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Growing Foxglove In Your Cottage Garden

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is a common addition to a cottage garden due to its three to five foot tall stalk that offers flowers in a wide variety of colors. Perennial foxgloves bring color back to the garden yearly. That’s what makes growing foxgloves rewarding. The image of a foxglove flower is well-known among even marginal members of the gardening world. 

Gardeners who grow foxgloves can benefit from attracting pollinators that provide adjacent edible gardens with a boost! After the second year, keep up with it and watch tall stalks develop, and cover with blooms that look like bells when they mature. Their interesting forms, image, and genetics make them lovely garden companions. 

Foxglove plants are poisonous to humans. Gardeners should be cautious, wear gloves with direct contact, and wash their hands afterward. Foxgloves contain digitoxin, and that can cause heart failure if ingested. 

While experts can determine exact amounts of this toxin beneficial to heart health, gardeners should leave that conclusion to doctors and pharmacists.

If you don’t have curious fur friends or children running around your garden, foxglove is a great design choice or accompaniment to edible gardens. Plant multiple species with flower colors that range from pink to rose, purple, or white flowers. They won’t flower heavily in the first year, but they’ll re-seed and return in the next year. 

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Quick Care Guide

Growing foxgloves
By growing foxgloves, you can entice lots of pollinators to your garden. Source: steve 99
Common NameFoxglove, fairy gloves, witches’ fingers
Scientific NameDigitalis purpurea
FamilyPlantaginaceae
Height & Spread3 to 5 feet tall and 24 to 36 inches wide
LightPartial sun to full shade
SoilWell-drained, slightly acidic
WaterUp to 1 inch per week
Pests & DiseasesAphids, mealybugs, leaf spot, foliar nematodes

All About Foxglove

Pale pink foxglove
Pinks, reds, yellows and cream flowers are common as well as popular purple. Source: KatieTT

Foxgloves have been grown for over one thousand years. It’s believed they originate with Anglo-Saxons in 1000 AD. Documents about the foxglove first appeared in 1400 in England, where cultivars of the plant were developed. 

Carl Linnaeus first named the flowering plant in 1753 in his Species Plantarum where the first image of foxglove appeared in print. Coincidentally, it was around this time foxgloves were introduced into the American cottage garden. Today foxgloves are grown around the world. Their lovely pink, yellow, purple, rose or white flowers are often used for planting borders. 

The foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is also commonly known as fairy gloves or witches’ fingers. This flowering herbaceous plant is biennial or perennial depending upon the zone it is grown in, but can be grown as an annual if preferred. Leaves and foxglove flowers arrange themselves in a spiral fashion around a central stem covered in trichomes. 

Flower structures are tubular and nod downward from the stalk. With so many cultivars, flower colors range through a wide spectrum. Many who grow foxgloves are growing the most common variety with a purple flower. There are so many varieties to choose from with different flower colors, capacities, heights, and growing seasons. Some have been bred to produce tons of flowers in late summer, some bloom only in spring, and some bloom in both seasons. 

Growing foxgloves requires space since they spread outward up to two feet and upward at least 5 feet to 7 feet tall. They are vigorous spreaders and need division each fall after the second year to avoid pestilence and overcrowding. Give them 24 to 36 inches between each seedling. 

Keep them healthy and you’ll attract nectar-drinkers like bumblebees, hummingbirds, and butterflies who sip nectar from their tubular flower. Foxgloves grow well in prepared garden beds and large containers, provided they are maintained properly. Some require seed setting to produce again in the following year, but some hybrids do not produce seed and only bloom once. 

Although they have been used historically for heart medication and remedies, the foxglove plant can also cause heart failure if ingested. That’s why gardeners who grow foxgloves should wear gloves when they work with them. After this poisonous plant has been handled, wash your hands. Keep children and animal friends out of your foxglove garden too. 

Here are a few popular foxgloves and their specifications:

  • Polkadot Polly: grows 2 to 3 feet with peach colored blooms. Does not set seed, and therefore only blooms once. 
  • Straw Foxglove: up to 3 feet tall with light yellow flowers. Perennial. 
  • Mountains Mixed: fast germinating seed. Grows upward-facing blooms in gradations of white, gold, and purple. Can tolerate full sun in zones 4 through 9. 
  • Pam’s Choice: blooms white flowers with burgundy insides on 4 foot tall stems. 
  • Camelot Series: biennial blooms are bright pink and upward-facing. Potential for a third bloom occurs on plants that have had spent flowers removed.

