Designing Great Flower Beds

I love this moment in the gardening year, right before the plants wake up. It is a time when I feel free to create the garden of my dreams. In my mind all things seem possible. With no long list of immediate tasks, I can sit back with a warm cup of coffee and leisurely thumb through stacks of magazines, just soaking in all those glorious pictures and ideas, imagining how perfect my garden will be this year.

As a garden designer I am especially interested in inventive ways of combining plants into eye-catching displays. That's where I experience the real art of gardening, mixing together the forms, textures and colors of plants that create beautiful landscapes.

If you are in that dreamy state of garden bliss, I'd like to add a few images and ideas to spark your imagination and share some tips on how to make your dreams come alive.

I urge you to build on these suggestions and make your garden truly your own. Be fearless in selecting plants combinations that catch your eye and make your heart beat a little faster. Good gardens, like great interior designs must follow a basic set of principles, but the really exceptional spaces are those that reflect the unique character and spirit of the homeowners themselves.

Build combinations against a backdrop

Native plant border
This all native plant border is displayed against a yew hedge.

I leap at the opportunity to use a blank wall, such as the side of a house, garage or tool shed as the canvas upon which to display groups of plants. A hedge, wall or fence can provide an effective contrast to the shapes, color and textures of the plants. A backdrop also offers the chance to garden on the vertical with one of the many varieties of flowering vines. If the light and conditions are right, my first choice for an arbor or trellis is a climbing rose. You can't go wrong with such a classic beauty. When I get the background in place, I feel like 80% of my work is done.

Choose plants for year round interest

Mixed border
The borders in my garden are a mix of shrub roses, ornamental trees, perennials and annuals.

When faced with filling a large border, try to mix in groupings of evergreens, shrubs and grasses to give the garden year round interest. These seasonal sentinels are always there to provide structure and interest, so your garden doesn't disappear from view when winter arrives. A formula to keep in mind is if one quarter of the border plants maintain their form year round, your garden will have structure and interest even in colder months.

With these plants in place, fill in with groupings of long blooming perennials and annuals to add color and texture for months at a time. Finally add pockets of seasonal bloomers such as daffodils, lilies and chrysanthemums to keep the borders fresh and dynamic.

A well designed border is like a symphony with each plant carrying its own part of the arrangement at various times, but something is always there to keep the music going. In my own garden asters, goldenrod, and ornamental grasses and salvias begin to flower in late summer and carry the garden through the fall to the first frost. These late bloomers peppered through the beds give the border a lift right when my summer flowers are beginning to look a little tired.

Blend house and garden styles

Spring Green Tulips
Spring green tulips carry the criss-cross pattern of the porch railing out into the garden.

Gardens look best when they appear as natural extensions of your home's architecture. For instance, if you have a cottage style home, express the garden's motif with plants that echo that theme. Flower borders with a casual, informal look that lean on old-fashioned plants and are arranged in a random and loose manner complement this style. In my cottage garden, I mix varieties of heritage shrub roses with old-fashioned snowball viburnums, foxgloves and tulips.

Plant in multiples

A Bold Drift of Verbena
Large drifts of homestead verbena soften the edge of this cut stone path.

For strong visual impact, use the same varieties in large groupings. I like to plant in combinations of 3, 5 or 7. For instance, instead of using five phlox, each a different color, plant a large group of the same phlox to build volume and mass in a border. I rely on plants that I know to be the tried and true performers to establish these bold blocks. Then I accent the plantings with more short-lived or ephemeral beauties. By building the big elements with dependable plants, the others can be more experimental. For instance, although I love tulips, I wouldn't build my entire garden around them. They are better used as accessories to a larger planting of trees, shrubs and perennials that make up the bones of the garden.

Embrace contrast

Hosta, Fern, and Spiderwort
'Krossa Regal' hosta, wood fern and spiderwort create an intriguing texture contrast in shady spots.

One of the gardens I was re-designing had different varieties of azaleas as foundation plantings. When the shrubs were in bloom, the various blocks of color stood out, but once the flowers faded the small leafed shrubs all looked the same. That is why I advise gardeners to select combinations of plants that have not only contrasting color, but various forms and textures. By choosing plants with contrast, the interest of each grouping is heightened. While your first instinct may be to use plants with different colors, texture is one of the most effective tools in design. For instance, placing soft fuzzy leafed plants such as Lamb's ear next to glossy, needlepoint holly creates an intriguing combination.

