Island beds are a great solution for a garden that lacks a focal point, and an easy way to add color and texture to a large expanse of boring lawn. Because they are accessible from all sides, they are easier to plant and maintain. They provide an attractive feature from all different points of the yard, and can add depth and balance. They do, however, have to be designed in way that makes the most of their positive attributes without forgetting the nature of the island bed. Being able to view an island bed from all sides means you must keep in mind some basic points when creating your garden. Here is how to design an island bed!
An island bed is like placing a new sofa in the room… you don’t want to block traffic, you want it in a place you can enjoy it, (from all sides, remember!) and you want it to “balance’ the space. In other words, think before you dig. Do the kids play football every afternoon in June? Keep that in mind. If you have a large yard, don’t place it far away from where you spend the majority of your garden time. And seriously people…balance? If you have three large trees on one side of the yard, and nothing on the other…DO NOT put your island bed on the side of the yard with all the trees! Can’t visualize? Use a garden hose or twine (white is best and easier to see in lawn) to lay out the proposed placement ahead of time. Then step back and consider everything in this post before you even get the shovel out of the garage!
Consider shape, size and formality.
First things first…is your yard informal, or formal? Unless your yard is a formal one, squares and rectangles are not going to be the most natural feeling shape. Again, use the twine trick to create free flowing shapes for your island. I like a modified kidney shape for gardens.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make with creating an island bed is making it too small. You have to take into account the total size of the yard, the distance from house to island bed, and how tall the plants in your island bed will be. When in doubt, go bigger. There are “rules” but you all know I hate those… 🙂 Lay out your bed, step back to look, then make it a little bigger than your comfort zone and see if I’m not right.
Creating the bed itself.
Creating an island bed is pretty much like digging out any garden bed… use a shovel or a spade, and dig up that sod!You can actually use spray paint to mark the edges of the bed on the lawn… no worries, it will be gone soon anyway? And, if you miss some, the lawn mower will get it next time around. Add compost, and till in.
Remember, your island bed can be viewed from all sides, so plant the tallest plants or small trees near the center, and gradually work the heights down as you go toward the edges. Again, same design principles as any other bed. Form, contrast, texture, color… and try to make sure you have something blooming, or of interest, in every season on three sides of the island. It might help to divide the island into thirds. If something is always (or almost always, this is nature, after all!) in bloom in each of the thirds, your bed will feel full and balanced.
Edge this baby, ok? You’ll be thankful when you can actually mow around it, and it just may slow down your lawn’s insistence on taking the bed back from whence it came. Got all that? Good. Now be inspired!
Image Credits: Sherry’s Place, Johnsons Landscaping, Mooseys Country Garden, Home Depot, George Weigel
Island Bed Garden Design: How To Make An Island Flower Bed
An island bed can put pizzazz into a landscape by adding color, texture, and height to the area. Let’s take a look at how to make an island flower bed in the landscape.
Island Bed Garden Design
There are a number of considerations to keep in mind when designing an island bed. This can include its location, shape, size, plant selection and additional accents.
Island Bed Location
Island beds are not placed against the home or any type of structure. Instead, they float alone in the landscape, oftentimes surrounded by lawn where they can be viewed from all sides. Island beds can be placed near a corner, by the driveway or by an entrance walk as well.
First, choose an area of the landscape that is easily viewed from all sides. Shape the island bed, marking it of with paint or flour. Dig out the grass within the perimeter and line the bed with attractive edging, such as stones.
Add about four to six inches (10-15 cm.) of topsoil, more if you have it (amended with compost), to the island bed, spreading it evenly or for additional interest, add hills or mounds.
Tip: For those wishing to get creative, island beds can also be strategically placed in other areas of the landscape. For instance, when we had some excavation work done, we took the extra dirt and placed it in the center of our circle drive. Not only could the island bed be viewed from the home and other areas of the landscape, but each side was easily seen as you drove around it.
Island Flower Bed Shapes
An island bed can take on nearly any shape – round, square, or rectangular to kidney or crescent-shaped.
Size is also variable. However, since island beds are viewed from all directions, it’s usually better to make them half as wide as the distance from where they will be viewed. For instance, if an island bed is situated ten feet (3 meters) away from the home, make it at least five feet wide (1.5 meters) for greater impact.
Size, however, is strictly up to the individual gardener and is also dependent on available space.
