Designing Annual Beds and Borders

As long as there have been gardens the key elements in garden design have been beds and borders. What are they, and how do they differ? Simply put, a bed is a cultivated area surrounded by an open expanse, usually a grass lawn. A bed is accessible from all sides. A border, on the other hand, is at the edge of an area, lying next to a fence or walkway, or ringing the perimeter of a lawn. In most cases a border is accessible from the front side only. The fact that a border is accessible from one side only puts a practical limit to its depth—usually no more than 5 feet. At more than 5 feet deep, it becomes difficult to tend to the plants in the back of the border without walking on those in the front.

In most home gardens, borders are probably more popular and more practical than beds, and for a simple reason: A bed needs a comparatively large area around it to look its best, and putting one into an average-sized garden is a little like placing a large table in the middle of a small room—there’s little space left for anything else.

You need space to accommodate beds. Borders, on the other hand, not only conserve space but serve a unique purpose in any garden, by softening the edges of buildings, fences, walkways, and lawns.

Whatever your choice, beds or borders that include a number of different flowering annuals will provide a wealth of color, texture, and interest to any type of garden, formal or informal. With that in mind, and with your basic design in hand, you’re ready for the next phase in creating your garden, one that many gardeners find the most enjoyable of all.

What to Plant

Here are some factors to think about as you design an annual bed or border: If you want a constant display of color, choose annuals with a long blooming season—those that bloom early and keep flowering until the first frost in fall. They will minimize the amount of planting and replanting necessary to keep the display going throughout the season. Some of the longest-blooming are sweet alyssum, ageratum, morning glory, impatiens, petunias, marigolds, and zinnias.

As you make a pattern with color, think also about plant shapes. Combine annuals with spikes of flowers, such as stock, snapdragons, salvia, and celosia, with cushion-shaped flowers like dwarf asters, marigolds, calendulas, ageratum, geraniums, and phlox. Add to this the various plant forms, such as the willowy cosmos, nicotiana, cleome, and love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), along with the more compact forms of nasturtiums, dianthus, dwarf marigolds, and miniature snapdragons, and you begin to have a bed or border full of diversity and interest.

Plant taller-growing types to the rear of lower-growing ones. If annuals of several different heights are to be used, stair-step them from the tallest to the lowest. You might start in the back row with tall cosmos or one of the smaller sunflowers, such as the 4-foot ‘Picollo’, add a few clumps of hollyhocks, mass some tall marigolds or zinnias in the middle, and end in the front with a combination of ageratum, petunias, lobelia, and alyssum.