Planning a perennial garden

Here are flower garden design tips to help you plan a new garden bed. And if you’re looking for ways to make existing plantings look even better, you might find inspiration in the pictures below.

Flower bed size: wider is better

If there’s one big mistake gardeners make first time out, it’s skimping on the width of their beds.

Make your flower beds wide enough to add flowering shrubs such as hydrangeas or rhododentrons, and even small flowering trees. Try not to maroon woody plants in a sea of lawn – they look better incorporated into your planting beds.

Wider beds – at least five to six feet wide – are more attractive and give you more planting opportunities for that lush, layered look you’re after.

More flower garden design tips:

Don’t underestimate the power of a good line

Straight lines lend elegance to this garden

Every garden bed needs sense of definition – a line that sets it apart from the rest of the garden.

Straight lines work well, but most people seem to prefer curved lines.

If you go for curves, avoid wiggly lines. A smooth sweeping curve or a clean straight line always makes a more elegant flower garden design statement than a wavy pattern snaking around the garden.

Plant in groups

Here peonies used in a large group as hedge alongside a country driveway

In flower gardening, more is definitely more. That mass of bloom you see in a well-planned garden comes from clumps made up of drifts of three, five, seven, or more of the same plant.

A garden full of one of this and one of that tends to look jumbled. Most experts recommend planting all except some of the largest stand-alone plants in odd-numbered groupings or three or more.

Check how tall your plants are supposed to get

Most plant tags give this information. Think of your plants in terms of edgers (front of bed), fillers (middle of bed) and backdrop.

Plant taller annuals and perennials toward the back of your beds, but break this flower garden design rule occasionally, but letting a taller group rove into the middle, or by placing some tall plants that are airy and see-through near the front. This works nicely with ornamental grasses or Brazilian verbena.

Give individual plants enough space

Individual clumps of perennials stand out in this well-spaced flower border

Place plants about as far apart as each plant’s ultimate spread. For example, a perennial that grows 24 inches wide should be about 20 to 24 inches from its neighbors.

Create unity in your flower garden design

Repeated here: yews in the back, purple-leaved shamrock, plus grasses and hostas in front

There are many ways to do this effectively.

Try limiting colors to those that harmonize well, or put some plants into groups of three to five or more and repeat them among single specimens of other plants.

You can also pull things together with a strong backdrop, such as an evergreen hedge, or by using one type of plant as the edger along the front of the bed.

Repeating certain plants, colors and textures adds continuity to beds. For example, if you have flower borders that face each other, repeat at least one grouping of plants on each side. Staggering the groups – not planting them right across from each other – makes the planting more dynamic.

The gate and shrubs create a calm and soothing garden view

Create balance

Symmetry is a formal approach to garden layout – for example, planting the same upright shrub on both sides of a gate.

But you can also do this asymmetrically, for example, three mounded boxwoods on the one side of a path can balance the visual weight of a tall, upright evergreen on the other side.

Include a focal point

A beautiful, inexpensive focal point

The most appealing flower garden designs include accents that immediately catches your eye.

A bench, an arbor, a gate, art or statuary can all be good focal points.

Larger gardens can accommodate more than one focal point. In a small garden, do something special to mark the entrance – a gate through an arbor is a time-honored classic.

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Surround your outdoor living space with color and fragrance this year by planting a new flower garden. Whether your space is a window box, a porch container, or a flower bed alongside your house, take time to plan your planting this spring for three seasons of blooms and foliage.

Before you go the the Garden Center and buy a cart full of plants, take some time to review these planting basics. Plan the flower bed, prep the soil and research the plants that will grow best in your climate. Getting it right the first time means less work and expense in the long run.

These three basics are essential for new gardeners and a timely refresher for experienced green thumbs.

1. Location is everything

Your flower garden can be as small as a window box or a container on a patio. It could be a raised garden bed or a brand new flower bed. Whatever the size, know the sunlight in your chosen location. Spend time outside and note the light and shade in the chosen spot throughout the day.

Remember that more sun equals more blooms. A south-facing flower bed that gets six hours of sunlight is ideal for drought-resistant perennials like coreopsis and coneflower. Filtered light works, too, you can just choose from a different group of plants like shade-loving hosta and heuchera.

Flower borders can be narrow or wide, from two feet up to eight feet. A wider flower border offers more opportunity to layer plants in clumps for a cottage garden look. Just be sure to build in room to maneuver when you need to prune, deadhead, or divide perennials.

