Planning a Perennial Bed

What you’ll need

  • Graph paper
  • Pencil

step 1: Select A Location for the Bed

The location of your perennial bed can be wherever you choose. The garden will look different if you select a shady spot than if you select a sunny spot, but many flowers bloom in the shade, too, as long as it’s not too dark.

It should be located where it’s on view from the most-used spaces in your garden: the front walk or back deck or patio. It can be any size or shape, but it’s best to start small and add to the garden each year.

If the bed is in the center of the lawn, where it can be viewed from all sides, it is called a bed. If it is along a fence or by a path, where it will be viewed from only one side, it’s usually called a border.

step 2: Draw the Bed

Next map the space you’ve selected and outline it on graph paper. Graph paper with 4 lines per inch works well, giving a scale of ¼ inch = 1 foot if you let each square represent one square foot in the garden. Either make many copies of your drawing, or work on tracing paper laid over the drawing so you are free to doodle and try ideas, then throw them away if they don’t work out.

step 3: Select Flowers for Harmony

Now comes the fun part. Collect all your plant and seed catalogs and pick out the flowers you like best. Select those that will harmonize if planted close together, in color, size and texture. If you like pastels, limit your flower colors to the soft tones. For a dramatic look, select all flowers that are almost the same color. For a bold look, pick contrasting colors like yellow and purple or blue and orange. Another way to select colors is to pick your favorite flower first, then select others that harmonize with it. Try to select a variety of sizes, shapes and textures to add interest to the bed.

For lists of perennials with different qualities, see Choosing the Right Perennials.

Just make a list of the flowers for now, with notes about their color, size and texture. Make the list as long as you can; it will give you more to choose from later.

step 4: Select Flowers for Bloom Season

Select from your list flowers that bloom at the same time. The most interesting feature of perennial beds is that the flowers don’t all bloom at once, as annuals do. Although a few bloom for months, most only stay in bloom for a few weeks. Your perennial border will feature a few flowers at a time, with the bloom pattern—and even the color schemes—changing with the season.

Ask at your local bookstore or garden center for a book that tells when perennials bloom in your region. If you can’t find one, use the tables in Bloom Season of Perennials.

From your list, select some perennials that bloom in early and mid-spring and harmonize with one another. Then select the next wave of bloom, then the next, until you have something blooming throughout the gardening season.

step 5: Place Your Flowers on the Map

Now it’s time to use that map you made in Step 1. Place the spring flowers first, drawing circles to represent each plant. Use the plant spread given in the catalog description as a guide in spacing them. Then place the next wave of flowers, then the next, until the garden is filled with flowers.

Here are some tips for designing perennial gardens:

Plant in groups. Don’t put in single plants, but small groups of the same plant. Three is a good number.

Put the tall plants where they won’t hide the smaller ones. In a bed, this is near the center; in a border, it’s toward the back.

Contrast textures and sizes. Avoid having everything in one part of the garden the same size, and try to put large-leaved plants near small-leaved plants.

Simpler is stronger. For a strong effect, use fewer plants, with more individuals of each variety. A bed with too many different kinds of plants looks cluttered.

Repeat a theme. If you have a grouping you like, repeat it a few times in different parts of the bed. This unifies the bed and adds rhythm and grace.