The aim of this article is to help you select a site, size, and shape for a flower garden and then to fill it with a harmonious combination of plants. We present this process as a series of steps–seven in all–that takes you from the mere notion that you want a flower garden to a finished plan.
When we say “flower garden” or “border” in this brochure, we mean an ornamental planting, one with well-defined edges and often (but not always) a backdrop of some sort–a house, a hedge, a wall, or a fence.
You may be familiar with annual beds and perennial borders, but most gardeners (ourselves included) get greatest satisfaction from what are known as “mixed borders,” gardens that contain the gamut of plants–annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs, and small trees–for variety and a long season of interest. Most experienced gardeners follow guidelines similar to those we offer here, but others ignore them–sometimes to glorious effect. Do you want to decorate a small square by the front steps with a few annuals, or do you long instead for a sweeping border bursting with perennials?
How much time, energy, and money are you prepared to devote to the task of planting and caring for a garden? It’s a part of the landscape, just as a shade tree is, or a flowering Crabapple or a bluestone patio, and as such it needs to be placed where it will fit in with its surroundings. If you plant a garden in order to enjoy it, then you should probably put it where you spend time outdoors or where you pass often–near the back terrace, along the driveway, at the foot of the front steps, or by the swimming pool.
Rinsing dishes and tapping away at the computer seem less like drudgery when you can pause to gaze out the window at bright flowers swaying in the breeze.
If you can’t supply water when your plants require it, you risk the unpleasant prospect of watching them gasp in summer’s heat. In almost every case, there is something standing behind the exuberant floral display–a fence, a stone or brick wall, a dark green hedge, or a mass of shrubs or trees.
These backgrounds prevent your eye from wandering all over the landscape, allowing you to focus instead on the colorful plants in front of you. If the location you choose for your border lacks a good background, consider building a simple fence or planting a hedge.
An informal assembly of shrubs such as Viburnum, Syringa (Lilac), Clethra, Roses, and Hydrangea offers a combination of bright flowers, fruit, and striking fall color, as well as a rich green backdrop for the summer spectacle that unfolds at their feet.
If you want to use a border to break up a large expanse of lawn, you may wish to dispense with a traditional background and plant an island bed instead. The point is that if you dream of Iris and Peonies, Daylilies and Roses, Asters and Mums, you’ll need to put your border where it will receive ample sunshine. If you put your border in shade, you must be prepared to explore Hostas, Astilbes, Heucheras, Hellebores, Ferns, and other denizens of shady nooks.
Most plants grow best in a soil that retains moisture reasonably well while allowing the excess to drain away. If you site your border on a hot sandy bank or in a low, poorly drained area, you may have to abandon your list of favorites and do some research to discover plants adapted to your soil type. Most people start with a small bed in a sunny spot and are astounded at how fast the space fills up.
In our experience, it’s better to start small and expand as time, money, and interest allow than to be overwhelmed by the demands of designing and planting a large border. The object of gardening, remember, is to have fun, not to pull your hair out because you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. A depth of four feet or more allows for a difference in plant height between front and back and for enough variety to hold your interest through the season.
Straight lines and hard angles suit formal designs, in which borders are given standard geometrical shapes (squares, rectangles, circles). Step back and look at the area from various vantage points and adjust the lines to suit your taste.
If your border has an irregular shape, take multiple measurements so that you’ll be able to reproduce the curves on paper.
It’s also important to note the relative position of anything that is to remain inside the border–a shrub or a boulder, for example–and the location of nearby shade trees, hedges, fences, or other objects that might affect the amount of light that reaches your garden.
Height, flower color, bloom time, and leaf texture should all be considered (and we’ll discuss each in some detail below), but the overriding concern of the gardener can be summed up in another question: will that plant grow for me? No matter how good your design looks on paper, it is doomed to failure if the plants you choose are not adapted to the growing conditions in your border.
The chart at the end of this article lists many good garden plants and, along with flower color, height, and bloom time, indicates their sun and soil requirements. If your new garden will be in the shade and you’re at a loss for what to grow, we refer you to the list of plants at the end of the article that thrive with little or no direct sun.
From the list of suitable plants, make selections according to the basic principles of flower garden design. * Pastel colors (creams, pale yellows, soft pinks, lavenders) are soothing.
