Native and naturalized plants provide food for insects and pollinators.

Despite its benefits, a common complaint about a natural garden is that it can often appear unkempt. Good design will remedy this.

  • Plant large groupings of the same species together. Stick with fewer varieties to make your garden look lush and more pleasing to the eye.

  • Plant the groupings in compact spaces to discourage weeds.

  • Use plants that are self-sufficient, drought-tolerant and hearty so they can be left for periods of time. Plants such as sage, wormwood and lavender, for example, have gray or silver-colored leaves that reflect the sun’s harsh rays. Sage’s leaves are also covered with tiny hairs that retain moisture. Other factors that indicate drought-resistance are aromatic foliage (herbs such as thyme, oregano, lavender and sage), waxy stems and foliage (sedum) and tiny leaves (baby’s breath and dianthus).

Native and naturalized plants provide food for insects and pollinators.

Swamp milkweed blooms

Choose Your Plants Carefully

As you ponder how to create your garden oasis, consider what plants make you happiest. The more demanding ones are probably best left in town, but the low-maintenance types could be perfect for your summer spot. If your home garden is formal, the cottage garden may be just the place to let your hair down.

The plants you choose should look at home in the landscape. They should also be a balanced selection of native and naturalized plants. It’s important to know the difference between the two: North American native plants are those that existed in your area before European settlement, naturalized plants are non-native plants that do not need human help to reproduce or maintain themselves.

Native plants help restore highly complex eco-systems, attract native pollinators, are important sources of food and shelter for wildlife, and are a good choice for low-maintenance, low water-consumption gardens. At my cottage (Canadian zone 5a), the native plants likely to be found include goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), fringed aster (Aster ciliolatus), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), spotted Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). It may be possible to relocate some of the native or naturalized plants from surrounding areas to the cottage garden, but many don’t take well to transplanting. (There’s a reason they’ve become established where they have.) Take sun, shade and soil types into account. What grows in one corner of the property may not thrive (or even survive) if moved to what is a vastly different environment for that particular plant.

Swamp milkweed is a beautiful native plant that provides food for butterflies.

Daylilies mingled with wildflowers

Plants to Avoid

Some plants are invasive and can upset the ecological balance. Avoid fast-growing plants that overtake the ecosystem. Troublemakers in my region include English ivy (Hedera helix), goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) and periwinkle (Vinca minor). Grasses I avoid include the silver grass cultivars Miscanthus sinesis and M. Sacchariflorus. Unwelcome trees are Norway maple (Acer platanoides) and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).

Daylilies mingle with wildflowers in a carefree cottage garden.

Black-eyed Susan blooms

Meadow and Sun Plants

Native and naturalized plants for sunny spots include black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), lupine (Lupinus perennis), New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Many cottages are situated in woodland settings where plants compete for sunlight and are limited by the spread of tree roots. Native plants for shade include foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia), wild geranium or cranesbill (Geranium maculatum), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Solomon’s seal (Polygontatum biflorum) and maidenhair fern (Adiantum).

A group of black-eyed Susan appears even more vibrant in front of the weathered wood of the cottage deck.

Flower boxes on cottage deck


It’s not a good idea to add plants to wetlands, but it is important to be knowledgeable about and manage what you already have growing around your property. Some plants, such as European frog-bit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae), can take over waterways, limiting recreational activities and stealing oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic life.


Containers or window boxes planted with annuals provide color when perennials are between blooming periods. Marigolds, geraniums and herbs may help ward off deer and other animals from your camp when you’re not around. There’s no point in planting a beautiful garden if it just ends up feeding wildlife. Deer will eat just about anything if hungry enough, but are less inclined to eat prickly plants and strong-smelling herbs.

Flower boxes on a cottage deck.

A winding path made from stone

Hardscaping with Natural Materials

Pathways are a beautiful and practical way to set off your cottage garden. When constructing them, use natural materials and follow the lay of the land. Mulch or wood chips, flat stones from around the property or old bricks all work well. Many summer homes have outbuildings, wooden decks and docks, and Muskoka or Adirondack chairs. If built using reclaimed materials, they accent the natural garden design.

It’s hoped that these tips will help you relax and enjoy summer at the cottage. Have a seat, put your feet up and take pleasure in your lovely and low-maintenance garden.

A winding path made from natural material.

Text and photos by Leah Walker

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