There is a homey sound to the phrase "Grandma's Garden ”—even if your grandmother never planted a flower in her life. The romantic vision of an old-fashioned garden seems to fit the description of a traditional English Cottage Garden. It is possible to recreate an heirloom or period garden, and the plants available to us now are actually much improved. It's important to remember, though, that flowers that thrive in England’s climate may not do as well in the wide range of climates found across the United States.
The thatched cottage and colorful garden at the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife, has been cared for and restored constantly, so that this 15th century structure and its present garden have come to represent the epitome of an old-fashioned English garden. The flowers in this garden were mentioned in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets: carnations (Dianthus caryophylus, also called gillyflowers or gillyvors), cowslips (Primula veris), flower-de-luce (Iris pseudacoris), honeysuckle, lilies, roses, violets, pansies, pinks, poppies and primroses, plus bulbs such as daffodils and crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis).
By the late 1800s, the ideal English garden would have likely included hardy annuals and biennials such as: China asters, larkspur, pinks, phlox, sweetpeas, stocks, snapdragons, nasturtiums, and zinnias. Popular perennials included: anemone, antirrhinum, auricula, carnations, chrysanthemums, dahlias, delphiniums, hollyhocks, iris, lilies, lobelia, peonies, pansies, penstemons, primroses, roses and a variety of daisies. Bulbs would still have included daffodils and crown imperials, as well as crocus, gladioli, hyacinths, and tulips.
In many cases the exact species that found favor years ago have been supplanted by hybrids, cultivars, or native species that are hardier, more disease-resistant, or that just plain perform better. Many older hybrids and cultivars—some roses, for instance—are no longer in cultivation. Seed sources and heritage seed exchanges may be able to help create a realistic replica of a period garden, but for most people, the new, improved varieties of Grandma’s old favorites come close enough to the real thing to do the trick.
Reproducing a period garden or designing your own “plants from Shakespeare” tableau can be a fun project. Once you have your idea in mind, you can decide if you'll stick to the original species, or use plants that are currently available and bred for today’s lower maintenance gardens. Reference materials aren’t hard to find, and while the plants you need might not be at your local garden center, you’ll almost certainly find them online. Have fun while you’re at it—you might incorporate some shabby chic pieces from the past, for example. Think of it as your modern day old-fashioned garden.