If your border is near the house or near where you sit outdoors, you might want to choose a color theme in which pastels predominate. * Hot colors such as red, orange, and bright yellow tend to grab attention.
A single orange Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), for example, can draw attention to a whole drift of cool blue Baptisias. And because hot colors stand out at a distance, they deserve the leading role in a border that is located well away from the house.
Gardeners dream of borders brimming with flowers from early spring through frost, but most bulbs, shrubs, perennials, and even many annuals bloom for a limited period of time.
Spring-blooming shrubs such as Rhododendrons and Lilacs, for example, are at peak bloom for just a week, two at most, and such popular perennials as Peonies and Iris don’t last much longer.
For the budding designer, the big question is whether to devote most of the border to a group of plants that flowers simultaneously, for a superb but brief crescendo, or to opt for a less spectacular but longer-running show. If your garden surrounds a pool that is used only in high summer, you can leave out spring bloomers and fall-flowering Asters and fill the space with annuals, Daylilies, Phlox, and Echinacea.
Annuals and tender perennials such as Gomphrena and Petunias compensate for their short lives by blooming like the blazes all summer and into fall. Silver Artemisias, golden Callunas (Heathers), and purple Heucheras complement the flowers of other plants when a border is at its peak and offer welcome dashes of color when blooms are scarce.
Contrasting flower and leaf shapes and plant silhouettes provide texture and give a border a dynamic quality even on a calm day. A garden of daisy-shaped flowers, for example, may be colorful and charming, but add the trumpets of Lilies, the spikes of Liatris, Foxglove or the flat-topped heads of Achillea, and the airy cloud of a Gypsophila, and the composition really sings.
They can be vaguely thumb-shaped, broad and wavy, grassy, needle-like, lacy, or delicately lobed. Once you’ve narrowed your plant choices and and ruminated a bit on the principles for combining them, you’re ready to begin working on a plan.
Drawing your border to scale (that is, assigning a unit of measurement on paper that equals a much larger measurement of the real border) will help you keep plant groupings proportional and help you determine, with a fair degree of accuracy, the number of plants you will need. The simplest way to proceed is to choose a scale that allows you to fit the entire border on a single piece of paper.
There are 44 one-quarter inch squares running across the long side of an 8H by 11-inch sheet of graph paper. Once you’ve decided on a scale, mark the points where you took measurements outdoors and connect the dots to create the outline, in miniature, of your border.
Then indicate the points of the compass (North, East, West, and South) in one corner and add the important landmarks–trees, shrubs, large rocks, fences. (The easiest way to show trees and shrubs on a plan is to draw circles or arcs that describe the spread of the branches.)
Lay a piece of tracing paper over the outline and begin sketching out possible combinations of plants. shrubs for example, as circles; show drifts as irregularly shaped blobs resembling the cells you saw through the microscope in biology class. Inside each circle and blob, note the name of the plant and a few key bits of information: flower color, bloom time, and height (see the drawing). Use separate pieces of tracing paper for each month or for each bloom season (spring, June, summer, and late summer/fall, for example) to see how the display will change over time.
Because they can be planted between the feet of perennials and shrubs, the spring-flowering bulbs should be added last and the area they occupy should be marked with dotted lines on your plan. Give your favorites prominent placement and combine them with a supporting cast that shows them to advantage.
Once you’ve made a few big decisions, you’ll generally find that the space fills quickly. When you’ve settled on a basic design, the final step is to estimate how many of each plant you’ll need.
Do you want to wait for the plants to fill in or would you prefer to have the garden look full sooner rather than later (with the understanding that you’ll have to do some thinning to prevent overcrowding)?
To arrive at a reasonably good estimate of the number of plants you’ll need for your border, we suggest the following procedure:
* Consult the White Flower Farm catalog or Web site, the cultural instructions booklet shipped with your order, and the label that comes with every plant for recommended spacing. In most cases, you’ll find a range (12 to 18 inches, for example), which is generally equal to the mature spread of the plant.
To get the show you want from a drift of Garden Phlox (which might require five to seven plants), you may have to reduce the number of Echinacea you had hoped to use or eliminate them entirely. If you left more space along the edge of the border for Nepeta x faassenii than you think it requires, you may want to add some Silver Mound Artemisia to fill the gap.
It’s a process, an everchanging work in progress, that requires regular intervention on the part of the gardener as the plants grow and flourish (or occasionally disappear.)