Laying Plans

What to condider before you even start planting

NO MATTER how large or small your property, chances are that sooner or later— and probably sooner—you’re going to want a border of some kind. This irrepressible desire is usually kindled by many years of looking at beautiful photographs in gardening books. Of course, the borders in these photos are always shot at their peak—the colors glow, and the plants are grouped in sophisticated, artful arrangements. In reality, however, constructing a successful border is one of gardening’s biggest challenges. It is not, as some believe, simply assembling a pleasing group of plants. Planting is the icing on the cake, a kind of reward after the hardest work has been done. To throw plants into a patch of soil without careful planning is a good way to dampen any future gardening enthusiasm you might feel. In this series, therefore, we will take you through the entire process—from planning to installation to maintenance—of creating a pleasing, successful border.


Your most important initial step is determining what kind of look you want to achieve. Is it a rich, lush tapestry of plants hardy in your area? Is it a more austere (though still full) border of plants that require less nourishment and upkeep? Do you want to compose a set of seasonal pictures that can carry through from year to year with proper management, or do you want a more flexible scheme that can accommodate change and the frequent introduction of new plants?

SEASONALITY: It is crucial to decide what time of year you want the border to appear at its peak. In general, the greater the scrutiny a part of your property receives, the more important it is that it hold up well for as long a period as possible. For our own clients, we often design entry borders to have year-round interest, since people walk by this part of the garden daily. In fact, we would recommend that you plan for long-term interest rather than just for a specific season for any area you see out of a window on a regular basis. For such an area, we would typically choose a palette of predominantly evergreen plants with good foliage, and plants with handsome bark and long-lasting fruit. The addition of some ephemeral seasonal color and fragrance would complete the composition. (See the two charts on page 77.)

In contrast, the main season of interest for a border located in the further reaches of the property can be weighted toward the warmer months, when you might be more likely to venture out there. Such an area would be perfect for a traditional herbaceous or mixed border.

That said, a word of caution is in order. While a skilled gardener can achieve a multiple-season effect in an area of limited size, if you’re a beginner, it’s best to choose one season of peak interest, with a supplemental season of, say, early bulbs or autumn color.

LONG-TERM APPEARANCE: Once you’ve chosen your border’s main season of interest, you can start to think about plant possibilities. Will the plants that perform best within that time frame keep their grace and dignity, or will they start to collapse even before they’ve finished flowering? Some plants, such as early-blooming astilbes and Campanula latiloba, once they’ve reached the point in their growing season when they’re setting seed, don’t put energy into maintaining visible growth or foliar integrity. Others, such as the late-flowering Astilbe ‘Professor van der Wielen’ and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), carry handsome seed heads that require little effort to maintain in a reasonable state, while still others will make a nuisance of themselves by seeding themselves around by the thousands. In our design work, we usually choose good foliage over flowers, and we prefer plants that are sterile hybrids or that don’t seed readily, unless perhaps they’re native and provide nourishment for local birds.

SEASONALITY If you view your border primarily at a certain time of year, it makes sense to capitalize on that time frame. Thus, an early-autumn border (opposite) gets its character from ornamental grasses and joe-pye weed; a summer border (above left) can feature long-blooming hardy fuchsias and Persicaria amplexicaulis; and a spring border (above right) can be lavish with bulbs.

TIME OF DAY: When will you actually view the border? Many people lead busy lives and may see it only briefly during the workweek, either at breakfast time or in the early evening. At these times of day, the angle of the light is very low, and you need to be aware of whether the sun will backlight the plants or shine on them directly. The reason this matters is that certain plants, such as Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’), are not worth using unless they’re seen with the sun shining through them and planted en masse (three feet wide by two feet deep at minimum). Remember, too, that plants with pale, variegated, or highly reflective leaves and white or pale flowers will show up brightly in the early morning and at dusk. Plants with evening fragrance, such as trumpet and oriental hybrid lilies and brugmansias, are also a bonus in a garden viewed mainly at the end of the workday.

