Top 10 Perennials for Borders

The perennials you should choose for your garden will very much depend on the location of the border. So before you buy make sure you know whether you have a border in the sun or shade. Here are the Amateur Gardening’s team’s top picks for perennials for borders:

Top 5 perennials for sun Top 5 perennials for shade
Delphinium ‘Guardian’ Astilbe ‘Brautschleier’
Gaura ‘Dwarf Pink’ Hosta (various vars)
Geranium ‘Rosanne’ Dicentra spectablis
Schizostyliss ‘Pink Princess’ Aruncus dioicus
Penstemon ‘Amelia Jayne’ Euphorbia characias

Perennial border

PLAN YOUR BORDER

A well planted herbaceous border should last for years so before committing to planting its worth setting out plants to make sure you’ll be happy with the finished display. In general, place tallest varieties at the back of the display, though the odd taller plant mid- or front can add good effect. Jot down the layout and remove pots

WHEN TO PLANT YOUR BORDER

Autumn is the ideal time to plant a border ready for the following year. Plants establish in the ground quickly, before the cold winter weather sets in and will take off quickly once spring arrives. Perennials can look sparse when first planted. But then, when they are in full, lustrous leaf, they knit together beautifully. Always follow the advice on the plant label as this will give the exact information for your chosen varieties in terms of planting distance and soil requirements.

PREPARE THE SOIL

Fork over the site removing weeds. Spread out several bags of compost and mix this into the soil.
PLANTING

Then it’s time to plant. Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball and deep enough to add compost and a handful of bonemeal.

Feed with bonemeal

Tease roots and plant Remove plants from the pots and tease away roots from the root ball, especially if roots have formed a dense mat. Place in the hole, checking the plant is level with the soil and backfill around the root ball. Firm in around the plant.

Tease the root

WATERING

Ideally you will have watered the plants in their pots ahead of planting, but they should also be watered once planted. You can either use a watering can after each plant has gone into the ground (pictured) or use a hose on the whole display.

Water thoroughly

Mulch

A mulch layer will help soil to retain moisture, will suppress weeds and it offers plants some protection from cold. Spread a handful around each plant, and then go over the whole bed once fully planted, filling more mulch in the gaps

Mulch

A beginners guide to garden bulbs & how to create year round colour

It’s September and the garden centres are promoting spring bulbs – which are some of my favourite flowers. However, bulbs aren’t just for spring; they are great at providing colour and interest all year round. There are lots to choose from so here’s my guide on which bulbs to buy and taking care of them.

Bulbs are generally robust, which makes them easy to grow, however they prefer a well-drained soil so if you do have water-logged garden during the winter, make sure you add plenty of horticultural grit and farmyard manure to the soil before planting.

Buying bulbs

I always recommend buying from a reputable retailer or grower as the bulbs will be the best quality and therefore have stronger blooms. Make sure the bulbs are firm to the touch and not mouldy as they are unlikely to develop. Try and buy them early in the season as they will be better quality too.

How many you need depends on where you are planting them – they are usually sold in packs, which are usually enough for a container, but if you’re planting in a border it’s likely you will need more packs to create a display.

Taking care of garden bulbs

Once planted, it’s unlikely you will get any problems but if you get yellow leaves, it could be down to a virus in the bulb, so it’s best to dig them up and remove them from your garden – don’t put them on the compost heap either as you could be transmitting the virus that way.

Sometimes, you may find that your bulbs don’t flower in their second year. This is rare but could be down to the bulbs being planted in poorly drained soil. Other possible reasons include:

  • Location – they could be in too much shade
  • Lack of food/nutrients during growing season
  • The removal of leaves too quickly after flowering – they need to be able to create food to develop the flower for the following year.

Planting bulbs

As a general rule of thumb, bulbs need to be planted at a depth of 3 x the size of the bulb (you can measure this against your trowel).

As a rough guide if you’re using bulbs that grow to around 45cm tall then plant 10-15 bulbs per square meter. If you’re using bulbs that grow to around 20cm tall, then plant 20-40 bulbs per square metre and this will provide you with a beautiful display.

You may have heard of the ‘lasagne’ method of planting, which is where you plant a pot in layers of different bulbs which enables you to have either succession planting, and/or different heights of flowers, ie the tallest in the middle which decrease in height to the edge of the pot. These can look stunning.

