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Designing flowerbeds

Spiro, OK(Zone 7a)

I am a total newbie when it comes to flower gardening. I think I want to do primarily perrennials, because I get the most joy from watching my "old friends" come up every year, as opposed to planting temporary splashes of color. I just don't really know how to best "design" a flower garden to combine texture, height and color to advantage. Where can I get some good design ideas?

Tampa, FL(Zone 10a)

Do you know these plants? They should all do well in your climate.

Thumbnail by DaleTheGardener
Wayne, NE

You can get ideas from magazines, there are a lot out right now. You can get ideas from driving around looking at others and you can get ideas from browsing in different areas of daves gardens and seeing other members flower beds. Check out your local nurseries and see what they have to offer that best suits your light requirements. And then jump in. A lot of it seems to be trial and error. Some plants I can get to grow that my mom can't.

Tampa, FL(Zone 10a)

Hmmm, no reply?

Thumbnail by DaleTheGardener
Spiro, OK(Zone 7a)

Sorry, I have been looking through magazines, and the picture you gave really doesn't help me since I've lived in Arizona for the last 13 years, and am new to Utah. I don't recognize any of the plants in your photo. I guess I'm just going to have to see what pops up in my backyard since I just found bleeding hearts growing back there, and then try to integrate some new plants of varying heights. I just don't know the best way to do that, and I guess that's what I was asking. If maybe someone knew a good book, or something like that.

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

The best rule of thumb for a garden bed is tall plants in back, medium in the middle, short ones in front, plant several of each plant (annuals/perennials in particular--shrubs and trees you can get away with just one), and use odd number multiples (3, 5, or 7 plants for example) which is more pleasing to the eye. For suggestions on particular plants that will do well for you, you might try the Rocky Mountain Gardening forum
As to your original question about combining color/texture/etc, there aren't really any hard and fast rules, so suggestions about looking through magazines, etc are really what you need to do, find things that appeal to you and go from there. If the plants pictured aren't appropriate for your climate, you can ask the Rocky Mtn folks to suggest alternates, often there are many plants that can give you a similar look.

Tampa, FL(Zone 10a)

The best bet for a good book is at the local library. They will probably have some materials by local/regional folks that you would have a hard time finding elsewhere. Libraries always have books that are hard to find in bookstores. Reference desk folks are there to help.

Also public gardens (and their staff) and garden centers run by local folks. Local nurseries are in the business of selling plants that will do well for you, that way you'll come back. Stay away from the big box places, they just sell plants, any plant they think you will buy and their suppliers are not always well intentioned. Sales are important, your success at home is less important.

The reason I asked if you knew the plants in the above photo was because you mentioned liking plants that are 'old friends'. I was guessing that you had some knowledge of plants, even if wasn't hands on. You mentioned that you know what emerging bleeding hearts look like. You might not be quite as 'novice' as you think.

The plants in my photo are, coreopsis (pink and red small flowers), yarrow (yellowish cream), coneflower (big white) and rudebeckia (big bright yellow). All would be perennial for you.

Thumbnail by DaleTheGardener
(Zone 5a)

Do you have an idea of the "look" you want (i.e. formal, cottage, etc.)? If you want a formal look, there is a lot more that goes into the design. For cottage gardens, it is more of a "feel" (or trial and error). As far as combinations, contrasting plants are nice next to each other, be it color or shape. For instance, in shade, hostas, ferns, and heucheras have both nice contrasting colors and shapes. For a dry sunny area, sedums (there are countless interesting combinations in the sedum family) and sempervivums are excellent. What conditions are you planting in? Shade, sun (how much and what time of day), moist, dry? The three most important things to gardening are getting the right amount of sun, putting plants with like water requirements together (what is not enough water for one plant may be too much for another), and amend the soil. If you don't have enough compost to do the whole area, at least dig large holes for each plant and amend that. Unless you have a formal garden in mind, have fun with it. Visualize how you would like your garden to look; get a water hose and lay it around in different ways (curved lines add interest and make the area look bigger). When planting, as was already said, plant bigger plants to the back (unless you can see your garden from all sides, then they'd go in the middle). They don't need to be perfectly "stair stacked" - it's interesting to kind of look around one to see another. Set your plants out and see how they look next to each other. I once heard an experienced gardener say, and I thoroughly agree with it, "a plant is not in the right place until you've moved it three times." At the botanical garden I volunteer at, we often plant the plants closer than recommended so that they fill in faster. You can always move the exras later if need be. Don't get discouraged if you lose plants ... everyone does. Some things just don't do as well in one area as another (sometimes just a different place in the yard makes all the difference). Hope this helps.

