not their most significant part. They are not showy. Rather, the shape of flower head and the silvery-green leaves are what makes it interesting for the garden. Also, they fix their own nitrogen, helping to improve the soil. 5 butterflies use it as a host plant along with several moths.
Hummingbird Mint – Agastache hybrids and species
There are quite a few cultivars and species to choose from in the hummingbird mints. Tall and short. One, the Giant Cat Hyssop, has yellow flowers and grows to 8 feet tall. Most of them however, belong in the in between areas of the cottage garden. They come in a wide range of colors, including red, orange, yellow, white, apricot, lavender, purple, blue, and peach. Besides hummingbirds, they attract lots of bees, wasps, and flower flies.
Bluestar – Amsonia species and cultivars
With recent introductions by Proven Winners, there are several cultivars of bluestar to choose from. The leaves can be willow-like or threadleaf. I really like the cultivar ‘Blue Ice’ which has willow-like leaves. Bluestar shines in spring, blooming for only a few weeks. But the foliage is its best attribute, turning shades of butterscotch yellow and orange in autumn. It is a member of the Dogbane Family and has milky sap, therefore, most insects and animals do not eat it.
Bigflower Coreopsis – Coreopsis grandiflora
With bright golden-orange or yellow flowers, this coreopsis is a perfect addition to the cottage garden. It just looks like it belongs there. A great plant for cutting gardens, the flowers attract flower flies, bees, and butterflies.
Coneflowers – Echinacea species, hybrids, and cultivars
There is a lot to choose from when selecting an Echinacea for the cottage garden. They come in many colors including green, red, orange, pink, lavender, white, yellow, and purple. There are single or double flowers. And all of them attract many pollinators, especially butterflies. Bees, wasps, beetles, bugs, and flies all enjoy them as well. And they are hosts to a couple of butterflies and several moths. The seeds are eaten by birds in the winter.
Willowleaf Sunflower – Helianthus salicifolius cultivars
It is very important that if you want to add this to the garden, then get a dwarfing cultivar. I have tried 3 so far, and they all are better than the true species. The species gets 8 to 15 feet tall and will out-compete everything in the garden. But the cultivars are compact and tidy. The yellow flowers bloom in late summer and fall, and one of them, ‘First Light’ blooms until hard freeze. Bees, butterflies, and moths all go to the flowers. The 3 cultivars I have found and like are ‘First Light’, ‘Table Mountain’, and ‘Autumn Gold’.
False Sunflower – Heliopsis helianthoides and cultivars
This is one of the most continuously blooming perennials for the cottage garden. In recent years, many new cultivars have pushed the normally golden yellow flowers into new shades of orange and red, and even multi-colored. Bees, butterflies, flies, and small wasps flock to the flowers in bloom. Also, the flowers are excellent for cut and dried arrangements.
Prairie Blazingstar – Liatris pyncnostachya
One of the best blazingstars, it does not flop in most situations, and I have never had a problem, even after a tornado went over. In my cottage garden, these flowers bloom after spike blazingstar in late July, and attract many bees, butterflies, wasps, and flies. The height could almost put it in the back, but it does not form huge clumps good for back of the garden plants.
Button Blazingstar – Liatris aspera
Another interesting and beautiful flower for the garden. Button blazingstar has round, button-like flower buds that are purple-green opening to a brilliant purple-pink. In shade, the plant flops, but in sun, and especially dry soil, they stand almost perfectly straight. The flowers attract bees, butterflies, flies, and wasps. This is the last blazingstar to bloom in my garden, usually starting in late August.
Michigan Lily – Lilium michagense
One of the most exciting days I had while wildflower hunting was finding my first Michigan lily in a prairie remnant in Atchison County. Then I found another a few years later blooming on the edge of the woods, 800 feet from my back yard. Since then, I have been able to relocate some endangered lily bulbs from road construction, to my cottage garden and meadow. They bloomed for the first time in 2022. Gorgeous!
Beebalm – Monarda species and cultivars
Beebalm is a great perennial for the cottage garden, because the flowers are so full of color. There are many species, including Bradbury’s with pink flowers, lemon with fuschia, and so many other varieties. Flower colors can be red, pink, fuschia, white, or yellow. Hummingbirds, bees, and some butterflies are attracted to the flowers.