When creating this style, plant the larger, later flowering bulbs towards the bottom so that the small, early flowering varieties can flower first early in the season, and as they die off the next lot comes through to continue the display.

Styling your garden with bulbs

Starting with the basics – bulbs can be planted in containers, window boxes, or straight into your borders

If you’re planting in pots, strategically place them either side of your front door to frame it or a view. Think about the style of the container you are using, the colours of the flowers and add some trailing plants such as ivy and maybe an evergreen shrub for year round interest.

If you’re planting straight into your borders, weave bold drifts of flowers to create impact.

Here are three ideas of bulbs you can use

Nerine bowdenii

These are great at the end of the summer when lots of flowers start to fade; these really stand out with their gorgeous pink flowers which bloom from September to November. They grow to around 45cm tall and 25cm wide, and like a well-drained soil in full sun. They need planting in the spring; however, you will be able to buy them in pots from the garden centre this time of year.

Cyclamen hederifolium

These are great for the front of a border as they are tiny and measure height and spread 12cm x 15cm. There are different varieties available and some are great for naturalising under a deciduous tree. Make sure you buy the outdoor version. Their leaves have a beautiful marble pattern and I love them.

In this example, I’ve used an intense pink Cyclamen with a lime green coloured Phormium (which are evergreen) along with some Skimmia in a navy blue ceramic pot.

Cyclamen flower from October to November and usually flower before the leaves appear.

Tulipa ‘Black Parrot’

If you want to add some drama to your borders add the Parrot style Tulipa’s to create the WOW factor. These black coloured versions would look amazing with some silver leafed plants such as Artemesia . They do come in other colours such as white, blue and a really striking red/orange called Tulipa ‘Rasta Parrot’.

I’ve created a bulb list which features three bulbs for each season and you can download this free by signing up to my Garden Lovers Club – see the link below

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How to plant bulbs in perennial borders

Bulbs are the lifeblood of the border in the early part of the year. From February to early May, crocus, daffodils and tulips are the first signs that warmer days are approaching and after the emptiness of winter, the sight of them pushing through bare soil is a joy. There is an art to planting bulbs successfully, and if you’re thinking about creating a spring border display using bulbs, you need to plant them in the autumn when the soil is still warm. As well as looking beautiful at the start of the year, bulbs look spectacular when combined with other plants and grasses. Below you’ll find some useful tips on planting bulbs and four planting combinations for spring borders. And planting design.

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A guide on using spring bulbs in borders

  • Order your bulbs early so you can ensure you get what you want.
  • Plant at the right time. Snowdrops should not be planted later than early October. Smaller, early flowering bulbs, such as scilla and crocus, should be planted in the first half of October; daffodils in late October; tulips in November, when the soil is cold; and alliums in December.
  • Plant in the right conditions. Tulips like well-drained soil and sun; daffodils can handle more moisture and shade.
  • Let the style of the garden dictate your choice of bulbs. If it’s formal, Fritillaria imperialis would be a good choice, while a woodland area would suit bluebells.
  • Sequence your plantings so they flower at different times: for example, crocus, muscari, tulips and scilla, daffodils, bluebells.
  • Better to plant too deep than too shallow – at least 15cm is good for tulips.
  • Better to order only a few cultivars in large quantities than a small number of many different cultivars.
  • Invest in a bulb planter if you plan on planting a lot. They make it simpler to gauge depth and are easier on your back. Here are 9 excellent ones.
  • Don’t worry too much about spacing. Catalogues will tell you to plant 10cm apart but I prefer a more natural look, scattering them and planting them where they fall. Tulips are strong and can grow through other plants without harming them.
  • Don’t braid or remove the leaves or stems of tulips if you want them to naturalise.

More on bulbs

  • Advice for planting bulbs in pots
  • The best bulb suppliers
  • Forcing bulbs

Planting combinations for spring bulb borders from Dutch bulb expert and designer Jacqueline van der Kloet

Purple reign
The selection of plants below will give your border an elegant purple theme.

