How to Plant the Perfect Flower Beds

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Selection and Arrangement When Planting Flower Beds

This tutorial in pictures illustrates how to go about planting flower beds. In the picture above, I reveal the end result; in the rest of the tutorial, I'll show you the steps leading up to that result.

My flower bed planting consists of 2 rows of annuals and perennials in the front and a staggered row of taller plants (mainly shrubs) in the back. Note that while the latter are not, in fact, "taller" at the present time, they will, eventually, surpass the rest in height.

While I could have achieved greater visual impact by selecting more mature shrubs to begin with, I felt that cost, too, should be a consideration in this project. And the fact is, the shrubs in question were selling for $5.95 (U.S.) -- making them very hard to pass up! I happened to want to grow these particular shrubs, but I could just as easily have populated the back row exclusively with tall perennial flowers (being careful to select sun-loving types, in this case).

In choosing the location for my flower bed and the placement of my plants, I followed a practice 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. My layered flower bed should provide maximum visual appeal when all the plants mature.

Selecting the Flower Bed Plants

But in addition to considering plant heights, the following are some of the factors that went into my plant selection, when I went to the store to make my purchase:

Color Schemes for Planting Flower Beds

Unless you're striving for the sort of wild, chaotic look that typifies English cottage gardens, it's a good idea to have a color scheme in mind when planting flower beds. If you need help with plant selection, browse through my flower pictures for some ideas. My color scheme in planting this flower bed was blue, purple and gold. Note that I am considering the color of the plants' foliage, too, not just flowers.

I am killing two birds with one stone in using the iris (see photo above) I selected (Iris pallida 'Aureo-Variegata'). Its flower provides purple color, but its variegated leaves also give me a light gold color. In addition, its large, blade-shaped foliage makes for a nice contrast in textures with my other plants.

We'll look at the other purple and blue elements of my color scheme later in the tutorial. But in Step 3, let's go for the gold...!

Gold Colors for Planting Flower Beds

Emerald 'n Gold euonymus shrub has the colors of gold and green on the same leaf; that is, like the iris on the prior page, it is a variegated plant. Similarly, Moonshadow euonymus would work here.

Also offering the gold I want in my color scheme are golden moneywort (an "extra" which I discuss at the end of the tutorial), Angelina stonecrop plants and a King's Gold false cypress shrub.

But enough of color considerations for now.

There's some hard work involved in this project, too! In Step 4 we'll get down and dirty....

How to Remove Sod -- Calling All Sod Busters!

Are you creating your flower bed from scratch, in an area currently covered with grass? If so, as preparation for planting the flower bed, you must remove the sod. Are you ready to play "sodbuster?"

I remove sod differently from what you may see on TV gardening shows. The latter often recommend using a flat-blade shovel, with which the sod is skimmed off and removed, soil and all. But I use a common, everyday, pointed shovel, cutting the sod out in chunks (about 4" deep x 10" wide x 10" long).

Then I lay the shovel on its side (blade perpendicular to the ground, as shown in the picture above) and pound the sod against the shovel's blade. By doing so, I remove the bulk of the soil from the sod, so that I don't waste it. I dispose of the sod by placing it in my compost bin.

Speaking of compost, it's time to add some to the soil, now that the sod is out of the way. Compost increases the soil's fertility. In the process of working compost into the ground, you'll also be loosening the soil, making it more friable.

If my soil type in this planting bed were too clayey, at this point I would add peat moss, another soil amendment. But I don't have that problem with my soil.

Okay, we're done playing in the dirt for a bit. For, rather than installing plants immediately, I want you to consider some preventative weed control. So in Step 5, I'll discuss weed barrier installation....

Why to Install Weed Barriers

Weed barriers are meant to be used in conjunction with garden mulch. The latter not only helps hold weed barriers in place, but also shields them from harmful UV rays.

Like the sheets of black plastic commonly used in weed control, a weed barrier (or "landscape fabric") hampers weeds in their efforts to take over your flower bed. Both are clean and reasonably durable. But unlike black plastic, weed barriers permit air, water and nutrients to penetrate to the soil.

Besides garden mulch, use garden staples (as in the picture above) to hold weed barriers in place.

But with the weed barrier in the way, how will I install the plants? In Step 6, I'll show you how....

How to Install Plants Through Weed Barriers

Okay, you've installed a weed barrier in your bed, covering it with mulch. But with the barrier and mulch in the way, what do you do when it's time to install plants?

After laying down the barrier, it seems a shame to have to puncture it, so that you can plant. But puncture it you must. However, don't get carried away when making incisions in your barrier for planting. You don't need to cut a big circle out of the barrier in order to accommodate a plant.

There are two general principles to follow when making incisions in a weed barrier:
  1. Keep the incisions as small as possible.
  2. Make slits in the barrier, rather than cutting out and removing portions of weed barrier.

The accompanying photo says it best. I cleared the mulch away over the projected planting spot, just enough to gain access to the weed barrier. But it's the cut that I want you to take note of. Notice that I've merely made an x-shaped incision in the weed barrier. I haven't removed any material. The incision gives you sufficient access to the soil beneath for planting.