Happy gardening,

Spiro, OK(Zone 7a)

I gardened in NY, so it's been some time, and I recognized the bleeding hearts from the flowers, not the leaves. :)

I will check out my local nursery and I'm not looking for anything formal, just something where my flowers will come back every year to greet me in the Spring and Summer. I'm also nervous about tearing up "weeds" in the back, as I think I may have already torn up some actual flowers. :(

Ogden, UT

I live in Utah also, last year I planted several perennials, and I agree its so exciting to see them come back up!
I encorpotated a gravel pathway, along the pathway I planted hostas, spirea bushes, jacobs ladder, japanese forest grass, hardy hibiscus and a clematis in the corner which will grow up around my birdhouse.
I like the mixed textures of the hostas with the japanese forest grass (see pic for example) I wasn't sure if the forest grass would grow in this climate, and searched several nurserys before I found it, but sure enough they are coming back this year just fine.
One of my favs is columbines. I have 6 flats growing in the greenhouse, they grow really good here. I also have autumn sedums and lilies planted in my hot areas, I was so excited to see the lilies start peeking through. I am hoping to plant some tiger lilies, but haven't been able to locate any bulbs.
Don't know how your soil is, but mine is clay. I added some really good rich soil before planting and am actually surprised how well the plants are doing.

I got alot of ideas from the Sunset Magazine.

Thumbnail by flowerprincess
(Zone 5a)

Flowerprinces, if you are interested, I can send you tiger lilies for postage.

Ogden, UT

O would love that.... I will send you a self addressed envelope.
Is there anything you can think I could send you?

Marietta, GA(Zone 7b)

Happy Birthday Mevn :) !!!


Racine, WI(Zone 5a)


I'm very new to gardening and I didn't have any creative ideas for my garden, but I found alot of garden plans online. Better Homes & Gardens ( has a lot of garden plans that should give you some ideas. I actually bought a garden from Michigan Bulbu. They have a bunch of plans that you could look at to give you some ideas and it will give you the zoning information that you'll need. Good luck!


Kwajalein, Marshall Islands(Zone 11)

Hi all, I used to live in Denver, and when I wanted to design my flower beds (oh boy, was I new to it all then!), I got all the catalogs: Michigan Bulb, Brecks, etc. and then divided my garden by light. Then I made notes from the catalogs about what bloomed when, for each area ; shade, partial sun; full sun, etc. Then I picked my favorites for all the different blooming times; early spring, late spring, summer, fall. When all was said and done, I had beautiful flowers all year long, getting full and lush, then after the first snow I chopped it all down. In the spring, the windflowers, crocus and snowbells would poke their heads through the snow and let me know that soon the tulips, and daffodils would show up and the whole cycle would start again. Denver's winters were usually so mild that I just left the bulbs in the ground covered by the mulch of the winter chop. My family and neighbors really loved my gardens.

Spiro, OK(Zone 7a)

Thanks, Susan! That was sweet of you to notice!

Thanks for the additional tips...I'm raring to go!

Taft, TX(Zone 9a)

what a small world it is!!!! I never met anyone from Ogden , Utah except my cousin and her husband.....

Fitchburg, MA

Here's the rules shortened down to a single page.

Your first goal is to figure out where you want trees and put them in first before even thinking about anything else, followed by shrubs, then work on planning the flower garden. If you start with the flowers, then add in a tree last that tree's going to shade the flowers and cause you to redesign for shade flowers in that area instead. I love trees in the garden design even if you only keep them small. Trees that offer dappled shade is the most pleasing like birch and honey locust. Your garden should have a path in the back and the front, and figure out how comfortable your reach is. If you can reach 3' comfortably then you should stick with a bed that's no more than 6' in depth.

Your eyes are drawn towards hot colors (Yellow, oranges, pure reds). You should place them in the center, and your darks and cold colors on the outside/edges. That way, your eyes start at the edges and are pulled towards the hot colors in the middle. As you look away you're drawn back to the center. Having it backwards hots on the edges your eyes are drawn towards the edges of your bed where it abruptly ends or you get the view of the trash cans, etc.