  1. Heuchera ‘Stormy Seas’ Easy to grow and good for dappled shade and containers. Height 50cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6, USDA 4a-9b.
  2. Lunaria rediviva Lovely flower followed by beautiful seedheads. Height 90cm. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 5-8.
  3. Pulmonaria officinalis An easy plant that seeds everywhere in both sun and shade. Height 30cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6.
  4. Carex comans ‘Bronze Form’ Jacqueline values its ‘graceful performance’ and uses it in pots, where overhanging evergreen leaves ripple in the wind. Height 30cm. Hardiness rating RHS H4.
  5. Hyacinthoides hispanica The Spanish bluebell multiplies easily, even in the darkest shade. Height 40cm. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 5a-8b. (NOTE: not suitable in the UK as the plant is invasive. British gardeners choose native species Hyacinthoides non-scripta as an alternative).
  6. Matteuccia struthiopteris A wonderful, rapidly spreading fern for damp, shady areas. Buds are edible. Height 1.5m. Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 2a-8b.
  7. Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Pirouette’ Great colour and long flowering. Good for sun and dappled shade. Height 40cm. Hardiness rating USDA 5a-9b.
  8. Heuchera ‘Rachel’ A good, dark cultivar that goes well with Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’. Height 50cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6.
  9. Myosotis sylvatica Forget-me-knot seeds itself everywhere, but can easily be removed. A must alongside tulips. Height 30cm.
  10. Geranium tuberosum Finely cut leaves appear in winter, followed by striking flowers in spring. Needs a dry, sunny spot. Height 30cm. Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 6a-10b.
  11. Tulipa ‘Black Hero’ One of Jacqueline’s favourites. It perennialises well. Height 60cm.

Pretty pink display
Deep pink tulips are complimented by dainty perennials to create a bright, bubbly display that flowers from March through to May.

  1. Myosotis sylvatica ‘Rosea’ Charming alternative to the more common blue forget-me-not cultivars. Height 30cm.
  2. Tulipa ‘Flaming Springgreen’ Glorious viridiflora tulip. Looks good in the borders or as a cut flower. Height 45cm.
  3. Geranium. macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’ Beautifully scented leaves and delicate, pale-pink flowers. Good in shade. Height 50cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-9b.
  4. T. ‘Jacqueline’ Strong, tall, hot-pink cultivar that comes back year after year. Height 60cm.
  5. Allium neapolitanum Likes full sun where it will naturalise well. Height 40cm. Hardiness USDA 7a-9b.
  6. Allium triquetrum Be careful where you plant this three-corned leek as it can be very aggressive. Height 40cm.
  7. Leaves of Helleborus x hybridus Flowers from February to April but the leaves last all year. Height 45cm. Hardiness USDA 5a-9b.
  8. Geranium sylvaticum ‘Album’ Snow-white, saucer-shaped flowers that light up a shady area. Height 70cm. Hardiness RHS H7.
  9. Nassella tenuissima Upright, tufty grass that looks wonderful intermingled with perennials. Height 60cm. Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 7a-9b.
  10. Myosotis sylvatica. Forget-me-knot seeds itself everywhere, but can easily be removed. A must alongside tulips. Height 30cm.
  11. Geranium phaeum ‘Little Boy’ Lovely but beware that it can seed everywhere. Height 60cm.

Hot yellow tones
Tulips, buttercups and wallflowers hold the heat in this bold planting combination.

  1. Smyrnium perfoliatum A glorious yellow that seems to hold light within it. Height 1.2m
  2. Ranunculus psilostachys “Pretty but spreads terribly,” says Jacqueline. Height 35cm.
  3. Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ A gorgeous, rich orange contrasting well with its grey-green foliage. Height 60cm. Hardiness RHS H6.
  4. Erysimum ‘Spice Island’ A nice, bushy wallflower that is long flowering, sometimes from April–November. Prefers sun. Height 75cm.
  5. Hakonechloa macra Grass forming bright green hummocks that add movement to a border. Height 35cm. Hardiness USDA 5a-9b.
  6. Camassia leichtlinii ‘Sacajawea’ An unusual cream-coloured camassia with variegated leaves. Height 90cm. Hardiness USDA 3a-9b.
  7. Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ A beautiful burnt orange colour, although fertile soils can allow it to grow tall when it can be prone to flopping. Height 1m. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 5a-10b.
  8. T. ‘Jewel of Spring’ Luminous bowl-shaped yellow flowers. Height 60cm.
  9. Helleborus x hybridus Semi-evergreen perennial; tolerates partial shade. Height 50cm. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 6a-9b.

Pale and interesting
If you prefer texture and interest over colour, this is the combination for you. Verdant foliage and cool whites are the stars of this show.

