Ten Drought-Tolerant Plants for your Cottage Garden

californian poppy flower

I remember that last time that it rained, and it was precisely a month ago, on the morning of a friend’s wedding day. Not a drop has fallen from the sky since, with temperatures only falling below 24˚C for two days since then. Our little cottage garden – our potager, our Smallest Smallholding, is fried. 

Our lawn is no longer green and lush, but bleached and crispy. When the hedgehogs come out at night, they’re lucky enough to find dishes of water put down for them – I don’t know what they’d do otherwise – and our resident toad has also been lucky enough to receive a fresh top up of water from the mains every few days to keep him comfortable. The days are long, hot and tiring, the ground is dusty and cracked, and the sun is relentless. I’l admit it; we’re all struggling a bit in this long, intense summer. 

There are some plants in the garden that have been getting on pretty well though, soaking up the sun and flowering triumphantly throughout the blistering temperatures. As someone who is trying to shoehorn permaculture principles into her planting schemes and plot designs, it has become increasingly apparent why it is so important to plant to suit the conditions of your location.

Here in East Anglia, we tend to have the least amount of rainfall and the hottest summers in the UK. This year might have been exceptional in terms of how little rain has fallen, and how many hours of sunshine we’ve had, but the principles are still important – put the right plants in the right place, and you have to meddle and fuss much less. And your plants will thrive. 

Based on my observations from the last few weeks, I’ve put together a list of plants that have happily grown and thrived during the ongoing heatwaves this year. I have watered these plants now and then, but they need little intervention and have given back so much, not least an ongoing source of food for many of our pollinator friends!

So here it is, my top picks of drought-tolerant plants for a cottage garden:

  1. Lavender
    You can’t go wrong with a lavender, especially lavender angustifolia varieties. Ours have bloomed for weeks on end, are always covered in bees and butterflies, smell glorious, look stunning, and require very little input apart from a twice-yearly prune to keep them in shape. Affordable, dependable, and enjoyable, I think every garden should have a few lavender plants.
  2. Rosemary
    Rosemary doesn’t like to be confined in pots and containers – it really comes into its own when planted in open ground and left to grow. Like lavender, it doesn’t require an awful lot of maintenance, save the odd water and annual pruning. And like lavender, you can easily take cuttings too, prolonging the legacy of this common but utterly brilliant culinary cottage plant. 
  3. Nepeta
    Nepeta – also known as cat mint – is a fantastic drought-tolerant plant that is also extremely attractive to pollinating insects. And unsurprisingly, cats. The tall flowering spires can grow in abundance, creating colourful mauve-blue and purple clouds, which can often repeat flower after pruning back spent blooms in mid-summer. 
  4. Californian Poppy
    These bold flowers create pops of luminous colour in your borders, yet there is a softness to them, that makes them right at home in an English cottage garden. They grow perfectly happily in well-draining, poor soils – even in arid conditions and exposed coastal areas – and absolutely thrive in the heat. 
  5. Hollyhock
    Their delicate, trumpet-like blooms may look fragile and decorative, but hollyhocks are extremely drought-hardy, probably thanks in part to their long tap roots. Available in an array of shades, tones and hues, these cottage garden staples are glorious when in flower from late June through July, and sometimes well into August. Collect the seeds once the pods have dried and enjoy drift after drift of hollyhocks every year for no extra cost!
  6. Helenium
    We planted four helenium plants about eight years ago, and despite never dividing the plants (we will get to it this year), they continue to thrive. Heat worshippers, they do need a good water at least once a week, but they’re tough and will withstand intense heatwaves with aplomb. Again, these bold and beautiful flowers are a magnet for pollinators, so really it’s a win-win for any cottage garden.
  7. Thyme
    It’s no surprise that yet another flowering herb has made it onto the list; but this list would not be complete with the addition of thyme. A gorgeously fragrant culinary herb that is available in many varieties, this tough, bushy, compact plant will thrive in poor soil conditions in direct sunlight. Just make sure to prune back properly each year to encourage new busy growth.
  8. Hyssop
    Yes, another flowering herb… but I couldn’t leave hyssop out as it’s been such a trooper this summer at The Smallest Smallholding! Younger plants can be a little more fussy, but established hyssop plants can tolerate long hot, dry spells, producing spires of pink or purple flowers that bees in particular love to feast on. 
  9. Buddleia
    Some people think buddleia grow like weeds – and are weeds – but I vehemently disagree. They may be as prolific as pesky weeds, but they’re just brilliant and will grow pretty much anywhere, in any conditions. Prune them back hard in spring and they’ll produce lots of new growth on which the fat cones of flowers are produced. The flowers are so potent with nectar that butterflies can often seem drunk – as a child, I remember stroking butterflies’ little furry bodies as they lazily sipped away on the buddleia flowers in our garden. 
  10. Sedum (Ice Plant)
    With almost waxy scalloped leaves and a spread of brilliant pink flowers that act as landing platforms for pollinators, these plants are truly magnificent when others around them wilt and struggle against the hot summer sun. The blooms can often last into early Autumn, and need very little intervention, even in their early growing stages. Once the first frosts hit, these heat-loving plants often need cutting back to ground level, ready for the next season. 


