Case Study: Planting Flower Beds

  • 01 of 10

    Design Considerations

    This flower bed (image) consists of shrubs and perennials. Mulch is your floor and weed-fighter.
    Tired of mowing? Rip out the grass and start a bed of shrubs and perennials; have plenty of mulch on hand. David Beaulieu

    In this tutorial, I'll walk you through the strategic thinking and work steps I used to plant one flower bed.  The photo above demonstrates just how important it is to visualize the future when planning a flower bed. Though it doesn't look like much now, in a few months, this will be a full, colorful bed. The key is anticipating the heights, colors, textures and mass of all the various plants. 

    My flower bed planting consists of two rows of annuals and perennials in the front and a...MORE staggered row of taller plants (mainly shrubs) in the back. Even though everything is pretty much the same height now, eventually the background plants will greatly surpass everything else in size. 

    While I could have achieved greater visual impact by selecting more mature shrubs, to begin with, I felt that cost, too, should be a consideration in this project. The small shrubs I selected were available at a very good price. I happened to want to grow these particular shrubs, but I could just as easily have populated the back row exclusively with tall perennial flowers (being careful to select sun-loving types, in this case). The strategy here is to create a backdrop of tall plants in the back of the flower bed, which creates a "canvas" for the rest of the flower bed. 

    In choosing the location for my flower bed and the placement of my plants, I followed a practice known as "layering." In the context of planting flower beds, "layering" means you put the tallest flower bed plants in the back, the shortest in the front row, and the remaining plants in between. My layered flower bed should provide maximum visual appeal when all the plants mature.

    Selecting the Flower Bed Plants

    But in addition to considering plant heights, here are some additional considerations that went into my plant selection.

    • The location for my flower bed is a very sunny location, calling for sun plants.
    • I wanted at least some perennials, including some perennials that bloom all summer. Perennials offer the main advantage of returning year after year, meaning I will not have to replant everything in the bed next year. 
    • I wanted plants that would offer interesting textures.
    • My desired color scheme was blue-purple-gold. These are complementary colors; other combinations could also work if your tastes are different.
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  • 02 of 10

    Color Schemes for Flower Beds

    Iris flower
    Frank Carter / Getty Images

    Unless you're striving for the sort of wild, chaotic look that typifies English cottage gardens, it's a good idea to have a color scheme in mind when planting flower beds. If you need help with plant selection, this discussion of color families might help.

    My color scheme in planting this flower bed was blue, purple and gold. And I am considering the color of the plants' foliage, too, not just its flowers. For example, I am killing two birds with one stone in using the iris shown here...MORE (Iris pallida 'Aureo-Variegata'). Its flower provides purple color, but its variegated leaves also give me a light gold color. In addition, its large, blade-shaped foliage makes for a nice contrast in textures with my other plants.

    We'll look at the other purple and blue elements of my color scheme later, but now let's go for the gold.

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  • 03 of 10

    Gold Colors

    Emerald 'n Gold Euonymus
    Christopher Fairweather / Getty Images

    To add some complementary yellow/gold tones, I started with the background shrubs.

    Emerald 'n Gold euonymus shrub has the colors of gold and green on the same leaf; that is, like the iris on the prior page, it is a variegated plant. Similarly, Moonshadow euonymus would work here, as well.

    Other touches of gold color are offered by golden moneywort, Angelina stonecrop plants, and a King's Gold false cypress shrub.

    But enough of the fun considerations involving color for now. There is some...MORE hard work involved in this project, too. Next, we will get down and dirty.

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  • 04 of 10

    Removing the Grass

    At this stage of the project, it's time to play
    At this stage of the project, it's time to play "sodbuster.". David Beaulieu

    Are you creating your flower bed from scratch, in an area currently covered with grass? If so, as preparation for planting the flower bed, you must remove the sod. 

    The way I remove sod is different from what you may see on TV gardening shows, which may recommend using a flat-blade shovel to skim off and removed the grass, soil and all.

    Instead, I use a common, everyday, pointed shovel, cutting the sod out in chunks (about 4 inches deep x 10 inches wide x 10 inches long). Then I lay the shovel on...MORE its side, blade perpendicular to the ground, and pound the sod against the shovel's blade. By doing so, I remove most of the soil from the sod, so that I don't waste it. I dispose of the sod by placing it in my compost bin.

    Speaking of compost, it's time to add some to the soil, now that the sod is out of the way. Compost increases the soil's fertility. In the process of working compost into the ground, you'll also be loosening the soil, making it more friable.

    If my soil type in this planting bed were too clayey, at this point, I would add peat moss, another soil amendment. But I don't have that problem with my soil in this flower bed location.

    Although we're eager to install the plants, first, let's consider weed barrier installation.

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  • 05 of 10

    Why to Install Weed Barriers

    Garden staples for securing weed barrier
    Garden staples are used to secure weed barriers. David Beaulieu

    Weed barriers are meant to be used in conjunction with garden mulch. The latter not only helps hold weed barriers in place but also shields them from harmful UV rays.

