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Tips for Creating a Terrific Texas Perennial Bed

By Skip Richter
Contributing Editor

If you ever wanted to plan a new landscape bed and found yourself bewildered about where to begin, what plants to choose or how to place them, you are definitely not alone.

Some folks simply head to the nearest garden center and purchase whatever is blooming and attractive to them, unaware of whether the plants are annuals or perennials. (Actually, despite the species chosen, these plants are all destined to be “annuals.”) Back at home a rototiller chews up a patch of lawn, some fast handwork removes most of the turf, a bag of something called humus, compost or manure is spread, followed by another rototilling and the plants go in.

At this point, the bed is the best it will ever look. While some tenacious souls manage to weed and pamper the plants through most of the summer, most spend the first few weeks mowing around the “postage stamp” plot of weeds and flowers, and then the rest of the summer mowing over it. While these may sound like the condescending words of a horticultural snob, let me assure you that my mower is no stranger to the semi-fried remains of an ill-planned garden!

So let’s first agree that this sad ending need not be. What follows are some basic tips to help you get off to a good start on creating a beautiful color bed in the landscape. Specifically, we’ll focus on designing and building a perennial garden bed.

Bed Design
I have my share of horticultural pet peeves. At the top of the list are gardening “rules”! There are some aesthetic elements that help us create landscapes that are most pleasing to the eye, and I think folks should hear such tips of design and plant selection to help them along.

However, many would-be gardeners feel intimidated by all the rules and pontifications of professionals as to how things “ought” to be done. The paralysis of analysis takes the fun out of gardening. Grow your garden however you want. Dalhart Windberg need not be told to paint like Picasso. While Barry Manilow has some melodious melodies that build to a musical climax and trail off into soft finishes, I doubt the folks down on Basin Street in New Orleans or over at Motown would find him appealing. But I digress. Hey, just be yourself and have fun doing it!

Now that we’ve done away with the musts and shoulds, let me offer a few factors to consider when designing your bed. Start with a piece of graph paper. This way each square can represent a given distance such as one foot. Create a rough sketch of the area to be planted, including existing trees or shrubs, walks and driveways.

Bed Layout
Straight lines are orderly, easy to lay out and simple to manage. However, for most folks they are rather uninspiring and a bit, well…I think Freud had a term for it. Nevertheless, if you are designing a formal garden, such lines are fair game.

Most gardeners prefer natural curves. When designing a bed, consider the angle(s) from which the bed will be viewed. Take a garden hose or orange extension cord and lay it on the ground to create a trial design. Make the curves large and gradual to make mowing easier. Right angles are a pain to mow into or around.
Make sure the bed is large enough to accommodate the plants you want to grow when they are full-sized. Use some spray paint to paint the bed outline on the ground and grass. Transfer the outline onto your rough sketch of the area.

Plant Selection
Do a little researching to learn about the best plants for your area. Consider whether the bed area is sunny, shady or a little of both. Choosing plants adapted to your soils, climate and sun exposure helps you build a more successful perennial bed that requires less work and inputs to keep it going.

Are you looking for lots of color? Do you want to focus on native plants? Would you like to create a butterfly or hummingbird garden? Do you want flowers for cutting? How about a nighttime garden full of nocturnal blooming plants around a back patio area?

Consider the Seasons
When choosing your palate of plants, consider when they bloom or if they offer colorful foliage during the hot summer months when blooms are scarce. Make sure to include plants for spring, summer, fall and even winter interest. Spring is a breeze, but most plants that look great in the garden center in spring when everyone has gardening fever won’t look like much in summer, fall and winter. Fall is okay with a decent group of blooming plants. Summer is challenging, and winter is pretty sparse when it comes to interesting perennial options.

Just because this is a perennial bed doesn’t mean you can only use perennials. Let’s face it. Perennials are wonderful, but they each have their “season.” Then they fade to unremarkable for the rest of the year and, if not cut back, can be downright ugly!

Include a few evergreen shrubs to provide a backdrop for perennial foliage and flowers, or to add some winter life to the bed. A few annuals here and there can also provide additional color and interest in winter or whenever your perennials are between bloom periods. Ornamental grasses are especially nice for providing texture and drawing attention to colorful flowers in front of them. Include colorful foliage also to add stark contrast and to provide color in the heat of summer when many plants bloom less prolifically or stop blooming completely.