Once you determine the location, amend and improve the soil before the plants go in the ground. If this is a window box or container, buy a well-draining, moisture-retentive potting mix for the best start. Raised garden beds need a special mix of organic material and nutrients. Buy a raised garden soil or mix your own from ingredients at the Garden Center.

In a flower border, remove weeds and amend the soil. If this is a new bed, put down a layer of landscape fabric to block weeds and top with six inches or more of garden soil or top soil. In an existing bed, amend the soil with composted manure before planting.

The ideal location will need adequate drainage. A swampy site is good for water-loving plants, but most perennials like dry feet. Consider, too, how you will water the garden. Is a garden hose nearby, or will you need a watering can to water by hand? An irrigation system may make things easier, and this may affect your choice of plants.

2. Choose your plants

Prioritize and plan your garden according to height, color and spacing. Place taller plants and shrubs in the back, smaller plants near the front.

Consider ornamental grasses like Muhly grass and Fireworks Pennisetum to add height and structure. Use small shrubs like distylium, nandina, loropetalum, and ligustrum to anchor a flower bed and contribute evergreen interest in winter.

For help planning plant lists for your region, check out these stories:

  • Perennials for Northern gardens
  • Perennials for Southern gardens (including the South Texas Valley area)
  • Perennials for Western gardens (including Western desert regions)
  • Perennials for South Florida gardens

If you’re planting a container or window box, this is the thriller, spiller, filler formula. Set the taller element near the back and fill in with colorful elements and a final fillip draping over the edge.

3. Keep it simple

Plant low-maintenance, low-water perennials and annuals that will look good all season long. This is a garden, and even more than that, it’s your garden. It’s ever-evolving and will reward for years to come. Adding and subtracting plants is part of the process.

One way to keep it simple is to begin with a few colors and add as you go along. When you select flowers, stay within a limited color palette. Three colors is a good place to start. For example, shades of yellow, orange and red can create a monochromatic look, as can a serene selection of pinks and pale purples.

In the fall, you can add bulbs either in the ground or containers, for spring blooms. As you learn more, you may want to expand by adding edibles like kale and herbs to your flower bed. You can try growing from flowers from seed; zinnias are easy and provide a fiesta of color in the summer heat.

How to Start a Perennial Garden Business

By Denise

Perennials are wonderful plants as they give you a garden that can produce color most of the year, depending where you live. By careful selection and laying our your garden properly you can add color, enjoyment and value to your property.
photo credit: cliff1066

I consider myself blessed to have a nice piece of property with rolling hills and streams and creeks. I wanted to do something “green” for the community I live in plus share gardens and ideas with those who wish to stop by, so the idea of a perennial gardens business was born.

There are many steps to take in the business I have planned and I will be adding different gardening aspects to the grounds as time and interest in the project takes off. My gardens will also be organic and will have no use of chemicals or chemical fertilizers.

I have taken the first steps by rounding up a variety of perennial plants and laying out my working gardens. At this time I have two gardens that I am tilling and adding natural compost and nutrients to the garden. This will start the garden soil off rich and healthy.

One garden is in a shape of a boomerang It measures about 35 foot by 20 foot. The other garden, which I am tilling today, is rectangular and will be about 35 foot by 25 foot. This is my retired vegetable garden and has to be tilled under and have compost, leaves and straw added. These will be the working base for my later gardens. During the late fall and spring I will be designing and showing you step by step how the new gardens will be set up.

I hope you join me in this adventure and share ideas and success stories with me. Tomorrow I will show you the rough plots and share a few more ideas on what I hope to accomplish. Happy gardening all! Denise
photo credit: Alyzande

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    • Basic principles of Perennial Garden Design

      Download the PDF version

      Perennial Gardens

      1. Perennials do not bloom all season long; rather, they have a season of bloom which can range from 2 weeks to 2 months or longer. When designing a perennial garden, it is important to truly understand just when and for how long a particular perennial blooms in your area.

      2. Once you have pinpointed the season of bloom of a particular perennial, you need to “dig a little deeper”. There are many other very important characteristics of plants that add to their value and role in your garden. Find out:

      • Does the plant sprout late and not appear in the garden until May or later?
      • Does the plant go dormant after blooming?
      • What is its mature height and spread?
      • What is the foliage like?