Penstemon – Penstemon species and cultivars
One of the best drought tolerant plants, there are hundreds of species across the US. A friend of mine has actually spent years cataloguing, researching, identifying, and writing a book about all the species. In my cottage garden, I have 3, including Penstemon cobaea, ‘Husker Red’, and ‘Onyx & Pearls’. The flowers are tubular and can be red, yellow, white, purple, blue, white, or pink. Bumblebees, long-tongued bees, and hummingbirds.
Nonnatives Between Plants for the Cottage Garden
Yarrow – Achillea species and cultivars
If you need a flat topped perennial for a landing spot for bees, yarrow is for your garden. With recent introductions, there are a lot of color choices to add yarrow into the cottage garden. Flowers can be red, yellow, white, pink, peach, orange, or purple. Bees, flies, butterflies, and wasps all visit the flowers of yarrow.
Calamint – Calamintha nepeta
One of my favorite long-season bloomers, the white or lavender flowers attract lots of bees, flies, and wasps. I have had the white one in my cottage garden now for 3 seasons, and each year it has bloomed from July to October with no breaks.
Daisy – Leucanthemum species, hybrids, and cultivars
Daisies, with their iconic white flowers and yellow centers, are a garden favorite. I have a variety called ‘Real Neat’ with quilled petals that I love. They are typically white, double white, or creamy white-yellow. Daisies are great for bees, butterflies, and flies. They also make good cut flowers.
Sea Holly – Eryngium planum
One of the more sparkly, and prickly plants in the garden. The whole plant, leaves, stems, and flowers are greenish blue purple and very showy in rain or sun. The flowers are very attractive to bees and butterflies.
Daylily – Hemerocallis species and cultivars
How could you have a cottage garden without daylilies? I have my daylily bed as well as several cultivars in the main part of my cottage garden. While I do not like the overused ‘Stella D’Oro’, there are many cultivars I do love. Especially the red and purple ones. They fit into the garden in so many ways and are great for daily fresh flowers.
Bearded Iris – Iris germanica
One of our grandmothers’ favorites, bearded irises also belong in the cottage garden. Besides the many different colors and sizes they come in, they are all uniquely fragrant. I have some that are scented like grape soda, some like orange soda, and some like lemon peel. I even have a cola scented one!
Siberian Iris – Iris siberica
It is hard to believe that an iris which likes wet, boggy soil, would be drought tolerant, but it is. I have several Siberian iris cultivars in the daylily bed, which does not get watered even in the worst drought and heat. And they all still come up and bloom each spring. My favorites are ‘Pink Parfait’ and ‘Painted Woman’.
Red Hot Poker – Kniphofia species and cultivars
One of the coolest perennials from Africa, red hot pokers are hummingbird magnets in summer. They love the heat! Flowers are hanging tubes that can be red, orange, yellow or a combination of colors.
Stargazer Lily – Lilium orientalis ‘Stragazer’
Actually a specific cultivar, stargazer has become a common name. These lovely Oriental lilies are pink and white and have amazing fragrance. When my wife asks for lilies, I know this is what she is thinking of.
Sea Lavender – Limonium species
I first discovered this plant in Jeryl Grimm’s house garden, planted by her walk. It blooms all for 2 months, and make excellent cut flowers. Tiny bees and wasps visit the purple flowers in ty cottage garden.
Peony – Paeonia species, hybrids, and cultivars
An old fashioned flower for an old fashioned idea, rethought. Cottage gardens just would not be right without some form of our beloved peony. Coming in multiple colors and having wonderful fragrance, it is important to add to the cottage garden.
Russian Sage – Salvia yangii
Previously known as Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian sage adds silvery color to the garden. Also, the purple flowers are attractive to bees, wasps, and some butterflies. The leaves are strongly sage scented. In some spots, it can be thuggish, but newer cultivars are less so.
Tall Sedum – Hylotelephium telephium
One of my favorites for late summer, especially for insect pollinators. Bees, butterflies (especially monarchs), wasps, moths, flies, and beetles all flock to it. Flowers can be pink, white, or reddish. And now, we have plants in green, variegated green and white, burgundy, or purple.
Globe Thistle – Echinops species
This is a great cut flower. And the bees and wasps love to pollinate it. A lesser known perennial, globe thistle is great in massing and fits perfectly into the cottage garden. Flowers are purple, white, or lavender.
Back of the Garden Plants
Finally, we have perennials that fit nowhere else but behind everything else. Now, if you are doing a circular island shaped cottage garden, you can put these in the middle. Most of these range in size from 36 inches to 72 inches, but some may be bigger. As always, I will separate between native and nonnative. Surprisingly though, I only have 2 nonnatives on the list.