Color Combinations
Far be it from me to encumber your plans with mind-numbing concerns over whether your plant’s bloom colors are complementary or not, whether colors are primary, secondary or tertiary, use of analogous colors, whether chosen colors are warm or cool, and selections of triads. Such thinking can leave a sane gardener curled up in the fetal position afraid to go outside!

The use of color theory is fine, and in places such as New Jersey or cool, coastal California, the climate and plant palate allow for such navel-gazing introspection. Here in Texas a good color in summer is anything on a living plant! I have a mind to take various colors of spray paint to some plywood cutouts of tulips and stick them in my flower beds in July, choosing the color to complement whatever bloomin’ plant is currently surviving. My version of redneck aristocracy.

In all fairness, it is worthwhile to at least take a look at a color wheel and realize that choosing flower colors that are on opposite sides of the wheel is generally a good idea. These colors are called complementary and create pleasing combinations. There are other techniques in color selection which I’ll not bore readers with now. However, for an outstanding explanation of color in the garden check out the following Web site from Cornell Extension: http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scene5090.html.

Resist the urge to select a lot of colors, perhaps with each plant in a different color, all mixed together in a planting bed. If you view a bed with flowers of various colors all mixed together from a distance, the colors all end up mixing together into a confusing mass.

If your planting is a large container that will be viewed up close, such a smorgasbord of color is fine, but if you are planting a bed to be viewed from some distance, plant in large masses of the same color. This provides a beautiful display as drifts of color stand out nicely in a large planting.

Plant Placement
One of the more common mistakes gardeners make, in fact right behind failure to prepare the soil before they plant and selection of plants that don’t have an ice cube’s chance in Hades of surviving a Texas summer, is planting too close. Whether it’s young shade trees, new shrubs or perennial flowers, it is so difficult to view a properly spaced new planting and not think, “They just look too far apart!”

Consider the final size of the plant when determining the spacing. If the planting is massed, you will want the plants to grow together when full-sized. If the plants are specimen plants or different species, a little space between plants at maturity creates the most attractive effect.

Plant height is another important consideration. Trailing plants and other small-statured species need to be in front of the bed or they’ll be lost from view. A typical design has low plants in front, medium-height plants behind them and taller plants in the back of the bed. Taller ornamental grasses, evergreens or any dark green foliage plant will provide a nice backdrop to the blooms of flowering plants in front of them.

Once you have designed the planting bed and drawn the locations for various plants and drifts of color, you can create a shopping list for how many plants you will need. Now it’s time to begin work on the bed.

Remove Grass and Weeds
St. Augustine is not difficult to remove. However Bermuda and Zoysia can be much more challenging. While hand digging is an option, it is a lot of work and repeat digging will be needed.

A simpler approach is to water the area to get the grass and weeds actively growing and then a few days later spray it with a product containing glyphosate. This translocates down into the roots, killing most of the grass and weeds present. Failure to remove the perennial weeds in the bed area is inviting lots of future work and disappointing results. Give the herbicide a week or more to work before starting to work the soil.

Soil Preparation
Spread several inches of compost over the area and rototill it in deeply. Raised beds are both attractive and helpful in preventing waterlogged roots in areas with high rainfall and/or poor drainage.

You may need to purchase a soil and compost mix from a local company. The following Web site can help you decide how much you need to purchase: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/travis/docs/How_Much_Mulch.pdf.

After mixing up the soil and organic matter, it is best to water the area and give it a few weeks or longer to settle before planting. I like to do this work in the fall and plant in late winter, but sometimes circumstances don’t allow this. You can go right on with planting, but some plants may end up more shallow than you had intended after the bed settles.

Planting
When it comes time to plant, I prefer to place the plants out in their planting locations just to get one final look at the plan in place. When planting, set the plants into the bed at the same level they were growing in the container. If you have to plant before the soil has a chance to settle, it is a good idea to set them so the container soil is a little lower than the soil in the bed around it to allow for some settling of the soil in the bed.

Water the plants in with a solution of dilute fertilizer water and repeat this two or three more times about a week apart. With some thoughtful planning and preparation, along with proper soil preparation and planting, you are well on your way to a beautiful new color bed.

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