Island flower beds are generally easier to maintain since they are accessible from all sides; however, if you don’t have time to maintain one, keep it small and closer to the home. Wherever you put it, an island bed should be large enough to create an impact. If it’s too small, the bed will look and feel out of sorts. Remember, the goal is to add interest, not take away from it.
Plants for Island Beds
With your location, shape and size in mind, it’s time to bring the island bed to life with an assortment of plants and accessories.
Creating island beds can be challenging if careful planning is not performed ahead of time, as these types of flower beds are viewed from all sides, at all times of the year. Therefore, year-round interest plays a vital role in its design.
Plants should be chosen to suit each season, mixing various plant types together. Select plants according to color, bloom cycle, characteristics, and growing requirements. Evergreen plantings are great for year-round color, especially during winter.
When adding plants to the island bed, place the tallest in the center and work down in height, placing medium-sized plants on all sides and smaller ones along its edges.
Garden accessories also take center stage during this time, so make sure you include an interesting focal point of some kind such as a birdbath, bench, trellis, fountain, or tree.
Some Easy and Imaginative ways to lay out Garden Beds
When most people thing about making a flower garden on their property, they clear a strip of land that runs along a fence or walkway (creating a border), or if imagination strikes they might try making a kidney bean-shaped bed that floats like an island out on some part of their lawn. Both the flower bed and border are just fine, and I have both of them myself, but after a while you need more planting options to make your garden layout interesting.
Recently, after writing a post about Planting a Garden Room on your Property (click on title to read), I started thinking about reshaping part of my vegetable and raspberry patch, along with my daylily and ornamental grass beds, to create a two-sided long vista walk that runs from my great border out back, back toward the house. I’ve come up with many different patterns for beds that are all interchangeable and any one, or all of them can work on any kind of land, no matter the slope of the property or its shape.
On a piece of paper I came up with many kinds of garden bed layouts; some are a bit formal, and based on squares, while others are more curvilinear (consisting of curved lines (and round shapes). Any / most of the bed shapes could be used by themself on a small piece of land, or lengthened and widened and added onto, to fit the largest property. All the beds and borders have a central path that leads you through that garden space. Illustration 1 consists of four equal sized square beds with a path that crisscrosses through them.
Illustration 2 is a bit similar to illustration one. The 4 square bed in illustration 1 have become six rectangular beds with a grassy (or it could be crushed stone or paver) walkways between them.
Illustration 3 shows a square-shaped garden layout with the inside edges of the 4 outside beds cut off, forming 4 triangular beds; a diamond-shaped bed is in the center.
Illustration 4 is similar to illustration 3, except the four outside beds are now “L” shaped, and they surround a central square bed.
Illustration 5 is similar to illustration 4, except now you have a round center bed.
Illustration 6 shows two rectangular beds flanking each other.
Illustrations 7, 8, 9, & 10 show 4 different square planting beds following one after another, with a walkway passing in an angular fashion through the center of each bed. Notice how the outside edges of the pathways, from one garden to another, line up with each other (follow the red arrows).
Illustrations 11 & 12 are similar to illustrations 7-10, except instead of an angular path running through the beds, there are more curvilinear paths instead.
Illustrations 13 & 14 show two round beds (one smaller, one larger) with a path going through their centers.
Illustration 15 shows a round bed with a path crisscrossing through its center.
Illustrations 16 & 17 show two round beds with a curvilinear path running through the center of them. Theses two beds are similar to illustration 11 for path movement. Next, look at #17’s convex lower half (it relates to #18).
Illustration 18 shows a half round bed, its upper part is concave. Notice how the bottom edge of the circular bed of illustration 17 is lining up / fits into the top edge of the half circle bed in illustration 18.
Illustration 19 shows four kidney bean-shaped beds that are moving across space. Notice how 1/3 to 1/2 of each bed overlaps with the one opposite it.
Laying out Garden Beds ..When laying out square / straight edged garden beds on your property, first take bamboo garden sticks (available at garden centers everywhere) and stab them in the ground marking off the bed’s four corners. Run string between the bamboo sticks so your can see how large each garden space will be. If you are making many garden beds, one after another, first mark off the center walkway, and then the size / shapes of your beds. Figure 3 to 4 feet for paths. Think about 2 people walking alongside one another in your garden.
To create a round bed, start by sticking a bamboo stick in the ground at the spot where you want its exact center to be. Tie a string to the bamboo stick one half the length you want the bed to be. For a 20 foot wide bed, tie a 10 foot length of string to the bamboo stick. Stretch the string 10 feet away from the center stick, and walk in a circle around the center stick, inserting other bamboo sticks in the ground to mark off the outside edge of your 20 foot circle.