DIRECTION OF LIGHT: From which direction will the strongest source of light come? Many plants, such as daylilies and clematis, will turn toward the light, and you certainly don’t want them facing the back of the border! If the light isn’t cooperative, it’s best to opt for plants that aren’t so strongly photodirectional, such as cimicifugas, purple coneflower, Phlox paniculata, and rud-beckias. In certain situations, however, you’ll need to make further adjustments, because the light may come from an unexpected direction. If the border consists of a narrow strip between houses in an urban setting, for example, most of your light may be reflected off the southern wall of a house just to the north of your own house, even if you get direct sun from the south in the morning or afternoon.

VISUAL CONTEXT: How will the border relate to its surroundings? If the planting is near the house, will the house color be in the background? Will you be changing the house color in the near future? Do you want a harmonious or contrasting effect? (See “From Paint to Petals,” January/February 2002.) If the border is distant from the house, what sorts of existing trees, shrubs, or neighboring structures are in the picture?

COLOR: This is a highly subjective matter, with myriad nuances and subtleties. There are, however, a few broad rules. Certain colors, such as white, red, and yellow, can pull the eye forward, while other colors, such as gray or blue, will often appear to be further away than they really are. Think about what effect you want to create—a border that appears to recede or one that jumps out and draws the eye. This decision may depend on the background view. If the view is of something pleasant, then perhaps cooler

LONG-TERM INTEREST Bear in mind that flowers are often fleeting and that it is possible to garden well without them. Above left: Carex elata ‘Aurea’, Brunnera ‘Langtrees’, and Dicentra eximia make a satisfying picture with foliage alone. Above center: A tour de force using only ornamental grasses. Above right: The handsome, cinnamon-colored bark of Acer griseum.

Lonq-Blooming Perennials

Anemone xhybrida 6-10 long-lasting pink or white flowers; good foliage
Aster xfrikartii ‘Monch’ 5-10 lilac flowers from late summer to frost
Erigeron karvinskianus 8-10 tiny white daisies for months
Geranium Ann Folkard’ 5-10 dark-eyed magenta flowers: yellow-green foliage
Helleborus foetidus 5-10 chartreuse flowers in early spring; dark, evergreen foliage
Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ 6-9 small spikes of crimson flowers for up to 2 months
Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ 4-10 long-lasting reddish flowers; succulent foliage
Veronica ‘Sunny Border Blue’ 4-10 spikes of blue-purple flowers most of the summer

Multi-Season Plants

Begonia grandis 5-10 late pink or white flowers; good foliage all summer
Ceratostigma plumbaginoides 5-10 late bright blue flowers; red foliage in fall
Cimicifuga ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ 3-10 nonfading purple-black foliage: white flowers in fall
Epimedium xrubrum 4-8 dainty red flowers; semievergreen red-veined foliage
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ 5-10 fountainlike gold-striped foliage all season long
Hosta ‘Halcyon’ 3-9 excellent blue-leaved selection
Polygonatum xhybridum 4-10 white flowers in spring; gracefully arching stems
Polystichum setiferum ‘Divisilobum’ 6-10 fern with finely divided evergreen fronds

or softer colors will work better—they will harmonize with the view, enhancing its overall effect. If, on the other hand, the view is either unappealing or very assertive, then a warmer color scheme can draw the eye away from an offending view or underscore a strong one.

Another consideration: The level of light and its intensity vary from region to region. Some leaves may burn or bleach out, while the color of flowers can fade or intensify, depending on the ambient light in your particular climate. If you’re uncertain about how a plant might perform in your climate, investigate!

Ultimately, the most important consideration with color is to please yourself. Certain color schemes may be in vogue at the moment, but what’s the point of being a slave to fashion? If you’re unsure of what direction to take, opt for simplicity.


Once you’ve settled in your mind the kind of border you want and dealt with the ramifications discussed above, it’s time to consider the various factors that may impinge on or limit your ideal image. “Compromise” isn’t a pleasant word, but unless you can reach some sort of accommodation with the conditions you face, you’ll never create a border of any kind.

