Best Border Backbones

When you’re planning a border, it’s crucial to include plants that provide constant visual interest. These support the plants that look interesting for only a short time. Here are tips for choosing trees, shrubs  and perennials that create structure and maintain year-round interest:
Trees—Choose trees that have more than one season of interest, such as pretty spring flowers plus good fall foliage color and/or interesting bark.

Shrubs—Choose shrubs that remain attractive over a long season. Pay attention to the shrub’s leaves, bark and shape—more so than its fleeting flowers.

Perennials—Concentrate on foliage shape, texture and color. Skip the perennials with an early spring bloom.

If you follow these guidelines for choosing the majority of the plants in your border, you’ll have a strong backbone against which to place annuals and perennials that are much more fleeting in their beauty.


Keep your perennial border healthy with The Well-Tended Perennial Garden (Expanded Edition).

When size matters, see 400 Trees and Shrubs for Small Spaces.

Browse outstanding gardening tools, including fine forged shovels to help you plant your border.

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5 thoughts on “Best Border Backbones

  1. This might sounds simple but it had such a wow affect–for two years in a row so I’m convinced it’s a winner. Botanical Interests Seeds has a narrow leaf zinnia called ‘Summer Solstice’ and incredible powerhouse for an annual and it germinates easily. Here are some pictures on my website–so it is my favorite annual border!

    I garden in NC zone 7a

    I just wanted to mention this easy cheesy plant. Nice to meet you David. I’m the new Garden Blog Editor for Horticulture Magazine. I’m looking forward to being here.

  2. Love your magazine, but, and i am sorry to say this, this article is worthless! Anyone who know anything about garden design knows these basic principles. Would it have killed Meghan to include some examples of her suggested plants?

    • Hi, David. Thanks for reading Horticulture and visiting us at We have some visitors on the web who aren’t as design savvy or advanced at gardening, so I would argue the article isn’t worthless to everybody.

      That said, of course specific plant recommendations are important! Here are a few that relate to the points in this tip. For trees, try Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ (Zones 4–9) for its bright golden foliage; paperbark maple (Acer griseum; Zones 5–8) for its peeling bark that adds winter interest and its bright fall foliage; Koelreuteria paniculata ‘September’ (Zones 5–8), which flowers in late summer/early autumn, a great alternative to the usual spring-blooming trees. Crape myrtles (Zones 7–10) fit the bill with their summer flowers, good fall foliage and shaggy bark.

      For shrubs, Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars are good in that their flowers hang on for a long time, aging through various shades of blue, pink, purple, tan. In warm regions, phormiums are a good choice for their upright habit and their colorful leaves. I like witch hazels like Hamamelis mollis ‘Early Bright’ because of their late-winter bloom and their nice fall color. My favorite boxwood, Buxus sempervirens ‘Green Velvet’, stays small (2 to 3 ft); I like the way its leaves bronze up over the winter.

      For perennials, hostas, bergenias, epimediums and ferns are all great for foliage shape, texture and color. Probably not the most exciting recommendations, but they get the job done and leave room for more thrilling seasonal companions.


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