Natives for the Back of the Garden
Giant Cat Hyssop – Agastache nepetoides
As I mentioned above, this member of the hummingbird mints can get huge, up to 8 feet tall. But it does not often get that big. The light yellow flowers are a treat in the garden and they are visited by hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and wasps.
False Indigo – Baptisia species, hybrids, and cultivars
One of my all time favorite plants, I have 11 cultivars and 3 species in my garden. And I am adding 2 more cultivars in 2023. Flower colors can be blue, white, yellow, cream, pink, purple, red, brown, bronze, or multi-colored. The flowers attract bees, mainly bumblebees, and butterflies. A few skippers and moths use the plant as a host.
Joe Pye Weed – Eutrochium purpureum
A short blooming perennial, Joe Pye is best used for dried flower arrangements, as its seedhead is almost as pretty as the flowers. It is a large, bold plant, which fills in space quickly. The flowers are favorites of butterflies and bees.
Hardy Hibiscus – Hibiscus species, hybrids, and cultivars
Some of the most tropical looking flowers are on these plants. The flowers themselves can be a foot across and brightly colored in red, cream, white, or multi-colored. Hummingbirds and bumblebees come to the open flowers. And the petals are edible.
Blunt Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum muticum
When I first planted this in my cottage garden in the fall of 2021, I was not expecting the plant to grow to 5 feet tall in 2022! But it did and it did it during high heat and long drought. And it bloomed continuously from June to September. Wasps were the main visitors, along with bees, butterflies, and flower flies.
Giant Goldenrod – Solidago gigantea
In my gardens, this plant grows wild, and although it prefers moist soils, it is very drought tolerant. It is the last goldenrod to bloom in my cottage garden, and it is always loaded with bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, and beetles. The yellow flowers are non allergenic and quite showy.
Garden Phlox – Phlox paniculata
When I first told a member of KNPS that I had found this growing at Mission Lake in Northeast Kansas, they said it was likely a stray from a yard. But they were wrong. Native to my area, I I have found it in the 3 most Northeast counties of Kansas, thus far. The wild flowers are pink to fuschia, but cultivars can be pink, white, red, or multi-colored. Butterflies, especially swallowtails love the flowers in late summer.
Greyhead Coneflower – Ratibida pinnata
The main complement to Mexican Hat, greyhead coneflower blooms nearly as long. Yellow flowers are on tall stems in the garden, and are visited by bees mainly. Longhorned bees are the most frequent visitors.
Golden Glow – Rudbeckia laciniata and cultivars
I have read a lot about Golden Glow in some of my favorite books, like Anne of Green Gables. The flowers are bright, golden yellow, and loved by bees, butterflies, skippers, and wasps. One of the cultivars I have, ‘Goldquelle’, has a double flower.
Sweet Black Eyed Susan – Rudbeckia tomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’
Did I mention that I love plants with quilled or rolled flower petals? Well, this rudbeckia named after its discover is one of my favorites. Unlike the original species, this mutation stands straight upright in the worst drought and heat. And although the flowers are rarely visited, they are unique enough for cut flowers. Checkerspot butterflies use the leaves as a host plant.
Giant Rudbeckia – Rudbeckia maxima
I love the Rudbeckias! They, along with Liatris and Baptisia, are my favorite Genuses. Giant Rudbeckia hardly looks like it belongs. It has huge, gray green leaves and the flower stalks are 4 to 5 feet tall. Flowers have yellow petals and green-brown centers.
Little Brown Eyed Susan – Rudbeckia triloba
The last rudbeckia, I promise! This one acts more like a biennial than a true perennial, but because it reseeds so easily, you do not miss it leaving. The flowers are small, and can be yellow, or yellow and red. It is another long bloomer, going from July to September. Bees, butterflies, and wasps all visit regularly.
Cup Plant – Silphium perfoliatum
It looks like a sunflower, but there are subtle differences. However, cup plant gets its name because the leaves are perforated by the stem and there forms a “cup” which holds water. The flowers are visited by bees, butterflies, and wasps mainly. And, the stems are square, a unique thing outside of the mint family.
Prairie Dock – Silphium terabinthenaceum
Another sunflower look alike, it is so only in the flower. This plant, like giant rudbeckia, has huge leaves at the base. Flower stems are usually lacking leaves, and can grow 10 feet in some places. Flowers are visited by bees, butterflies, wasps, and flies.