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  1. Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’ Beautifully scented leaves and delicate, pale-pink flowers. Good in shade. Height 50cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-9b.
  2. Melica nutans A lovely early grass, but a vigorous self-seeder. Brown and cream flower spikes from late spring to summer. Height 50cm.
  3. Cardamine heptaphylla Produces clumps of lovely flowers in April. Height 30cm. Hardiness USDA 3a-8b.
  4. Rhododendron ‘Cunningham’s White’ Mauve buds open into white flowers. Jacqueline, has added ericaceous compost to her clay soil to provide the preferred acidic conditions. Height 2m. Hardiness RHS H6.
  5. Helleborus x hybridus seedling Flowers from February to April but the leaves last all year. Height 45cm. Hardiness USDA 5a-9b.
  6. Narcissus ‘Sailboat’ Very strong narcissus that naturalises well. Good for dappled shade. 30cm. RHS H6.
  7. Tulipa ‘Peppermintstick’ Lovely, elegant tulip. Give it a sunny, well-drained spot and it will perennialise well. Height 30cm. Hardiness RHS H6.
  8. Anthriscus sylvestris Large heads of tiny, creamy white flowers billow above delicate, fern-like foliage, adding airiness to the border. Height 1m. Hardiness RHS H5.
  9. Allium triquetrum Be careful where you plant this three-corned leek as it can be very aggressive. Height 40cm.

Top 10 perennial plants

Perennial plants add colour and seasonal interest to the garden from April to November, often attracting bees and butterflies to their blooms, and making great cut flowers too.

Perennials are easy to grow, and incredibly versatile. They can be used as fillers between shrubs, groundcover beneath trees, grown in containers or planted on their own to create a classic herbaceous border, providing an easy alternative to annual flowers, returning each year and growing larger as they mature.

There are plenty of perennial plants to choose from but for some inspiration, take a look at our infographic of our top ten perennial plants for an easy and reliable display.

Lavender

Although technically a shrub, we have to mention Lavender as one of our top perennial plants! Well-loved for its fragrant summer flowers and scented silver-green foliage this hardy, evergreen shrub is so versatile, for edging, hedging, borders and containers. The flowers are highly attractive to bees and butterflies have good drought tolerance, coping well with light, sandy soils. They also make superb cut flowers or even cake flavouring and decoration!

Sedum

Sedums, also known as Stonecrop, are superb for their late summer and autumn colour, often flowering into November! With fantastic tolerance to poor conditions, Sedums are one of the easiest plants to grow in the garden. For a perennial border, choose Sedum spectabile (Ice Plant) which has a neat, upright growth habit and succulent, grey-green leaves. Tiny star-shaped, normally pink flowers are borne in dense, flat, cymes from August through to late autumn. Lleave the faded flower heads intact for winter interest.

Rudbeckia

Rudbeckia are reliable and popular perennials, valued for their long-lasting, splash of colour in late summer and early autumn. Sunny yellow, red or orange petals surround prominent conical centres of green, brown or black which are attractive to bees and other pollinating insects. The neat, bushy upright growth of Rudbeckia fulgida fits in nicely among other perennial plants. Rudbeckia hirta are short-lived perennials and are often treated as biennials. Plant Rudbeckia as part of a mixed or herbaceous border, or alongside ornamental grasses for a prairie-style look.

Geranium

Hardy Geraniums, also known as Cranesbill, are a diverse group of plants and are some of the most tolerant and long-lived perennials you could grow. These low-maintenance perennials provide colour over a long period in the summer with white, pink, purple or blue flowers. Growth habits range from trailing or spreading, to taller, clump-forming varieties. Grow Geraniums as ground cover, edging or to fill gaps in borders.

Salvia nemorosa

A hardy perennial, Salvia nemorosa is a prolific flowering plant producing purple flower spikes in abundance from summer to autumn, giving a long season of interest. Originating from hot, dry areas Salvia plants are superb for hot and sunny borders, and have good drought tolerance once established. A wonderful upright accent, Salvia works well as part of a mixed border or grown with grasses.

Phlox

Phlox is a diverse genus of plants, the perennial species of which are popular for their bright, showy, and often highly fragrant flowers which are produced from late spring through to autumn. Phlox flowers are mainly pink, purple or white and some plants have variegated foliage which adds further interest to the garden. For ground cover or rockeries try growing Phlox subulata (Moss Phlox), a dense, evergreen perennial producing a mass of flowers.