      3. The foliage of a perennial is as important as the flowers! This is very hard for beginning gardeners to accept. When you first start out, all you can think of is color, color, color. If a perennial is in bloom for 3-4 weeks out of a 7 month growing season, and it’s going to be
      taking up valuable space in your garden, you should know what it will look like after blooming. Some perennials have very attractive foliage that is a real garden asset. Some have colorful or variegated leaves that can be as valuable as flowers. Others need to be cut back or get very unkempt looking as the summer heats up. Find out the real story about each plant you choose.

      4. Once you have honestly appraised the plants that will go into your garden, then you can work with their strengths and weaknesses to create a lovely picture every single week. Surround early bloomers that look awful in August with good foliage plants or strong late
      bloomers. By taking this approach, you can avoid the gaps and unsightly holes that most perennial gardens suffer from.

      5. To draw a perennial garden plan, measure the garden bed and draw it to scale on a piece of graph paper. Place 8 sheets of tracing paper over this “master plan” and firmly attach them to the scale drawing with tape or staples. You will then have a tracing paper overlay for each of the 7 months of the growing season (April through October) and a bulb planting overlay.

      6. As you choose your plants, draw them onto the appropriate month(s)’ tracing paper overlay IN PENCIL. You will be changing and rearranging your plant placements many times before you are done.

      7. To assure that you are drawing your plants to scale on your plan, cut cardboard circles to represent 18”, 24” and 36” diameters. Most individual perennials will grow to 18” in diameter in 3 years. Many grow much larger than that. As you add plants to your plan, trace a
      circle of the appropriate size for each individual plant.

      8. It is common practice, especially in larger gardens, not to use individual plants but rather to group plants together in drifts. This creates a more striking effect in the garden. The larger the garden, or the farther away from which you will view the garden, the larger the drifts should be.

      9. Make your garden as wide as possible. Very narrow borders do not allow you to layer perennials in drifts from tall to medium to short. Since the average plant takes up an 18” diameter space, even if you were to only layer 3 single plants in a garden bed, it would have
      to be 4 1/2’ – 5’ wide to accommodate them. If you are limited in space, make your garden wider and not as long.

      10. A general rule of thumb about the heights of plants is: the height of the tallest plant should equal half of the width of the bed. If you have a very narrow garden and use 6-7’ tall perennials in it, you won’t have the room to layer your plants gracefully from tall to medium
      to short. Narrow beds can better accommodate shorter plants.

      11. When placing your plants on the plan, use plant marriages. Place groupings of plants next to each other that bloom at the same time rather than trying to spread out and dot bits of color all around the garden each month. Plant marriages can be very effective if the colors are complementary or opposites, creating exciting contrast. There are many classic plant marriages that you will see in books, catalogs and slides that you can “plug in” to your plan in the appropriate month(s).

      12. Place plants that are very different next to each other. Combine spiky plants that offer vertical accent with soft, billowy, mounded plants. Use broad textured, heavy foliage with delicate lacy foliage. Bold dramatic flowers look all the more dramatic if paired with light
      airy flowers.

      13. Do not hesitate to repeat the same plants or combination of plants in a different spot in the garden. This will make the overall picture much more cohesive. Consider color echoing, i.e. repeating the same color or color combinations, throughout the garden, even if the actual plants are different. You can develop themes, such as using silver foliage plants or ornamental grasses for dramatic vertical accents, repeated in strategic spots in the garden.

      14. Use spring, summer and fall blooming bulbs in between the plants. They go dormant and disappear after blooming. The perennials can easily mask the gaps. Once the plan is complete, use the bulb tracing paper overlay to embellish the plan with bulbs for added color.

      In an effort to provide horticultural information, these educational documents are written by Nancy DuBrule-Clemente and are the property of Natureworks Horticultural Services, LLC. You are granted permission to print/photocopy this educational information free of charge as long as you clearly show that these are Natureworks documents.

      How to Plant a Beautiful Perennial Garden

      Francesca Yorke/Getty Images

      If you take care of them, perennials will come back year after year. These herbaceous plants, like peonies and daylilies, die in the fall and return in the spring. While most annuals last throughout the season, perennials only bloom for a short while but they look fabulous during their once-a-year show. Here are some basic things to know before you start planning and planting.


      Take measurements.

      Before choosing any flowers or plants, you need to know where you’ll be planting a perennial garden and how much space you have within that garden. First, measure the area you’ve allotted for a garden, then measure any permanent structures, like a pool or porch, that sit in your square footage so you can subtract them from the total.

      Know what to plant.