Care

Bright pink foxgloves
Each foxglove plant produces many flowers on a single stem. Source: PMillera4

If you’re patient, growing foxgloves can be a joy. Although they bloom less in the first year, keep them up and they’ll surprise you in the seasons to come.  

Light & Temperature

Foxglove plant prefers full sun in mild regions, and full shade in regions with intense sun. Partial shade is probably the safest for most cultivars, or at least afternoon shade. The official zone range for this plant is wide covering zones 3 through 10. 

In zones 9 and 10, foxgloves are biennials and grow in spring and summer. In zones 4-8 they’re perennials. Zones 3 and 4 host them semi-perennially. At 90 degrees and above, foxgloves wilt, but they’ll withstand cold temperatures. 

When foxglove gets too much direct sun, use shade cloth. Since most varieties flower and self-seed during or after summer, frost cloth won’t be necessary. Bring overwintered plants in containers inside in extreme cold and heat.  

Water & Humidity

Foxgloves appreciate moist, but not drenched soil. They do not appreciate dryness, which can kill them easily. In rainy seasons, avoid supplemental water. Growing foxgloves in the heat of summer will require supplemental irrigation since dryness is such a risk. 

Often they will not need any extra water in the winter season. Too much water can increase the risk of fungal root rot. 

Drip irrigation is best for foxgloves because this keeps the soil damp but doesn’t waterlog the roots. The bottom-watering nature of drip irrigation also keeps water off tender leaves and blooms where it can increase leaf spot issues. Even, consistent moisture is what your plants will prefer, so it’s best not to allow the soil to completely dry out if possible. Mulching can slow down soil moisture evaporation.

Soil

Grow foxgloves in rich soil with good drainage. The soil type should be loamy and slightly acidic, at a pH just below 6.0. If you’re living somewhere with heavy clay soil, amend it with well-rotted compost before you sow seeds or transplant seedlings. 

Fertilizer

Foxgloves are sensitive to too much fertilizer, especially where the soil is rich. Foxglove foliage is sensitive and can’t handle foliar feeding, so provide a slow-release granulated organic fertilizer with an NPK of 5-10-5 in early spring. Higher concentrations of phosphorus promote big healthy blooms, the kind that gives foxgloves their showy image. Apply these granules at planting time and once more per blooming season. 

Repotting

Since foxgloves disperse widely, those in containers need division and repotting to prevent overcrowding. Re-pot them just before they bloom again. Use a spade to loosen the roots around the perimeter of the plant by rocking it back and forth. Then remove the plant and lightly pull it apart at the point where a new plant has emerged. 

Search for another pot or prepared garden bed, and add the proper soil mix as needed. Then implant the divided sections in the original container and the new area. Add a little bit of water and wait for the plant to root. Then repeat the process as needed in the following spring. 

Propagation

Foxglove seed capsules
Seed capsules for foxgloves form after the flowers fade.

Foxgloves self-sow, which is why they can proliferate so easily. If you’d like to control the spread, you can sow seeds yourself. Simply cut the spikes of spent blooms with garden shears, and remove the unopened seed pods by hand. Within these pods are tons of tiny seeds that you can sow over some compost. If you don’t remove the flower spikes after the blooms start to fade, this plant does readily self-sow seed, so if you don’t want them to spread out, it’s important to keep an eye on those flowers!

Put them in a well-lit area that remains around 70 to 80 degrees. Unlike other seeds, they’ll need light to germinate. In about one month your seeds should sprout into foxglove plants. 

Foxgloves need your help propagating by division, using the method listed in the repotting section of this article. At three to four cycles of growing perennial foxgloves, divide them so they don’t take over. Plant foxgloves you’ve divided into slightly shady areas either in containers or in a prepared bed. 

One surprising way of propagating foxgloves comes from the leaves that produce offshoots. Pull back the leaves from the central stalk and carefully remove the offshoots, which should have an attached root that allows it to grow elsewhere. This method is great for those who want to share tall plants with friends and family. 

