Designing Garden Flowerbeds and Borders

Plan the garden of your dreams by attending to the basics of structure, style and plant choice.
Frosted Garden Bed

Frosted Garden Bed

Leave interesting garden plants with their seedheads over the winter, rather than cutting them back. Frost and snow will dust them giving the garden a magical quality.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Leave interesting garden plants with their seedheads over the winter, rather than cutting them back. Frost and snow will dust them giving the garden a magical quality.

The first step when planning your garden—whether you are faced with an overgrown jungle or a pretty yard that needs only minor adjustments—is to write down what you want from your space. Does your dream garden include beds and borders packed with colorful plants, an activity area for children, somewhere to entertain family and friends, or a combination of all three? You also need to consider practicalities: where will the compost bin go, do you need a bike rack, how much space is required for the dining table? Over winter, leave herbaceous plants to stand, rather than cutting back the dead growth. Their dried seedheads and stems will take on a magical quality when dusted with frost or snow.

Garden Style and Structure 

The style of garden you choose will affect the size, shape, and position of beds and borders, as well as the hard landscaping. Even if you don’t want a neatly ordered garden, introduce a basic structure so that your yard looks interesting in the winter months. Consider planting a tree, and outline beds or borders with bricks, paving slabs, clay tiles, or a low hedge, to help define and structure the space. The harsh outlines will soon soften once the growing season starts and plants spill over the edges. 

Take time to plan your planting and you will be rewarded with interest year-round. Evergreen trees and shrubs provide structure in winter; mix these with perennials that retain attractive seedheads in winter, such as sedums, achilleas, and echinops. Although their winter display is not colorful, they create interesting shapes and prevent borders from looking flat and lifeless. Perennials also provide a wonderful spectacle on frosty mornings, and draw birds into the garden to feast on the seeds and insects hibernating inside empty pods. 

Grasses offer invaluable interest in fall and winter gardens. The dried flower spikes of some, such as Stipa gigantea and molinias, stand well into fall, while miscanthus and calamagrostis remain upright until spring. 

Planting Styles 

Your choice of plants should reflect the overall style you want to achieve: 

  • Traditional herbaceous borders consist only of herbaceous perennials, and will perform from early spring into fall. In the early 20th century, herbaceous borders were often only on show for six to eight weeks in summer, while themed areas, such as iris gardens, dahlia borders, and fall gardens, catered for the other seasons. Few small, modern yards can accommodate such themed garden rooms, and we need our borders to perform for as long as possible.
  • Mixed beds and borders consist of several different types of plants. Although perennials play a key role, they are assisted by shrubs and roses, and may also include annual flowers. If the border is backed by a wall or trellis, the height of the display can be increased with a backdrop of climbers. Alternatively, create height in a border by adding a tripod for climbers. A mixed border offers both summer flowers and structure in the winter, but it has its drawbacks. Woody plants have spreading roots that take water and nutrients away from perennials, and shrubs may shade out smaller plants; compensate by planting compact shrubs that have smaller root systems.
  • Annual plantings can be labor-intensive, but provide a great summer show. As many flower over a long period, the overall effect can be much more impressive than a herbaceous border, where plants come and go as the season progresses. When fall arrives, though, the bed or border will be empty for a few months. The ground will have to be dug and prepared each spring, before any seeds can be sown.

Styles of Beds 

Beds can be informal or formal, depending on their shape and design. Those that are part of a formal layout or parterre are usually geometric in shape and neatly edged, while informal beds have curved outlines and less defined edges. 

  • Formal beds are typified by neatness and symmetry. Planting is kept in its allotted space with walls of close-cropped boxwood hedging, timbers, steel bands, clay tiles, or even glass bottle bottoms. 
  • Informal beds have softer outlines and can be positioned to lead the eye to a focal point.
Keep Reading

1,000+ Photos

Browse beautiful photos of our favorite outdoor spaces: decks, patios, porches and more.

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.