      The best perennials are those that are known to thrive in your particular area’s growing conditions. Some like yarrow do well with eight hours or more of daily sun exposure, while others such as hosta crave partial shade. Also take into consideration colors, textures, maintenance level and, if you’ve got wildlife in your backyard, whether a plant is deer-, rabbit-, or squirrel-resistant.

      Figure out the best time to plant.

      Most perennials can and should be planted in the spring, as this allows ample time for root establishment, says Adam Dooling, the Curator of Outdoor Garden and Herbaceous Collections at the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, New York. “A decent rule of thumb is to plant summer-blooming and fall-blooming perennials in spring, shortly after they’ve awakened and once the danger of freezing soil has passed.” Inversely, you should plant spring-blooming and summer-blooming perennials in the fall, allowing enough time for the plants to establish themselves before winter. “Your optimal planting season can either be extended or reduced depending on your climate or conditions that year.”


      Prepare the soil.

      Soil is the lifeblood of any garden, so make sure yours is as robust as it can be. Add organic matter such as peat moss or compost to pump it up.

      Plant them.

      “Water the plant before planting, as dry roots can be brittle and become damaged,” says Dooling. Dig a hole larger than the pot you are planting, which allows for better root development. “Once you have dug your hole, backfill the hole slightly so that the plant is set at roughly the same depth as it was in the pot, with the crown just at the surface of the soil.” If buried too deep, you risk rotting the crown (the point where the stems and leaves meet the roots).

      Water them well, then not so much.

      Water your thirsty perennials right after planting and then at least once a week. Keep them well watered for the first month while the root system is being established. After that, water them deeply but less frequently.

      Taking care of perennials.

      Once they’re established, don’t fertilize plants until they’re two to four inches tall. Wrap the plants around stakes before they become too tall. Deadhead flowers (remove old flower by pinching or snipping off the stem just below the flower’s base) to tidy up the garden and encourage other blooms to grow.

      The most important step to planting a new flower bed is to visualize the future. While your bed might not look like much when it’s first planted, in a few months it will be much fuller, taller, and more colorful. The key is anticipating the heights, colors, textures, and mass of all the various plants.

      The sample flower bed shown in this example consists of two rows of annuals and perennials in the front and a staggered row of taller plants (mainly shrubs) in the back. Even though everything is pretty much the same height when the bed is planted, eventually the background plants will greatly surpass everything else in size.

      The strategy here is to create a backdrop of tall plants in the back of the flower bed, which creates a “canvas” for the rest of the arrangement. This is a technique known as “layering.” In the context of planting flower beds, “layering” means you put the tallest flower bed plants in the back, the shortest in the front row, and the remaining plants in between. A nicely layered flower bed provides maximum visual appeal when all the plants mature.

      While it’s possible to start with a greater visual impact by selecting more mature shrubs, larger plants cost much more, and nurturing plants from a tender age (or from seed) is half the fun of flower gardening. The small shrubs in our sample bed are available at a very good price in most areas. In addition to the mature height, the plants were selected with the following considerations:

      • The flower bed is a very sunny location, calling for sun plants. Planning for a shady garden would obviously call for different choices.
      • It features some perennials, flowers including some perennials that bloom all summer. In general, anchoring a flower garden with perennials will help form the structure of the garden, and over time, they will fill in and gradually reduce the planting chores of filling in with annuals.
      • The plants offer interesting textures. Color is not the only consideration in planning a garden; texture and shape should also be considered. Though we haven’t used them here, small shrubs can be an excellent way to introduce textures into a planting bed
      • The color scheme is blue-purple-gold, which are complementary colors. Other complementary pairs are red and green, and yellow and violet. Other ways of planning color would be to use harmonious colors—those adjacent to one another on the color wheel—or a monochromatic scheme, in which all colors are subtle variations of the same color.

      Gardening with Perennials – How To Design A Perennial Garden

      I truly believe that the key to a lifetime of happy gardening is to have a few tried and true perennials in your gardening beds. I remember the first time I grew them: I was 10 years old and seeing those green shoots poking out of the cold, hard ground in late spring was the most miraculous sight I had ever witnessed. Living in a northern climate, USDA plant hardiness zone 5, it was hard to believe that anything could survive the cold, snowy winter our mountain town had just endured. Every year since, I have been in awe when I see my golden Achillea (yarrow), orange daylilies, and white Alaskan shasta daisies growing from my perennial flower gardens strong by early May without any help of my own. Let’s learn more about gardening with perennials.