"But," you may object, "why not install the plants first, then lay the barrier down?" You certainly could do it that way. But I find fitting a weed barrier around existing plants to be more troublesome than installing plants through the barrier. And by mulching before planting, you're getting a lot of the "heavy lifting" out of the way first, with no worry of backing over a plant with your wheelbarrow!

In Step 7 we begin planting.

Planting Flower Beds: Low Plants for the Front Row

Seeking low plants for the front row of my flower bed, I chose 'Festuca Blue' fescue grass (Festuca ovina 'Glauca'), also known as 'Elijah Blue' fescue grass (Festuca (ovina var.) glauca 'Elijah Blue'), and 'Angelina' stonecrop. These plants work nicely with my blue-purple-gold color scheme. The blue fescue grasses bear bluish-gray foliage; Angelina stonecrop has golden-green foliage.

Blue fescue grass is an ornamental grass.

It's easy enough to trim, should it outgrow the place I have chosen for it. Angelina stonecrop (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina') is a trailing plant. The latter, incidentally, is also an excellent choice for rock gardens, as it is a drought-tolerant perennial.

Remember, I'm starting out with immature plants: they will "fill in" as time passes.

In Step 8, I'll discuss my plant selection for the middle row, in which I'll use plants with blue flowers and purple flowers....

Planting Flower Beds: The Middle Row

The middle row of my flower bed consists largely of different salvia plants. There are so many kinds of salvia plants that I've always found precise identification of them difficult. So I decided to grow several types of salvia plants all together, to study them closely.

Although each salvia plant I've selected for this row is different from the rest, all conform to my stated color scheme, providing either blue or purple flowers.

I've also included another purple-flowered specimen in this row: a speedwell that is very similar in appearance to a salvia plant. All the specimens in this row will reach an intermediate height (shorter than those in the back row, but taller than those in the front).

Here are the five specimens that comprise the middle row:
  1. "Victoria Blue" salvia plants (Salvia farinacea 'Victoria Blue')
  2. "May Night" salvia plants (Salvia x superba 'May Night')
  3. "Caradonna" salvia plants (Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna')
  4. "Blue Hill" salvia plants (Salvia nemorosa 'Blue Hill' or 'Blauhugel')
  5. 'Royal Candles' speedwell (Veronica spicata 'Royal Candles')

In Step 9, I'll discuss the back row of the flower bed....

The "back" row of my bed is really 3 staggered rows, consisting of:
  1. An iris (see Step 2) and Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star')
  2. A King's Gold cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'King's Gold')
  3. 2 Emerald 'n Gold euonymus (Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold')

The latter two are my tallest plants, reaching a mature height of 3-4 feet. All fit into my blue-purple-gold color scheme.

In this project -- and especially in the back row -- I have consciously broken one of the rules of landscape design.

Note carefully that term, "consciously." Designers will tell you to mass plants of the same type together. This achieves unity and is more eye-catching. And I disagree not a whit with that assessment....

However, design considerations are not always paramount. It depends upon what you, personally, wish to achieve in a planting bed. A unified design was not my primary goal in this project; rather, I wished to grow particular plants in which I have had an interest.

I go back to that word I emphasized above: "consciously." Once you know the rules, it's okay to break them -- by choice. If I were being paid to install a bed of a similar size for someone else, I would make the back row consist simply of 3 King's Gold false cypresses. In terms strictly of design, that would be the superior choice. But I had no one to please but myself, and including the euonymus and iris was important to me.

In Step 10 I finish up with a final touch....

My bed needed a little something extra as a finishing touch. I decided on a focal point that would put the final exclamation point on my color scheme.

The ceramic planter pictured above is a great choice for any color scheme featuring blue. It's an impressive piece, standing at about 3 feet tall. But what to plant in it? I decided to look for a trailing plant with golden foliage -- something that would cascade over the blue piece and stand out against it.

A type of moneywort turned out to be the answer.

Golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'), is listed as a partial sun / full shade plant. My planting bed is in full sun. But since I'm growing this "creeping jenny" in a container, I can always pick it up and move it into the shade for a spell, if necessary. Besides, landscaping in New England, I've never known moneywort to be all that fussy about such matters.

As you can see from the photo above, the moneywort is not planted directly in the heavy ceramic planter but in a smaller plastic container, which, in turn, I have wedged into the ceramic planter. The plastic container is much easier to move than the latter! Even if the moneywort tolerates the full sun and doesn't need to be moved, I may wish to swap it out for another specimen later in the summer -- just for a different look.

This focal point stands in the back row, at the northern edge of the planting bed, in between the two euonymus shrubs, where it won't cast excessive shade on any of my plants.

Need more ideas for your flower beds? In a companion piece to this article, I offer resources that will help you make sound decisions regarding the color, form and texture of your plant selections, as well as how to arrange them in a way most pleasing to the eye. You can access this resource by clicking on the "Landscape Design Ideas" link below:

Landscape Design Ideas

Back to "How to Start a Garden"

Back to Index for Side-Yard Landscaping

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