Helenium

Also known as Helen’s Flower, Heleniums are long-flowering, reliable perennial plants. With a range of hot colours from red to burnt orange and bright yellow, these fiery plants work well as part of a late summer border. The elegant flowers are borne in abundance from midsummer to early autumn on bushy, upright growth, with protruding central florets surrounded by a ‘skirt’ of petals. Grow Heleniums as a lively addition to herbaceous borders or try planting them with ornamental grasses for a prairie-style look. Heleniums make a great cut flower too.

Dianthus

From large border carnations to dainty pinks, Dianthus plants are a versatile addition to the gardens. Dianthus plants are a perfect addition to cottage gardens. Grow alpine pinks such as Dianthus deltoides in a rock garden, raised bed, in patio containers or as ground cover. These tough little perennials cope well with windy and salty coastal conditions. Grow the larger pinks and carnations in beds, borders and patio containers. Dianthus flowers are also brilliant for cutting.

Japanese Anemone

Japanese Anemones (Anemone x hybrida) are stunning performers in late summer and autumn when many other plants have fizzled out. Masses of large, bright, simple blooms are produced on elegant branching stems high above mounds of green, palmate foliage. Growing up to 1.5m tall, they are superb for adding height to the back of borders, although more compact varieties are available to suit any planting scheme. Japanese Anemones work well as part of a cottage garden theme, or grown in woodland gardens.

Penstemon

A valuable addition to summer borders, Penstemons are smothered in tubular-bell-shaped flowers, similar in appearance to foxgloves, and come in a range of bright colours and patterns. Bees love these easy-to-grow perennials, which look fabulous planted in groups where they knit together to form sheets of colour. Plant tall Penstemons in the middle of mixed or herbaceous borders, to lend an informal cottage-garden feel to the planting; or grow the dwarf varieties at border fronts or in patio containers.

Here’s the infographic in full – if you’d like to share it or use it on your own site, check out the details underneath.

Bedding Plants: Annuals, Perennials, and Bulbs

When people think about sprucing up their landscapes, they often think of beautiful bedding plants with their brightly colored flowers and interesting textures. Bedding plants can add color or other interest to the garden and can be planted either in the ground or in containers. The mild climate in Florida allows a host of different plants to be grown, meaning that gardeners have plenty of available choices. With the right selections, it’s possible to have something exciting happening in the garden virtually every month of the year.

The term “bedding plant” can refer to several different kinds of herbaceous plants including annuals, biennials, perennials, and bulbs.

Zinnias are annuals

An annual is a plant that completes its life cycle (growing, flowering, setting seed, and dying) in one growing season. In Florida, they are usually classified as either warm season or cool season. Annuals need relatively high amounts of nutrients and water. Gardeners can keep annuals looking good and lasting longer by pruning back plants if they get leggy and by deadheading—pinching off any fading flowers. Learn more in the EDIS publication, “Gardening with Annuals in Florida.”

A biennial is a plant that completes its life cycle in two years, meaning it puts out only leaves in the first year and then reproduces in the second year. In Florida, some biennials may complete their life cycle in one year because Florida’s growing seasons are longer than those of northern climates—thus, a biennial may effectively be an annual in Florida. Not many biennials are commonly used in Florida landscapes.

A perennial is a plant that lives for an extended time—longer than one season—and that flowers and produces seed throughout its life. However, perennials won’t necessarily live forever. Some need to be replanted or rejuvenated every few years, and others are often treated like annuals and changed out with the seasons. Perennials are mainly herbaceous, though some may produce semi-woody tissue and grow to the size of small shrubs. Perennials usually require less water and fertilizer than annuals once established, but will typically require some pruning. Most (but not all) prefer at least four hours of sun per day.

Beach sunflower is a perennial

At times, gardeners may find it difficult to determine whether a plant is classified as an annual or perennial. In short, it depends. For starters, plants like coleus are commonly thought of as annuals up north yet may grow as perennials in the warmer parts of Florida. Other plants may be “root-hardy,” meaning that they die back in winter but return in the spring. And plants that are root-hardy perennials in North Florida may grow year-round in South Florida. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry. Your county Extension agent can provide information about the life expectancies of popular bedding plants grown in your area.