Win tickets to the Woburn Abbey Garden Show!

roses in a basket

We’ve got a brilliant giveaway for you! If you’d like a chance to grab one of three pairs of tickets to the Woburn Abbey Garden Show in Bedfordshire on 23-24 June – headlined by the BBC’s Adam Frost and Pippa Greenwood – simply tell me in the comments what you’d most look forward to seeing at the show. Winners picked this Saturday!

Alternatively you can head to my smallest smallholding instagram account, twitter or smallest smallholding facebook page to enter.

Garden Show highlights include:

  • Informative talks and Q&A sessions with BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Adam Frost, BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time panellist Pippa Greenwood and Woburn Estates Gardens Manger and show organiser Martin Towsey
  • Tips and advice from Woburn gardeners and rare access to see the Private Gardens of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford (not normally open to the public)
  • Free garden tours with RHS qualified gardeners to learn more about the management and creation of Woburn’s Humphry Repton landscaped gardens
  • A fabulous line up of RHS Medal winning nurseries, offering a diverse array of plants in our Plant Village. Nurseries are tasked with creating a plant display for which awards are given over the weekend – Adam Frost is part of the assessment panel
  • New for 2018 – A field kitchen, set up in the kitchen garden with live cooking demonstration by Celebrity Chef, Rachel Green.
  • Plenty of retail therapy including a luxury gifts hall and quality stands offering a plethora of garden furniture, sculpture, tools and horticultural hardware
  • Independent and unique food and drink providers in Woburn’s Artisan Food Hall
  • Live entertainment and musical performances from the Bedford Town Band to the backdrop of stunning views over the Woburn Abbey Gardens.

To find out more about the Woburn Abbey Garden Show, visit http://www.woburnabbey.co.uk/events/gardening/wwwwoburnabbeycoukgardenshow/

Good luck!

Please provide your contact email in the relevant field in the comments. By providing your email address, you are giving us permission to contact you via this email address. We will only use winners’ email address for contact and will pass them on to the event organisers so that your tickets can be held and you can be instructed by the even organisers on how to access the garden show. Your email addresses will not be used for any other purposes. 


Strawberries for Summer

About three years ago I planted in four little Cambridge Favourite strawberry plants in a freshly-prepared no-dig bed (as above). 

Cambridge Favourite strawberries

The strawberry plants were tiny, and priced at something like £1.49 each. I just hoped that I’d be able enjoy tending to a mini strawberry patch and maybe a bowl or two of strawberries to enjoy at home. 

Cambridge Favourite strawberry plants

Fast forward to 2018, and my strawberry patch has gone wild! Those four little plants sent out runners, which meant the following year I had a few more plants to tend to. Within 24 months the patch has thrived, so much so that we’re mowing strawberries runners in the lawn to keep them under control. 

With no late frosts this year to kill the strawberry flowers, there are probably a couple of hundred (at the very least) strawberries growing. Some are starting to ripen, and if temperatures pick up a little more, then we could be looking at our first strawberry harvest in time for Wimbledon, the pinnacle of strawberry season here in the UK.

I’m proud of my little strawberry patch (even though they’re threatening to take over the Valentina raspberries that they share a growing space with), and I’m hoping to be able to share my strawberries between eating fresh, freezing, making jam, sharing with friends and family, and maybe even selling a few punnets from the garden gate for a little extra spare change. 

Cambridge Favourite strawberry crop