Remember! These are poisonous plants and ingesting the sap or any part of the plants can be toxic. Wash your hands and garden tools after working with foxglove. Wearing gloves is recommended.

Pruning

Once about 75 percent of the flowers are spent, remove the flower spike to promote more growth. Although foxgloves don’t need to be deadheaded, you can use deadheading as a way to prevent self-seeding. 

Unlike a lot of plants with flowers, foxgloves do not need winter prep to survive. Too much pruning can prevent flower set in the following spring.

In the first year, grow foxgloves just as they would grow on their own.  Let them flower, bloom, seed themselves if desired (or trim the flower spikes off), and die back. Their roots survive and they’ll return to your cottage garden next spring. After the flowers bloom and are spent in the following year, prune your plants by clipping the flower stems to the crown. 

A biennial plant appreciates pruning after its first flower, while perennial varieties should be cut back in fall to overwinter. 

Troubleshooting

Foxgloves and seed pods
At the bottom left, you can see seed pods from already-faded foxgloves. Source: jondon

When you grow foxgloves, you’ll notice they don’t have many issues. However, there are a few pests and diseases to look out for. 

Pests

Aphids from the species Aulacorthum solani enjoy sucking the sap from leaves and flowers growing on your foxglove. Wipe the leaves down with a damp cloth or spray with a hard spray of water to knock the aphids loose. Alternately, apply insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. One particular species of predatory midge, Aphidoletes aphidimyza, will also feed on aphids, as will ladybugs and lacewings.

Foxglove sometimes attracts mealybugs, another sap-sucking, leaf-loving insect. Just like aphids, search your garden daily and remove them early by hand or with a hard spray of water. A cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol can force reluctant ones to release. If hand removal yields very little result or you have a particularly large infestation, use commercial garlic sprays or horticultural oil. Insecticidal soaps are also useful against mealybug eggs.

Foliar nematodes are small plant parasites that feed on foxgloves from seedling through mature plants. They cause cell damage to plant tissue that takes on a mosaic look, with many different colors. Parts of the plant might be dark brown and some light yellow. 

The only reliable controls for foliar nematodes are preventative by avoiding moist and warm conditions which allow them to thrive. Since we haven’t mastered the weather yet, this is a nearly impossible task!

Because foliar nematodes are microscopic, you won’t be able to see them, but you’ll see their damage. Remove infested foliage from the plant as it appears, since the nematodes will be burrowing through it, but don’t compost it as the nematodes are still inside the leaves. Some beneficial nematodes can eliminate parasitic nematode species. As an alternative, remove infested plants from the location and place black plastic over the area; these nematodes cannot survive for more than 3 months without a host to feed on and will eventually die out.

Diseases

In wet, rainy conditions, foxgloves contract leaf spots which can originate from multiple fungal pathogens, but the most common for these will be anthracnose. The spots are about ¼ inch in diameter, and maroon to brown. They form when gardeners grow foxgloves too close together, particularly during humid warm weather. 

To prevent leaf spot, plant foxgloves at least two feet apart to allow for good airflow. Planting varieties that are resistant to leaf spot diseases is recommended. Copper fungicides can be sprayed on diseased foliage, but remove the most damaged leaves and dispose of them before spraying to ensure you have a reduced chance of fungal spore spread. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Purple foxglove closeup
The deep, cylindrical flower lures in hummingbirds and many bee species. Source: tuchodi

Q: Do foxgloves come back every year?

A: Foxgloves return for at least three growing seasons and some varieties flower more heavily after the first year. They can self-seed and come back either for a second flower period in late summer or return in spring. 

Q: Where is the best place to plant foxgloves?

A: Growing foxgloves in partial to full shade is best. If you’re not sure if you can provide the right conditions in a permanent bed, grow them in containers so you can move them elsewhere if the environment isn’t ideal. Keep them out of the reach of children or pets.

Q: Do foxgloves spread?

A: After foxgloves flower, they form seed pods and will self-seed unless you intervene. This is how they can easily take over an area. If you want to prevent self-seeding, remove the flower stalks as the blooms start to fade so that they don’t produce viable seed pods.


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