Some of the most luscious perennial gardens look like they just kind of happen, don't they? Lush cottage-style flower beds overflowing with color tend to be a result of well-designed perennial garden ideas, taking into equal consideration where and what to plant. Read on to find 22 suggestions and ideas on how to layout, design, and plant a perennial garden that is visually appealing, becomes low-maintenance over time, and thrives in its space.
How to Design a Perennial Flower Garden
There are a few broad steps to consider when choosing a plant and deciding where it will go in your garden.
- Step 1, Zones: Learn your planting zone so you can then begin to choose appropriate perennial plants.
- Step 2, Sizes: Know how tall the plants you choose will grow and spread over time. What is the mature size of the plant? It helps to know this information so you can choose plants of differing heights to group together in your garden design.
- Step 3, Blooms: Learn about each plant's bloom time and how long it will flower. You want to include plants that flower throughout the season so you will always have color. Choose plants with flowers that can stand up to your area's weather because some plants might be too vulnerable to damage from wind, rain, or heat. Also, consider fragrance—some plants have surprising malodorous scents, such as the yellow alyssum, which does not smell sweet like its cousin.
- Step 4, Colors: Know whether the flowers you choose will have blooms and foliage that change color over time. If they change, when and what colors should you expect? Check the plant's cultivars for different colors you'd prefer in your design.
- Step 5, Habitats: Does the plant you want have specific light, soil, or water needs that differ from surrounding plants? For example, black cohosh and bleeding heart do best in perennial shade gardens, but not in full sun. Group plants with similar watering needs. For example, if you are planning a xeriscape garden, don't include a perennial plant like astilbe which needs the type of moist soil that drought-resistant types do not. Learn what pests and diseases may afflict the plant or any adjacent plants.
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Get the Big Picture
Look at your garden from a distance and see how the plantings work together. When we work in the garden, we're often "up close and personal" with plants, but designing requires stepping back to get a more comprehensive perspective of your space. This is especially important if you have trees and large shrubs in your landscape—consider the entire impact of your design. Step back to take in the big picture and see how your plantings balance and flow into one another.Continue to 2 of 22 below.
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Plant Bulbs for Early Spring Color
You can't beat spring bulbs for low-effort color in spring. But, they only bloom for a few weeks. By planting your spring bulbs (crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips) by your hostas and daylilies, the bulb foliage will be dying back once the foliage from these later season plants starts to emerge. This makes for great use of space and fills in the gaps between seasons of bloom.Continue to 3 of 22 below.
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Arrange Plants By Height
Most of the time, you will want to put taller plants in the back of the bed and shorter ones in front. Exceptions can be plants with very delicate sprays of flowers, or tall slender stems with flowers at the very top, which can go in front even if their stems are taller than the plants they're in front of (like alliums, salvias, coral bells/heucheras, veronica, columbines, bluebells, or forget-me-nots).Continue to 4 of 22 below.
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Create Visual Patterns with Color
Planting to create a pattern of color to draw the eye is a well-known landscape designer's trick. See how the purple foliage of these heucheras creates a dynamic pattern that leads the eye across the garden and connects them to the purple tones of the Japanese maples. The purple-toned foliage of these heucheras and Japanese maples creates a dynamic pattern that leads the eye.Continue to 5 of 22 below.
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Strive for Interesting Shapes and Textures
Plant strategically to create a lively combination of shapes and textures. Even a simple shade garden can balance the sturdy rounded or pointed leaves of hostas with the delicate textures of heuchera leaves and flowers, airy astilbes, and spiky ferns. Consider also how a plant's texture may change as the season progresses. The delicate airy texture of heuchera flowers (coral bells) is a perfect contrast to the heavier shapes and textures of hostas in this shade garden.Continue to 6 of 22 below.
