Home & Garden

Perennial borders – a path to beauty

If only those lush mixed perennial garden borders we admire in magazines were as simple as “paint by numbers.”

Mixed border design can frustrate even the most seasoned gardeners. The blending of ingredients can make or break the whole look.

Because plant borders can define a landscape along grass edges, property lines, fence lines, pathways and around islands, their make-up is an important part of the design process. Good mixed perennial borders are well planned – not random as they sometimes appear.

If we break down the border by layers and create a pattern, the rhythm of the design will seem contrived on paper. However, the three-dimensional look in the garden will flow nicely and carry your eye along. It lends cohesion that plays to the look of lush mixed plantings without being hodgepodge .

To make the job of planning a mixed border less intimidating, break it down into key fundamentals: shape, layers, texture and repetition.


Look at the shape of the bed and how it uses the space in the garden.

When laying out a border, choose a shape that accents the surroundings. Gentle curves and serpentine lines create a more interesting look than the straight lines of a home foundation or a fence line.

Consider an island in the midst of a grassy area or a long edge that hedges a property or fence line. Use an uncoiled garden hose to create a line before you dig. Look out windows from the home or viewpoints from sitting areas in the garden to see how the lines look. Avoid tight mowing spots around grass areas; create gentle curves a mower can negotiate.


The basic theory of landscaping is to plant in layers.

Tall, medium, small, as the saying goes. For example: Place tall plants to the back of a display or centered in an island effect, then stair-step the layers down from there.

The traditional layering method helps create symmetry and dimension in the landscape. It also avoids the look of plants all maturing at the same size. After those layers are established over a few seasons, then break out of the rule and add puddles of something different to accent existing plants.


The easy way to work with texture is to define plants less by botanical Latin, but classify them as “spiky,” “leafy,” “rounded,” “low-growing,” etc.

Consider color, texture and form. While planning your placement, try to mentally group plants into categories of color (for example, burgundy foliage, gold, reds, etc.), texture (spiky, airy, dense, glossy, etc.) and form (tall, straplike leaves or large, round leaves, etc).

A color theme also establishes texture; a hot border will have reds, oranges and yellows while cooling hues of blues, greens and lavenders will set a rich tone. Once you decide the color scheme, choose your plants. Don’t just pick flower colors; look for decorative, colorful foliage that creates strong contrasts.

Consider evergreens to give the border year-round texture. Evergreens can be shrubby, leafy plants like Mexican orange (Choysia ternata), dwarf pieris, nandina or hebes. A well-planned perennial border should have something of interest for each month of the year.


Create a pattern or grouping with the chosen plants and repeat it along the border. Repetition of plants and color creates a pleasing focus.

The groupings will create a formal, permanent look rather than a hodgepodge of different plants. If you have three groupings of one variety, place them in a triangle. Five of one can be placed in a circle around a taller variety or lined like a gentle curving ribbon of color through a bed. Mixed borders don’t have to be large or intricate to have visual impact. Sometimes just four or five well-chosen plants repeated in pattern can create the look.

Sue Goetz CPH is a garden designer, speaker and writer from Gig Harbor. Visit www.thecreativegardener.com or e-mail info@thecreativegardener.com">info@thecreativegardener.com.

Step by step

1. Map out the size and placement of the border in the garden.

2. Put together the plant list. List plants by color, texture and form.

3. Draw plants in the design first by placing them in layers, then by contrast, and then create a “pattern.” All of this will help decide quantities for a shopping list.

4. The amount of plants needed is based on the size of the space. The larger the area, the more multiples of each variety you’ll need. Group plants in multiples of three and five, or – if there isn’t room – just plant two. Think repetition of pattern.

5. Go shopping.

6. While the plants are still in pots, place them in the space. This is the paint-by-numbers part. Wiggle and rearrange the plants until you like what you see. Consider spacing. Most perennials filling a gallon pot can be planted about 12 to 18 inches on center. “On center” means the distance from the center of each plant. More voluminous leafy varieties or big clumpers could use a little more room, while slow-growing petite perennials can be tucked in closer.

7. Get to work. Dig in. Top dress with a compost mulch

8. Step back and admire your masterpiece.