To create curvilinear walkways or kidney bean shaped beds, lay garden hoses on the ground, and move them around until you see a shape you like.
Finally, the cover illustration for this post is of my own garden. It is a composite of three garden layouts. The first bed, closest to the great border out back is my vegetable patch, it has the yellow obelisk tuteur in its center and is patterned after illustration 3. The raspberry patch with the two yellow towers in it is shaped like illustration 2, and the beds closest to the house are like illustration 6.
I hope this post, as well as all my other posts get you thinking about possibilities. Happy Gardening!
When designing a perennial garden, it’s all about the shapes of leaves 1-15-2011, How to Plant (Design) a Garden, Mass versus Specimen planting 2-17-2011,
Colored Foliage adds that WOW Factor to a Garden 2-22-2011,
Stagger plant heights when Planting (Designing) a garden 2-23-2011,
Plant (Start) a Flower Garden for Sun or Shade, Celebrate Spring 3-31-2012,
Got Grass growing out onto your Sidewalk or Driveway? Edge it! 8-26-2012,
When Designing a Shade Garden, think Focal Point, Plant Color and Shapes of Leaves 9-4-2011,
Some ideas about using Garden Ornaments, they add that Finishing Touch to a Garden 6-29-2013,
Designing a Rock Garden with Different sizes of Stones 6-28-2012,
Siting a Garden Shen on your property 6-9-2012,
Al Fresco (Out Door) Dining..Two cafe/bistro-patio tables EQUAL one Picnic Table 5-22-2012,
Foundation Planting, Laying out Foundation Plants in Front of Your Home 9-28-2013.
Basic Design Principles and Styles for Garden Beds
Gardens should always be considered highly personal works of art. As in any kind of art, taste will vary greatly with every person having a different opinion of what constitutes beauty. I think understanding basic design principles, is important for two reasons. First, if you know the rules you can break them in an intelligent way. Second, it helps give you a comfort level that what you design won’t be a complete disaster. However, in the end the only thing that really matters is that you love your garden – your opinion is the most important one.
There are two basic types of garden beds; island beds and borders and two basic styles of gardens; formal and informal. We will start by covering the two types of beds and then move onto the two styles.
A border is anchored by a backdrop and I think these beds are easier to visualize than island beds, at least for me, since the background will help define the size of your new bed. The backdrop might be a house, a hedge row, a fence, or anything else that gives you a fairly solid background. Borders are viewed from only one side.
A flower border is generally, but not always, long and narrow. How deep your bed needs to be will partially depend on how long the bed is. The proportions of the bed are important. A short bed doesn’t need to be as deep, a 3 foot by 8 foot bed will look right at home. A longer bed will need more depth, if possible. A 12 foot by 100 foot bed will look proportional.
Most home gardens are more likely to have beds that fall between 5 and 50 feet long. In this case depth should range between 3 and 6 to 8 feet deep. Any bed that is deeper than 4 feet (you can only reach so far) will need to have access to the interior of the bed for weeding and other maintenance purposes. Paths or stepping stones are common ways to provide access. Here are some examples of borders:
The photo on the left shows a narrow border at the Missouri Botanic Garden, in the center is a border along my front porch, and on the right is a great orange-toned border.
Island beds, on the other hand, are not anchored by a backdrop and can be viewed from all sides. They often have a center anchor. This anchor isn’t necessarily right in the middle. It can be offset to one side for an asymmetrical look. Center anchors can be anything from a tree, shrub or large perennial to a piece of statuary or a large container, even a bench or trellis/arbor can work as a center anchor.
Island beds tend to be more round, square, rectangular or amorphous. They are rarely long and skinny. As with borders, their length and width needs to be somewhat proportional, so longer beds need to also be wider. Island beds can be small, a mailbox planting for instance, but are more often large. Since island beds can be reached from all sides; only beds larger than 6 to 8 feet across will need access for maintenance. Here are some examples of island beds:
The photo on the left shows an island bed with a tree as the anchor, the structure on the right is open so you can see this bed from all sides. The photo was taken at the Boerner Botanic Garden in Hales Corner, Wisconsin; a great garden if you get a chance to visit. In the center is a butterfly wing shaped bed taken at the University of Michigan Children’s Garden. The photo on the right shows a series of small island beds that use mailboxes as their anchor. The photo was taken at the Missouri Botanic Garden.