Repeat units of colors and forms

Pots of Lavender
Containers are a great way to create rhythm. Here pots of lavender are placed between drifts of daylilies.

If you are faced with the challenge of planting a long flowerbed, the secret is to find a successful combination of plants and repeat the grouping throughout the border. This creates a pleasing rhythm or visual cadence that establishes a sense of order. To do this, create a small vignette of plants made up of 3 or 5 varieties, and then repeat the combination at regular intervals along the length of the bed.

Create moods with color

Red Border
Black elephant ears, purple fountain grass, coleus and salvia combine to create a hot color border.

One of the most compelling aspects of color is its ability to create illusion. Color's affect on our mood and the atmosphere of a room is at the heart of its mystery. Cool colors such as blue and lavender soothe us, evoking restfulness and calm, while hot colors stir warmth and excitement , with reds and oranges simulating the urgency of fire and blood. Understanding these attributes and using them creatively in your plant combinations is the key to compelling designs.

One way I build a color scheme is to base it on how the garden area will be used and the size of the space. For instance, if I am creating a garden room for relaxing and meditation in a relatively small space, I rely on cool colors to create a sense of well-being and spaciousness. In a large area for entertaining, a livelier color palette sets the stage for engaging conversation and a festive mood without giving the garden a closed in feeling.

Experiment and have fun

Mums, Kale, and Peppers
For a fun fall border try combining kale, chrysanthemums and ornamental peppers.

While some formal garden settings demand a rigid and ordered style, I enjoy bending a few rules and trying some surprising combinations. Instead of confining the lettuce, peppers and herbs to the vegetable garden, I like to mix them in with my roses and irises. This anything-goes-approach can yield some dramatic and exciting combinations. Try adding tropicals and houseplants to your flower borders and see what happens.

Let your borders evolve

Spring Tulips
A large drift of 'Francois' and 'Pink Impression' tulips is a delight in spring.

A common mistake is to create plant combinations for a single season. Design your borders so they will evolve through time with seasonal color. Spring flowering bulbs offer that first flush of color and give way to summer perennials and annuals followed by fall flowering favorites. Create your plant combinations to for seasonal interest.

Add a little surprise

Ornamental Grass
Hot orange and red blooms are nicely veiled behind the ethereal plumes of muhly grass.

Using tall plants in the back or a border and shorter varieties in foreground is general rule to follow and will always serve you well. However, it is also fun to pull a few tall plants to the front of the bed to introduce an element of surprise and break up the monotony of the pattern.

Another interesting visual effect is to design a semi-transparent screen of taller plants, creating a veil that you have to look through to see the flowers and foliage beyond. Ornamental grasses, guara and Russian sage can be used in this way.

Good to Know

Plant Choice Priority

When selecting plants for your border combinations, think about a plant's characteristics in this order:

  1. Plant Form
  2. Foliage
  3. Flower

No-Fail Border Combinations

  • Good Contrast - Phlox next to ornamental grass
  • Good Texture - Lacey fern next to a bold hosta
  • Good Color Contrast - Purple and orange make an electrifying couple

Play-it-Safe Color Tip:

Use lots of gray foliage to harmonize unrelated colors.

Color Caution:

Use yellows sparingly

Strong Color Schemes

Start a palette with a single color and grow it out of that color family.

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10 Steps to a Great Flower Border

by Francine Roche on April 23, 2008 07:39
The article is full of practical information that can be put to use in any zone. I'm in Zone 6 and finding plants that can withstand the extreme temperatures is a challenge. Now I have ideas on how to structure my garden for the seasons and still have color and contrast year round. Thank you very much.

10 steps to great flower borders

by Shirley Reynolds on March 22, 2008 08:36
This is definitely a 5 star article. As a long time gardener, I can appreciate that these steps are well explained and with a little experimenting should result in beautiful borders. One other tip, I like to photograph my garden at various times during each season as this gives me ideas on improving color, texture and positioning for next year or maybe just repeating combinations I like for another year.

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