CLIMATE AND LOCAL CONDITIONS: Is your site markedly wet or dry? If so, are there dramatic seasonal changes in the amount of moisture the soil retains? Certain sites may dry out in summer only to become waterlogged in winter. Will the plants you have in mind tolerate these conditions?

Is your proposed border near a dripline where sheets of snow will slide off the roof and crush the plants? If so, it might be better to stick with herbaceous perennials or flexible shrubs that get cut back each year. Stay away from plants that rip or snap off at the base, such as large-growing rhododendrons, Japanese maples, and Ilex xattenuata.

Getting Used to a New Climate

If you’re a novice gardener or are new to your area and not sure of what kind of climatic conditions you’re facing, go on a garden tour or join the local garden club. If there’s no organized gardening community, drive or walk around the area until you see a garden you like, and ask the owners which season is easiest to garden in and which is the most difficult, and which plants do best for them. If you don’t see a favorite plant being grown, ask why. It’s much easier to start out with fewer challenges and then branch out into plants and seasons that test your mettle as your confidence and experience build. Unless you do some research, what may have given you joy and fragrant bouquets in a previous garden may yield only torment and despair in a new one. —G.W. & C.P.

EFFECTS OF COLOR & LIGHT Above left: “Hot” colors-reds, oranges, and yellows—appear to advance, and can draw the eye away from unattractive features. Above center: In the narrow strip between two houses, most of the light may be reflected and coming from an unexpected direction. Above right: Low-angled morning and evening light can make deep reds glow dramatically.

You may find the site poses other sorts of challenges: perhaps you have rocky, sandy soil on a hot, dry, steep slope; or wet clay in a shaded area; or blazing sun in the Mojave desert; or howling winds and subzero temperatures at an exposed site near the Canadian border. Any of these environmental conditions would need to be mitigated if you want to garden in the “traditional” style. With a large enough pocketbook, almost any site can be changed to accommodate whatever kind of border you may desire. But is it worth it? Or would it be better to adapt your vision so that the plantings can coexist comfortably with the physical conditions of the site? This is what we recommend most often.

WATER AVAILABILITY: Water usage is a crucial issue these days. In the next 10 to 20 years, water availability will lessen in almost every part of the country. Is it wise to design a garden that will demand a great deal of water in the summer months, or would it be more prudent to use plants that are relatively drought tolerant? On a purely practical level, will the border be located near a source of water, if you anticipate that periodic watering will be necessary? Would it be worthwhile to invest in an irrigation system of some kind?

HARDSCAPE: What, if any, new hardscape or infrastructure—grading, fencing, irrigation, stone or concrete work, and so on—will be needed to define the border space and provide access for enjoyment and maintenance? Assuming that the proposed border will be a permanent fixture in your garden, take the time to do some careful planning so that the hardscape works both aesthetically and practically. Also, if the soil needs to be amended, do it with top-quality products. (In a later article we will provide practical guidelines for improving and maintaining the soil’s tilth.) In setting the budget for your border, your infrastructure should be the first priority. Even if you wind up with little cash left over for perennials and shrubs, fast plants from seed can supplement (or entirely substitute for) your initial permanent plantings.

TIME AND EFFORT: If you’re relatively new to gardening, we encourage you to start small and build up from there. Gardening is supposed to be enjoyable. A large border will require more time to maintain than a small one, and that time will come out of your checkbook, the wear and tear on your body, or the goodwill of family members who are bullied into “helping out.” Your weekends may start to seem very short—or worse, short and unhappy. Seek your gardening pleasure in small doses at first and then take on new projects as you become more comfortable and seasoned. Should you become resentful of the time and effort you’re putting into the border, it’s time to simplify the planting!

Once you have balanced your dream against the realities presented by the site, the local climatic limitations, and the resources—in both time and money—you are able to devote to your border, you’ll be ready to create a workable design, which is the subject of our next article.

PART 2, “Creating a Design,” will appear in the May/June issue.

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