The term “bulb” typically refers to a specialized group of perennial plants that are often planted for their beautiful flowers, which appear year after year if the plants are given proper care. Technically speaking, a lot of the plants that people commonly refer to as bulbs aren’t actually bulbs—they’re corms, rhizomes, tubers, and tuberous roots. Each of these plant types has a thickened underground storage organ and is botanically known as a geophyte. The above-ground portions of many geophytes will die back naturally with the seasons or during adverse climatic conditions like drought or cold weather. This period is often referred to as the dormant period. There are some geophytes in Florida that never or rarely die back. For example, gingers in South Florida will typically keep their leaves year-round.

From a botanical perspective, it can be helpful to know the differences between bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tuberous roots. Read more in Is This a Bulb?

For more detailed information, you may want to talk to your county Extension agent or Master Gardener to learn what plants work reliably in your specific area.

I like to structure gardens so that there’s something eye-catching on each level. I find that it’s often easy to forget about the plants right at your feet. So, when you’re planning your garden, consider these plants for forming borders, either in a bed or along a path. Some of these do really well in containers too!

7 Plants to Use for Borders

1. Tricolor Sage

This perennial herb is just gorgeous! It’s an edible as well as an ornamental. The leaves have the same sage flavor that you know and love, but the green leaves on the tricolor sage feature a white edge with pink and purple coloring. In the summer, its lavender-blue blooms will bring butterflies to the garden!

Tricolor sage reached about 18″ tall and grows best in full sun. It prefers drier, sandy soil.

2. Nasturtiums

I plant plenty of nasturtiums every year. I love a small bouquet of the blooms, and the spicy foliage is great in salads and cream cheese dip. On a more practical level, nasturtiums will protect tomatoes from aphids and whiteflies. Plant nasturtiums around the base of fruit trees to help repel insects.

These little beauties are so easy to grow. They need partial to full sun, and the only soil requirement is that it’s well-drained. Once you plant nasturtiums, just let them be!

3. Moss Phlox

Moss phlox is such a low-maintenance plant. It’s drought tolerant and fills in spaces really nicely, which is why you may hear it referred to as “creeping phlox.” It can grow to 6 inches tall and can spread a couple of feet out. Moss phlox bursts into bloom in April and May and is perfect for a butterfly garden.

Moss phlox thrives in well-drained soil in full sun and can tolerate sandy and rocky soil.

4. Laguna™ Sky Blue Lobelia

I’m not one to pick favorites, but I do love the color blue. This has to be the best heat-tolerant lobelia on the market. In my very Southern garden, I can grow this gorgeous sky blue flower. These lobelias are so perky and bright. I like to plant extras of these to make sure the blue color shines through all summer, and they’re a magnet for butterflies.

This lobelia can grow to be a foot tall and 1-2 feet wide. Plant in partial to full sun and well-drained soil.

5. Goldilocks Rocks® Bidens

This annual belongs to the aster family. This particular variety is compact and features bright golden yellow flowers. These bidens can grow up to 14 inches and are great as edging or as a groundcover. These bidens are also heat and drought tolerant.

Plant in full sun in average soil.

6. Sweet Alyssum

Also known as Lobularia, sweet alyssum gets its name from its fragrant blooms. It thrives in a variety of climates and is both heat and drought tolerant. Some varieties will stop blooming if the summer heat gets really high. Some varieties like ‘Snow Princess’ have been developed to keep blooming through the summer heat waves.

Plant sweet alyssum in well-drained soil with moderate moisture. If you have mild summers, plant sweet alyssum in full sun. Here in the South where summers can be intense, I plant mine in part sun.

7. Lemon Ball Stonecrop

Look at the gorgeous foliage on this plant! Lemon ball stonecrop, also known as Sedum mexicanum, is a beautiful succulent that does wonders in the garden. Because it’s drought and heat tolerant, its chartreuse foliage will give your garden bold color through the season and you’ll be treated to yellow blooms in summer.

Plant in average, dry soil and partial to full sun. Stonecrop also can tolerate rocky and sandy soil if there’s good drainage.

A perennial border filled with delphiniums, astilbes, lilies, daylilies and lamb’s ears. (Photo by Joanne Young)

The notion of designing and planting a new perennial border may fill veteran gardeners with anticipatory glee, but new gardeners often experience sensations more akin to a panic attack. Not to worry: there’s a first time for everything, and by following a few basic guidelines, you have every reason to expect success.