Springtime colors should be pure colors, the pure reds, pure purples, pure yellows to overload the eye with color when there hasn't been any for a long time. Summertime colors should be cold dominated, nothing is more relaxing on a hot day than enjoying the cold colors of blues, purples, whites, silvers, and pastels makes people feel cooler. When you're dying of heat in summer I personally hate being surrounded by lots of yellows, reds, oranges, makes me feel like I'm burning. Fall colors... are fall colors the best time for the hot colors of reds, oranges, brick, yellows, and browns you don't mind being surrounded in fall with hot colors the air temperature isn't hot. Pastels, purples, pinks, blues are not fall colors though you can get away with dark versions, I have dark purple asters for fall that work, and a hot pink Aster that I'm probably going to throw out I hate seeing hot pink in fall.

GENERAL EXCEPTIONS TO COLOR: If you plan on cutting flowers for the inside you should stick to flowers that go with the interior colors. If your living room is yellow & red, growing mostly yellow or red flowers with a splash of other colors will look FANTASTIC when you make a bouquet and put it in the living room. If you grow flowers that are pink and orange when turned into a bouquet is really going to look off in that red & yellow living room.

The other exception is if this bed will be viewed from a main living area. Choosing flower colors that match the living area's colors will tie the outside with the inside and give the illusion the living area extends to the outside and bigger.

The last exception is theme gardens, such as a butterfly garden. There are certain plants that are almost must haves like butterfly weed, and butterfly bush. If you want Monarchs they're most attracted to purple flowers so that puts a purple butterfly bush best in the garden and milkweed for their babies, of which butterfly weed is the most attractive looking I think of the milkweeds which is yellow/orange. They also like zinnia's but particular kinds, they don't bother with the single-flowered species but like the cut and come again, and purple zinnias of the non-single flowered species really get them.

At least pair plants that bloom at the same time next to each other. Say, you have 4 different fall types of blooming plants(say Helenium, Aster, Helianthus, Eupatorium). It will look unorganized if you plant each type and spread them so each one has no different blooming plant next to it. Group them in such a way that in fall when the flowers bloom at least 2 types will bloom next to each other, like planting say the Eupatorium and Helianthus next to each other, followed in another area by the Aster & Helenium next to each other. Having at least 2 different types of flowers blooming next to each other is more pleasing than seeing a group blooming by itself over here, a group by itself blooming over there.

Try to work on "balance". Let's say you have an oval flower bed with a medium sized tree on one side of it. You need to "balance" that tree's weight with at least a couple bushes/shrubs or big perennials on the other side. Also, generally you want the flowers in front of something to be around 2/3rds the height of the thing behind it. Put the tall in the back as where the garden will be viewed by YOU. I see people putting in curbside beds where the tall is closest to their house and the short plants closest to the curb, it's beautiful to passers by when in bloom but the owners can't enjoy any of it with the tallest closest to them. This is your garden to enjoy and tall should go in the back as where viewed by you. If you want to please everyone then put the tall plants in the middle and surround it with shorter plants in the front and back taking into consideration shade. Don't take the size rule too seriously, a few mistakes adds a lot more interst so occasionally put a medium sized plant in the front to break up the monotomy.

It's tough to give rules on texture but generally think of balance. Like the balance example earlier with the tree on one side balanced by several shrubs on the other. A big leafed plant like an elephant ear needs to be balanced on the opposite end with a few medium sized leaf plants. Or, a medium leafed plant balanced with several fine leafed. Also, fine leafed plants like a threadleaf coreopsis can go safely in the front, it's so airy it has the same weight as a front plant and will fit right in. Grasses are different, they don't look good alone in a bed and need to have another companion whether that be another grass somewhere else or something that has grass-like folliage like irises.

So, 1st think about if you want a tree, and where you'd put it. Followed by where you want shrubs. Next, think about your goals. Do you want to cut flowers and put them in your living room? Stick mostly to flowers that match the decor of where they're going, and flowers that are good for cutting. If your main goal is to sit and enjoy the flowers stick with plants in spring that bloom true colors, followed by cold, pastel, and silver colors & foliage for summer, and hot and dark colors for fall and long bloom times. Sort them by bloom time, then be height, then by color. So, that should help you. Group 2 similarly blooming plants next to each other. Try to put dark/cold colors on the edges/sides and hot in the middle. Balance the texture, if you have a broad leafed plant you need to put several medium leafed plants on the other side to balance. If you have a grass, make sure you have a couple grasses or a grass and a grass like leaved plant. Don't follow the rules 100%, stick a medium sized plant in the front somewhere, and stick a dark/cold plant near the middle. Most importantly, you can move them so any mistakes you make are not set in stone and can be moved in spring the next year.