Goldenrod ‘Fireworks’ – Solidago rugosa
This cultivar has become one of our best sellers in the fall. Goldenrods all perform great, but it is nice to have one that is not thuggish in the garden, and this one stays in a slowly spreading clump, easy to handle. Bees, wasps, butterflies, skippers, moths, beetles, and bugs all pollinate the bright yellow flowers.
Culver’s Root – Veronicastrum virginicum
Another wet loving plant with drought and heat tolerance. Culver’s root has crystal white or purple flowers in tall, narrow spikes. Kind of like a Speedwell on steroids. The flowers are regularly pollinated by bees, wasps, and flies.
Rattlesnake Master – Eryngium yuccafolium
This is one of the coolest plants I have ever found on the prairie. I first fell in love with it at the Kansas State University Gardens when I was a college student. And I have had it somewhere in my garden every since. The leaves look like yucca, while the flowers are white, spiked balls. It is pollinated by butterflies, wasps, bees, and flies.
Purple Milkweed – Asclepias purpurascens
Purple milkweed is not really drought tolerant, it is more like a spring ephemeral, and is gone by the time it gets hot in the summer. But in the spring, it is one of the prettiest flowers in the garden. Large, purple-pink flowers attract a variety of butterflies and bees, and monarchs use it as a host plant.
Tuberous Indian Plantain – Arnoglossum plantagineum
Here is another one you have probably never heard of. The leaves in spring look like hostas when they are first coming up. The flower spikes in are tall and airy, with rigid white flowers. I saw a field of these once in Nebraska covered with butterflies and bees.
Pale Indian Plantain – Arnoglossum atriplicifolium
Just like the Tuberous Indian Plantain, but the leaves are shaped more like a sycamore, but smaller. The flowers on t are also white and rigid, and usually covered with butterflies and bees in midsummer.
Wingstem – Verbesina alternifolia
A late summer and fall bloomer, wingstem has little ridges on its stems which give it its name. The flowers are small and yellow, and attract a number of pollinators including bees, butterflies, wasps, and flies. The silvery checkerspot butterfly uses it as a host.
Royal Catchfly – Silene regia
Perhaps one of the brightest reds of any flower in the garden, royal catchfly will draw in your attention. The flowers are tubular, similar in shape to flowering tobacco, and visited mainly by hummingbirds.
Wild Senna – Senna marilandica
Another flower I learned about at my grandparent’s place. The yellow flowers are showy enough, but its the seedpods which catch your attention. They look like miniature versions of redbud pods. The flowers are visited by bees and flies. Sulfur butterflies, some skippers, and a few moths use the plant as a host.
White Wandflower – Stenosiphon linifolius
One of the prettiest blooming white flowers on the open prairies of the Smoky Hills, white wandflower will catch your attention to in the cottage garden. It waves in our ever-present winds. Bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, and flies all visit the flowers.
Meadow-Rue – Thalictrum dasycarpum
I call this one the dancing flower. They are tiny, white to purple flowers, which are airily held above the leaves and dance in every breath of wind. The flowers are wind pollinated, though a few beetles feed on the pollen.
Woolly Verbena – Verbena stricta
Another of my favorite perennials for the cottage garden. Woolly verbena is a very long lived plant. I know of one plant at my Mom’s house that is over 35 years old and still going, actually growing in a crack in the driveway. The flowers are bright purple, though sometimes pink or white. They attract butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, flies, and wasps.
Nonnatives for the Back of the Garden
Tiger Lily – Lilium tigrinum
This is an old-fashioned favorite of many older gardeners, and I must say I like it too. The bright orange flowers are similar to Michigan lily, except the petals do not curve back as far. But the lilies are gorgeous and great for arrangements.
Hollyhock – Alcea species and cultivars
Where would some of us be if we did not meet up with these giants in the early parts of our live? I remember my grandpa taking my out to his hollyhock bed and showing me how to make dancers from the flowers. And now I grow them in my garden to show my kids and grandkids (someday) how to make them. Hollyhocks can come in a wide range of colors, including white, red, burgundy, pink, yellow, orange, purple, lavender, or even navy blue. I have observed bumblebees mainly on the flowers. A few moths use the plant as a host, because its related to other mallows of North America.
There are a lot of options for the cottage garden above, and there are even more I could have listed. But these are the most drought tolerant plants for the cottage garden in the Central Great Plains region.