In general, plants in borders are arranged with tall plants (taller than 2 to 3 feet) placed in the back, mid-size plants (10 inches to 2 to 3 feet tall) in the middle, and short plants (less than 10 inches) in the front of the bed. It is best to use groupings or drifts of plants for a natural feel. Look at the border planting plan below. Tall plants are in brown, medium-tall plants are in blue, medium-short plants are in teal, and short plants are in dark green. Note that the plants are grouped rather than in rows.
The other thing to consider when planning your plant placement is that it is often best to use groupings of at least 3 of the same plant together. One plant alone often does not have enough impact, where a grouping of 3, 5, 7 or more will have good impact. Odd numbers tend to look better than even numbers. This is especially true of smaller plants where groups are necessary to have impact. Short plants can be used in long narrow plantings to create borders on the edge of a bed.
There is an exception to the plant 3 or more plants rule. In general, if a plant is large enough, think shrubs or large perennials, it can hold it’s own without being grouped with other plants. Usually, only back of the border plants can stand alone. Scroll back up to see photos of borders.
Island beds work on the same principles as borders, but rather than having the taller plants in the back. The taller plants are in the middle of the bed or centered on the anchor plant. In the design below, the bright blue dot is the anchor, the brown are the tall plants, the pink are the medium plants, and the dark blue are the short plants.
You will note that the plants are grouped in drifts with the taller plants in the middle of the bed and then getting progressively shorter as you get toward the edge. Your design doesn’t need to be rigid, you can see above that some medium sized plants come to the edge of the bed and some short plants are right next to tall plants. The tall to short progression is simply a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule. Scroll back up to see photos of island beds.
Let’s talk now about the two styles of garden. Gardens generally are either formal or informal. Formal gardens tend to use distinct geometric shapes for their layout; circles, rectangles, triangles or long straight lines. Plant spacing, color, and layout are all very precise. Here are some examples of formal gardens:
On the left is a circle knot garden, in the center is a formal garden with lots of color, but very geometric shapes, and on the right is a formal garden with a clipped boxwood hedge to create the form of the beds. All of these photos were taken at the Missouri Botanic Garden.
Informal gardens tend to use curves and free flowing forms. The color combinations are more relaxed and varying plant heights will mingle together. I think most home gardens tend to be this type. Here are some examples of informal gardens:
The photo on the left is from the Ball Seed Company garden in West Chicago, Illinois and shows, more or less, a wildflower meadow. The center photo is from the Boerner Botanic Garden and shows a curving walkway bordered by colorful plantings. The photo on the right is from The Champaign County (Illinois) Master Gardener Demonstration Garden and shows a great informal garden using bright colors.
Learning the types and styles of gardens and the general principles of plant placement will help you design gardens for your own home. To learn about using color in your garden click here. Of course, once you design a bed you have to actually dig and prepare it. For more information on actually preparing your bed for planting, click here.
*Planting plans developed by the University of Missouri Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program.
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How to Design a Garden
Plan the shape of the lawn, which is usually the biggest feature in a yard. The lawn’s shape should set the tone for the shape of the beds. If it’s designed with straight or gradually curving lines, the lawn can make a pretty picture and remain easy to mow. Avoid sharp turns, wiggly edges, and jagged corners that are irritating to the eye and extra work to mow. Your lawn is an important part of the landscape. However, if space is tight you can replace lawn with pavement or decking for your outdoor living area or with ground covers and paths.
The shapes of the garden beds, paved areas, and lawn areas all contribute to the overall look of your garden. Don’t muddy the design with too many small shapes or too many kinds of shapes; make sure shapes relate to one another and the property itself. Rectangles alternated with kidney bean shapes can get pretty weird looking.
A sloping, hilly property usually is easiest to landscape with simple, flowing, curved bed and walkway shapes that relate to its contours. To do otherwise could involve lots of professionally built, straight-edged terraces, steps, retaining walls, and other expensive hardscapes. But the landscape does not have to be all one shape. Most plots of land are rectangular, with a house in the middle somewhere. The garden beds at the edges can either be gently curved or follow the straight lines of the overall plot. Or a large circle or oval of grass can be completely surrounded with pavements and plantings out to the edge of the property line.
Proportions in a garden are perhaps even more important than shapes. On the next page we have set up a few easy-to-follow guidelines to size your garden features appropriately.