Central, WI(Zone 4b)

WOW Marshmellow!!!!!! That was so suscinctly put and yet so complete ! I made a copy for reference and suspect so did many other people who viewed it.!!!
Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Kwajalein, Marshall Islands(Zone 11)

Marashmellow - That was one of the most informative and helpful posts I have read on this site. Thank you for sharing a library's worth of info in one (well, maybe two) pages. Now, instead of researching we can just start planting. I would love to be able to give you some of the time you have saved me, but since that isn't possible, here are lots of positive thoughts coming your way along with some sincere gratitude!

Taft, TX(Zone 9a)

wow, i think I will lurk around this beginner's section for a long time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Spiro, OK(Zone 7a)

Thanks Marshmellow, I'm going to go get a soda and soak up your info on the couch (I just printed it). Thanks for taking the time for that, you're so helpful!

Lincoln, NE(Zone 5a)

Marshmellow....would you consider roses a shrub when you are designing a garden?

Fitchburg, MA

It would depend on the rose, some are neat and compact and don't grow very tall and more like a perennial. If it is a "rose bush", yes treat it as a shrub in the design and if planted on one side of your bed, you should "balance" it with several medium perennials on the other side.

Make sure roses are okay where you live. In my area, we have a "Japanese Beetle" whose favored food is rose pedals. You see a bud forming, and when it finally opens a few days later it looks like swiss cheese as a half dozen of the buggers snuck in and feasted. Around here you have spray constant pesticides on roses.

The best place for them is along a walkway. When people come to your house you want to hit them with as many senses as possible, and smell is probably the sense that brings back memories the most. Putting a fragrant garden along your entry pathway is simply a joy. People take a long time to reach your door as they take in all the wonderful smells, and their busy crazy lives for a moment, are left behind. Roses are probably the best of all there. If considering them near the walkway you have to plant them close enough that people can smell them, but not too close their thorny branches spill over and snag visitors walking past. Also, if considering a walkway garden you need to worry about bees. You don't want high bee attracting plants spilling over the walkway (unless your walkway is especially wide), imagine a guest accidentally walking through a plant covered in bees that happens to be spilling over the walkway. Ouch! I recommend plants directly against the walkway to have no or little attraction to bees (like herbs, grasses, plants with insignificant flowers but beautiful foliage, etc.) Another good place for rose bushes if this bed will be against a house is under a window for security reasons. There isn't a thief out there that's going to enjoy trying to break into a house through a window with a thorny rose bush they have to fight with the whole time especially if wearing shorts, plus all that noise. If they do succeed you'll probably have evidence of what color clothes they were wearing, may have ruined their clothes, they probably have annoying wounds for the next week or two, and you have the satisfaction you probably put up a fight. Thieves like easy targets, and trying to deal with a rose bush may thwart the attempt so, if this bed you're thinking about is against a house and there's a window planting it under it is the best place for starts along with the chance opening said window you may be able to smell the roses from inside.

This message was edited Apr 30, 2007 3:17 PM

Lincoln, NE(Zone 5a)

Thanks Marshmellow....I love the thought of the fragrance when people are coming to our home. I love roses and need to learn which ones work here in Lincoln Nebraska. Thanks again!

Ogden, UT


I have to agree you are very informative! You must have been reading my mind. I was wondering about moving a rose bush and what plants I should plant around it.

I was also struggling with color. I plan on planting approx 300 red geraniums and using a border of profusion mix zinnias "hot colors" around a sign at work, I keep thinking I should plant the red geraniums at home too since I have so many, but I keep leaning towards the ivy geraniums in tornado mix (mix of pinks) with white boca hanging out of the moss planters.
You helped me make up my mind! I thought the red would be too hot also. The pastels have a more calming effect. I plant the lime green sweet potato vine in my pathway to keep the weeds out, and I also have a lime green laceleaf maple. I think the pinks and white will go nicely, what to you think about planting deep burgandy almost black shrubs with the lime green?
Do you think these colors will work together?

Thanks :)

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

Burgundy with lime green is a great & very popular color combo, I think it'll look fine

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