Perennial (often called herbaceous) borders are a British concoction, and were traditionally located in front of fences, hedges and walls, often on “the borders” of the property, and were usually rectangular. These days, almost any large flowerbed filled with permanent plantings is called a perennial border, even free-standing “island” beds. The advantage of this static system is that it relieves gardeners of the work and expense of planting annuals each spring and waiting for them to fill in. Well-chosen perennials require little maintenance throughout the growing season, returning bigger and better every year. By selecting species that bloom at different times of the year, perennial borders can be in flower from spring until autumn.

Your new border should blend in with your overall garden design: in yards where the existing plantings are relaxed and casual, curved borders and island beds may suit best, while more formal gardens structured on geometric principles and straight lines will look better if rectangular beds are employed.

How to create a perennial border

1. Evaluate the site

Choosing the location is crucial. I usually recommend that if it’s your first attempt planting a perennial border, you pick a flat site with at least six hours of direct sun per day. Most perennials are sun lovers, so selecting a sunny spot provides you with a wider plant palette before you even put shovel to soil. I also advise against planting next to mature trees, as most young perennials are unable to compete with these garden goliaths for sunlight, water or nutrients. If the new border can be seen from an important window in your house or an outdoor seating area, so much the better.

The next thing to consider is the soil. Is it usually on the wet or the dry side? Is it mostly clay, sand or something in between? Soils at either end of the spectrum—mostly clay or mostly sand—can be improved by incorporating generous amounts of organic matter, such as leaf mould, composted manure and your homemade compost. Not many perennials tolerate persistently soggy soil. If this describes the area you’re contemplating, either improve drainage by burying weeping tile (perforated plastic pipe) to divert the water, raise the planting area or choose another location.

2. Map out dimensions and remove sod

Map out the section of the garden where your border will lie, and visualize it full of plants. For rectangular beds, use string and garden stakes to delineate the area; for curved beds, a rubber hose works well.

The average perennial border is between six and seven feet (about 2 m) wide; this allows easy access to the middle of the bed from either side for routine maintenance. If your border is situated against a wall, leave an 18-inch (45-cm) pathway between the wall and the back edge of the border for access. A deeper bed, say eight to 10 feet (2.5 to 3 m), permits a wider range of plant heights. For a border this wide, you’ll need to consider pathways or strategically placed flat stones to stand on.

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For most homeowners, there will be turfgrass to remove, likely the least satisfying part of this project. You can do this by smothering the grass with layers of wet newspaper and black plastic on top, but for this process to be really successful, it takes about a year. It’s much faster to sharpen a few garden spades and slice off the turf in sections, taking only one-half inch (1 cm) of soil away with the grass roots. Use the removed turf to patch bare spots elsewhere in your lawn, or stack it upside down and compost.

3. Fatten up your soil

To get off to the best possible start, you must first improve and feed your soil — regardless of whichever kind you find yourself working with — before installing plants. The Elizabethans talked about “fat soil,” which sounds strange to our ears, but it’s a term I like, as it implies earth that’s teeming with plant nutrients and enriched with beneficial organisms. The best way to fatten up your soil is to add organic matter such as compost, composted manure or leaf mould. Layer about four inches (10 cm) of organic matter atop the soil, then, using a garden fork, mix it into the top two or three inches (5 to 8 cm) of garden soil. If you’re making a large border, this adds up to quite a lot of compost, so buy it in bulk from a nursery or landscaping firm (farmers are another source). Allow newly dug beds to settle for a week or two before planting.

4. Add a focal point

Perennial borders—particularly if they aren’t anchored to the rest of the landscape by buildings or boundaries—can seem flat and uninteresting, so many gardeners like to add permanent grounding features such as birdbaths, bird- and bat houses, sundials, sculptures, and all manner of teepees, trellises, arbours and other whimsical plant supports. Nevertheless, remember when adding non-plant material to a border, less is better; otherwise it can end up looking like a crowded mantelpiece. Borders also look more natural and integrated if they don’t just end abruptly, trailing off into nothingness. Employ existing walls and fences as natural endings or “bookends,” or install groups of shrubs or evergreens to visually hold in the extremities. Large rocks may also be used to serve the same function, but don’t get carried away or your garden will look like something out of The Flintstones.