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Try Color Blocking
Some gardeners like to have a large variety of plants in their mixed perennial beds. But there is something to be said for the dramatic impact of a large area blooming with vibrant color, making your garden into a seasonal show-stopper. This is especially effective with long-blooming perennial flowers like columbines, echinacea, hydrangeas, dianthus, chrysanthemums, etc.
Plant other flowering plants nearby that will add color when these show-stoppers are done; try chrysanthemums or perennial snapdragons in front of your echinacea.Continue to 7 of 22 below.
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Design with Foliage
Perennial flowers don't always have long seasons of bloom, so learning which plants have colorful or interesting foliage can help you design a garden that stays rich and interesting through the seasons.
Heucheras come in a rainbow of colors with differently-shaped leaves and do well in sun or shade. Hostas and daphne come in variegated varieties that add visual depth and interest. Silvery tones can come from artemisia or brunnera. The beautifully-shaped leaves of oakleaf hydrangeas and amsonia provide brilliant autumn color.Continue to 8 of 22 below.
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Create Colorful Shade Beds
Many perennials will happily bloom in partial shade, so your shade beds needn't be all hostas and astilbes! Perennial geraniums weave in and out among plants in search of dappled sun, and other colorful part-shade lovers include foxgloves, alliums, irises, heucheras, and primroses. See how the purple tones and lacy texture of the Japanese painted fern complement the 'Rozanne' geraniums and 'Millennium' alliums here.Continue to 9 of 22 below.
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Time Your Blooms Right
One of the biggest challenges in garden design is finding ways to have flowers blooming consistently throughout the season. But, consider how certain plants may have a more dramatic impact than others.
Maybe you want your roses to take the starring role. Maybe your peonies are the pride of the neighborhood. Let those pink David Austin roses shine by keeping other early summer blooming perennials to a minimum nearby, unless you want an all-pink garden, in which case, go for it! With a bit of practice and research, you can plant strategically to showcase certain plants at the height of their bloom season.Continue to 10 of 22 below.
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Plant Flowering Groundcovers
Ground covers can be a wonderful way to fill in empty spots and add low-growing beauty to your beds. Some bloom in spring (like sweet woodruff, epimedium, or creeping phlox), some in summer (spreading dianthus), and some in fall (like creeping sedums which come in many colors, or peacock plumbago with its bright cobalt blue flowers). Depending on your climate, there are a great many to choose from.
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Experiment with Contrasting Colors
Opposites on the color wheel create vibrant, dramatic contrasts in the garden. Pair purples and yellows, oranges and blues, or reds and greens, including variations like magenta and chartreuse for dynamic color combinations.Continue to 12 of 22 below.
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Balance Warm and Cool Colors
Many gardeners love having a garden that is all cool colors (blues, purples, pinks) while some enjoy vibrant warm colors like reds, yellows, and oranges. Having a mix of warm and cool palettes makes for maximum visual appeal. You can mix them in one bed, or have one section that's cool next to one that's warm. The possibilities are endless and can include both flowers and foliage.Continue to 13 of 22 below.
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Choose Easy-to-Divide Perennials
Perennial dividing is usually a yearly task for the avid gardener. Some perennials will tend to show decreased vitality in their blooming if left undivided, as the roots or tubers may get crowded. Most types of irises need dividing every three years, as do daylilies and hostas; all three are very easy to divide. Some plants benefit from once yearly division, such as artemisia 'Silver Mound.' Once you divide them (mid to late autumn is the best time) you can replant the divisions immediately.Continue to 14 of 22 below.
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Go For Late-Season Blooms
Many gardeners find it challenging to keep a vibrant palette of blooms happening through three seasons. Don't neglect to plant late-blooming perennials, especially in spots where other perennials will have stopped blooming for the season. Anemones are a lovely sight in autumn with their delicate pinks and whites fluttering above the flower bed like fairies. The deep blues of monkshood add dramatic color too.Continue to 15 of 22 below.
