By Skip Richter
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.