      Perennial Garden Plants

      When trying to decide which little miracles to plant in your perennial garden design, just take a look around you. If you have neighbors who also enjoy gardening, ask them or just observe what perennial garden plants they have grown successfully. Which ones come back year after year and require little or no maintenance? Which ones have been too delicate to survive the winter?

      If you live in hot and humid climates, be sure to inquire as to which perennials tend to overrun the garden and require constant cutting back and digging up. Even in my cool mountain climate, it’s well known that planting peppermint or spearmint in the garden is asking for trouble; it will quadruple in size year after year and, like some in-laws I know, is nearly impossible to get rid of.

      There are countless books and catalogs that will also be helpful in your

      search to find the perfect practical perennial garden plants. If you’re having trouble deciding on perennials to display in your garden, try a local gardening book written especially for your climate zone and weather conditions, or simply determine which zone you’re in and pay attention to the zone indicators in each plant’s description. For instance, in the guide to perennials I’m reading, it shows that dianthus (a happy little pink flower) enjoys zones 3 to 8, full sun, and well-drained dry to moist soil. In my zone 5 dry soil, dianthus should fare just fine.

      Soil for Perennial Flower Gardens

      Regardless of whether your neighbors and friends are helpful in your search, you will still need to do some digging, literally, of your own. No two gardens are ever alike. Just across the street from me lives a very lucky woman who has light, sandy soil full of organic matter that is quite fertile. At my house, however, my garden contains sticky, dense clay soil that has a tendency to be on the dry, infertile side because of the many evergreens gracing my yard.

      You can determine your soil’s type by holding some in your hand and moistening it. It will either form a sticky, solid, clay-type ball, a sandy ball that easily falls apart in your hand, or something in between.

      How to Design a Perennial Garden

      Now that you have an idea of which plants will suit your location’s particular characteristics, the joyful process of preparing, designing, and maintaining the garden bed begins. As part of your perennial garden design process, performing a pH and nutrient soil test is a good first step. It will let you know what nutrients are lacking or if the pH is off balance. A pH range of 6.0-7.0 (slightly acidic to neutral) is acceptable to most all perennial flower gardens.

      Once the soil test has been done and any adjustments have been made, add o1inch of compost to the top of the soil, making sure the soil is not too wet (soaked) or too dry (dusty), and turn it over with a shovel being careful not to trample it after digging. If this soil preparation can be done the fall before next spring’s planting, it would be ideal. If not, wait at least a day before planting the bed.

      Plant the perennials on a cloudy and cool day, if possible, to avoid shock. Make sure to give them sufficient space to double or triple in size. As perennial garden plants bloom, remove any spent blossoms by simply pinching them off with your fingers. Each spring it is also a good idea to spread well-rotted manure, compost, or organic fertilizer on the surface of the soil and cover it with a mulch, such as chopped leaves or straw, to keep the soil moist and fertile.

      If the plants have become crowded after a few years at their location, dig up the perennial clump, divide it into two or three sections with a knife, being careful not to let the roots dry out, and replant them, either expanding the flower bed or choosing a new location–even giving them to friends. It’s easy to make friends when you have free perennials.

      Gardening with perennials is fun and easy. These gardens return each year, bringing additional enjoyment with each new bloom.

      How to request a mail order plant catalog from Plant Delights Nursery

      The easiest and most complete way to shop all of our company’s 1,500+ unique, rare, and native plant offerings is right here on the website. A good place to start is our list of the new plants we’re offering for the first time (or the first time in a long time). We also have plants organized by genus, garden theme, or alphabetically (A-Z).

      Our mail order plant catalogs contain a subset of the plants available online and are sent to recent active customers upon publication. .

      If you would like to receive a printed catalog via the mail there are two options:

      1. Order an expedited print catalog – $7
        • Available only in the United States.
        • Expedited mail order plants catalogs ship via First Class Mail to arrive in about a week.
        • A $7 gift certificate will be issued to you within 2 business days.
      2. Add a free print catalog to your current plant order
        • If you are placing a plant order today you may add a free plant catalog to your order.
        • Simply click the Add To Cart button below and the shopping cart will automatically adjust the catalog price when you add a plant to your order.

      Garden communicators/Garden media please email us and we will add you to a special “perennial” (yuk yuk yuk) printed plant catalog list.

      Groups that would like to request more than a single copy of the plant catalog from our company please email us with details of the group as well as requested quantities.

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