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Add Winter Interest
Why stop at three seasons of beauty? Winter can be a beautiful time in the garden, even if you're looking at it from inside a warm room, standing by the window with a cup of hot chocolate. Many evergreen shrubs and trees hold up to the weight of heavy wet snow and create sculptural shapes and a bit of color in the winter landscape.
Consider leaving some plants intact for winter, like tall sedums, that create a lovely shape, then cut back in spring as new growth appears. Think about adding perennial ornamental grasses into your garden design for winter texture. This snowy garden has beautiful forms and textures from its evergreen and tree plantings.Continue to 16 of 22 below.
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Plant in Containers
Containers are an easy way to add height, shape, and balance to your garden and give you flexibility in terms of placement and adding plants throughout the season. A solid clay pot can offer an earthy feel next to airy, delicate blooms or the spreading branches of shrubs. You can also choose brightly colored pots to add to your garden's colorways.Continue to 17 of 22 below.
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Incorporate Frost-Hardy Color
Many perennials will keep blooming after a light frost, including late-season chrysanthemums and perennial snapdragons. Such plants can provide much-needed color and form later in the season. These football mums keep their form and color even after a light frost in November.
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Add Flowering Shrubs
Flowering shrubs can be colorful centerpieces in your perennial beds. They bloom at different points in the season, so plant them where you want seasonal impact. Azaleas and rhododendrons in spring, weigelas and hydrangeas in summer, Rose of Sharon through fall, for example.Continue to 19 of 22 below.
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Plant for Autumn Color
Plant perennials that flower in autumn (chrysanthemums, snapdragons, sedums) but also plan for foliage shifting to rich autumn color and plant accordingly. Many plants provide bright and earthy colors in autumn. Japanese maples, ferns, amsonia, hydrangeas, heuchera, ninebark, and fothergilla are but a few.Continue to 20 of 22 below.
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Don't Forget Deadheading
Deadheading is vital in the busy summer season. Some plants that offer thrilling blooms need frequent deadheading to stay fresh-looking. One good example is the day lily (hemerocallis): the blooms only last one day but there are always new ones about to open; plucking off the dead/drooping flowers makes the most of the blooming time.Continue to 21 of 22 below.
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Choose Long-Lasting Blooms
You don't have to sacrifice planting your favorite short-blooming flowers for the sake of having a lush perennial garden. Plant the briefest blooms between long-lasting perennials like purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and catmint.Continue to 22 of 22 below.
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Plant Annuals that Act Like Perennials
Annuals like zinnias, cornflowers, and cosmos will often reseed every year, becoming a reliable "perennial" flower. Many of these colorful annuals are heavy with nectar and beloved by pollinators. You can collect the seeds to plant in spring (direct sow after the last frost date), or just let early annuals like cornflowers reseed themselves.
How do you stagger a flower bed?
Staggered planting or succession planting is popular with vegetable growers; by sowing seeds every week, you can harvest them weekly. This same concept can be applied to flowering plants by planning successive blooming over an extended period. As one group fades, another planting group blooms, and this pattern continues during the growing season.
When should you start a flower garden?
Plant flowers after the threat of frost is gone. Each region's last frost date varies. The ground must be thawed and workable. You can get perennial flowering plants in the ground in early fall in the North and late fall in the South.
How deep should flower beds be?
The depth of your flower bed depends on the types of plants you put into the ground. If you don't want to limit yourself, plan on a minimum depth of 12 inches, although 6 inches is adequate for many plants. Also, consider soil needs. If the plants you use require good drainage, you might need to plan on adding a porous layer of compost or mulch, which adds several inches.
How do you plan a flower bed layout?
In general, you'll want tall plants in the back (or in the center of an island bed), medium height in the middle, and lower plants in the front.
How do you arrange perennials and shrubs?
A large shrub can be the centerpiece of a perennial flower garden. Or plant perennial flowers and smaller shrubs as blocks of color. Strive for a repeated pattern and height-appropriate rows to create harmony in your perennial garden.