5. Choosing plants

Now you should be about ready to plant. It’s a good idea to do some research and have a list of plants prepared before you head to the nursery—it’s easy to get carried away by whatever is in flower that day, and impulse buying isn’t good gardening practice. Many of the best long-lived perennials, such as Acanthus, Baptisia and Dictamnus, don’t look very prepossessing in a pot on the sales bench. Likewise, perennials that bloom later in the year, such as echinacea, monkshood and black snakeroot, might seem insignificant in spring, but can shine in the border in late summer/early fall. Include spring-, summer- and fall-blooming perennials on your list to ensure your new border is interesting throughout the seasons.

I like to start off with the healthiest, best-grown plants I can, so this means seeking out a reputable nursery that will stand behind its product. Avoid neighbourhood plant sales and large green clumps offered to you by well-meaning friends and relatives. The majority of these species are invasive (which is why they have so many to spare), and you can unwittingly pick up unwanted disease and insect pests at the same time. Rambunctious plants are useful for covering large areas but are difficult to control in a perennial border. Instead, go for plants that seldom need dividing.

To add height and interest to your border, consider incorporating a few shrubs and vines with showy flowers or unusual, colourful foliage. Avoid planting different species whose foliage looks the same side by side (e.g., hardy geraniums next to Astrantia; daylilies next to Siberian iris). A good perennial border should always look appealing thanks to its attractive, contrasting foliage—even if there isn’t a single flower in bloom. Spring bulbs added to perennial borders boosts early-season colour, but keep in mind that their foliage takes a long time to mature (midsummer for most daffodils and tulips). Lately, I’ve taken to planting most of these bulbous plants in groups scattered throughout my lawn, mowing around them until their leaves die back.

Some gardeners like a riot of colour, others prefer to plant within the boundaries of a colour scheme. The choice is yours, but always try to plant in drifts (buy perennials in threes, fives and sevens) to avoid a spotty patchwork of botanical orphans. Single “specimen plants”—those with unusual growth forms or leaf colours—may be used as accents or punctuation points within the border. Vary plant heights so not all the short perennials are at the front and all the tall ones are at the back—bays of low growers juxtaposed with promontories of taller ones make for more dynamic displays.

6. Planting day — at last!

The rest is easy, not to mention huge fun. Wait for an overcast day, then place the plants in their pots on the soil surface, allowing for their eventual width at maturity, and remembering to group like plants together in drifts. This may take you several hours, and will involve a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, and very likely a glass of wine or two. Once everything has been placed the way you want it (for now at least!), you can begin digging your planting holes. At this point I always add extra organic matter to the bottom and sides of the hole, being careful to mix it together with the native soil.

Place plants at the same depth as they were in their pots, press into the earth firmly and water thoroughly. Transplanting solutions won’t be necessary if you mixed in sufficient organic matter with your existing soil.

Once all the plants have been installed, cover the exposed soil surface with a three-inch (8-cm) layer of organic mulch to help conserve moisture and discourage weeds. Water perennials regularly during dry spells until they’re well established, and enjoy non-stop flowers every year.

Foliage is forever

A perennial border based solely on flowers is a missed opportunity. Look for perennials with interesting leaves: fuzzy, spotted, striped, purple, glaucous, chartreuse, silver or bronze. The following perennials excel in the foliage department and are hardy to Zone 3:

  • Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
  • Artemisia
  • Bergenia
  • Siberian bugloss (Brunnera)
  • Heuchera
  • Hosta
  • Ligularia
  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
  • Sedum
  • Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina)
  • Also: ferns and ornamental grasses

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ for your perennial border. (Photo by Walter Gardens, Inc.)

Perennial border plants with no dividing necessary

Reduce border maintenance by including perennials that seldom need dividing. All are hardy to Zone 3.

  • Monkshood (Aconitum)
  • Columbine (Aquilegia)
  • Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)
  • False indigo (Baptisia australis)
  • Black snakeroot (Actaea racemosa)
  • Gas plant (Dictamnus albus)
  • Globe thistle (Echinops ritro)
  • Cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma)
  • Cranesbill (Geranium)
  • Hosta
  • Peony (Paeonia)
  • Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus)
  • Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)
  • Meadow-rue (Thalictrum aquilegiifolium)

Columbines make an excellent addition to any perennial border. (Photo by Walter Gardens, Inc.)

More by Stephen Westcott-Gratton

  • Baptisias take centre stage

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