    Like the sheets of black plastic commonly used in weed control, a weed barrier (or "landscape fabric") hampers weeds in their efforts to take over your flower bed. Both are clean and reasonably durable. But unlike black plastic, weed barriers permit air, water, and nutrients to penetrate down to the soil.

    Besides garden...MORE mulch, use garden staples (as in the picture above) to hold weed barriers in place.

    You might wonder how we install plants with a solid weed barrier in place. Read on....

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  • 06 of 10

    Installing Plants

    How to cut incisions in landscape fabric
    Picture showing how to make incisions in weed barriers. David Beaulieu

    After laying down the weed barrier, the plants are installed simply by cutting X-shaped slits in the fabric. Just lay your plants down on the fabric, mark their location, then use a utility knife or garden shears to cut slits.

    The photo above explains the concept. After temporarily removing the mulch from the desired planting spot, I sliced through the weed barrier without actually cutting any of it off. It is simple enough at this point to separate the flaps and lower the plant's root-ball...MORE into the ground.

    It is, of course, possible to install the plants first, then fit in weed barriers afterward. But I find that fitting a weed barrier around existing plants is more troublesome than installing plants through the barrier. And by mulching before planting, you're getting a lot of the "heavy lifting" out of the way first, with no fear of backing over a plant with your wheelbarrow.

    Now it's time to begin planting.

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  • 07 of 10

    Low Plants for the Front Row

    Picture of low plants for a planting bed: blue fescue grass and Angelina stonecrop.
    Picture of the front row of the planting bed: blue fescue grass and Angelina stonecrop. David Beaulieu

    Seeking low plants for the front row of my flower bed, I chose 'Festuca Blue' fescue grass (Festuca ovina 'Glauca'), also known as 'Elijah Blue' fescue grass (Festuca [ovina var.] glauca 'Elijah Blue'), and 'Angelina' stonecrop. These plants work nicely with my blue-purple-gold color scheme. The blue fescue grasses bear bluish-gray foliage; Angelina stonecrop has golden-green foliage.

    Blue fescue grass is an ornamental grass and easy enough to trim, should...MORE it outgrow the place I have chosen for it. Angelina stonecrop (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina') is a trailing plant. Incidentally, this perennial is also an excellent choice for rock gardens, as it is a drought-tolerant perennial.

    Remember, I'm starting out with immature plants: they will "fill in" as time passes.

    Now it's time to move to the middle row.

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  • 08 of 10

    The Middle Row

    Victoria Blue salvia
    Craig Knowles / Getty Images

    The middle row of my flower bed consists largely of different perennial salvia plants. There are so many kinds of salvia plants that I've always found the precise identification of them difficult. So I decided to grow several different types altogether, giving me a chance to study them closely and compare notes on each one.

    Although each salvia plant I've selected for this row is different, all conform to my stated color scheme, providing either blue or purple flower. I've also...MORE included another purple-flowered specimen in this row: a speedwell that is somewhat similar in appearance to a salvia plant. All the specimens in this row will reach an intermediate height (shorter than those in the back row, but taller than those in the front).

    Here are the five specimens that comprise the middle row:

    1. "Victoria Blue" salvia plants (Salvia farinacea 'Victoria Blue')
    2. "May Night" salvia plants (Salvia x superba 'May Night')
    3. "Caradonna" salvia plants (Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna')
    4. "Blue Hill" salvia plants (Salvia nemorosa 'Blue Hill' or 'Blauhugel')
    5. 'Royal Candles' speedwell (Veronica spicata 'Royal Candles')

    Finally, we'll turn to the back row.

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  • 09 of 10

    The Back Row

    Picture showing tall plants for the planting bed.
    Side shot showing tall plants staggered to form the planting bed's back row. David Beaulieu

    The "back" row of my bed is three staggered rows, consisting of:

    1. An iris and Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star')
    2. A King's Gold cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'King's Gold')
    3. Two Emerald 'n Gold euonymus shrubs (Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold')

    The latter two are my tallest plants, reaching a mature height of 3-4 feet. All fit into my blue-purple-gold color scheme.

    In this project--and especially in the back row--I have consciously...MORE broken one of the rules of landscape design. Carefully note that term, "consciously." Designers will tell you to mass plants of the same type together. This achieves unity and is more eye-catching. And I don't disagree with that design standard. Usually. 

    However, design considerations are not always paramount. It depends upon what you wish to achieve in a planting bed. A unified design was not my primary goal in this project; rather, I wished to grow particular plants in which I have an interest.

    This was a personal choice, made consciously.  If I were being paid to install a bed of a similar size for someone else, I likely would have followed standard practice and planted three King's Gold false cypresses.  But I had no one to please, but myself, and including the euonymus and iris was important to me.

    And now, the final touch.

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  • 10 of 10

    Using Focal Points

    Picture of a golden creeping Jenny, spilling over a blue ceramic container.
    Picture of a golden moneywort, spilling over a blue ceramic container. David Beaulieu

    My bed needed a little something extra as a finishing touch. I decided on a focal point that would put the final exclamation point on my color scheme.

    The ceramic planter pictured above is a great choice for any color scheme featuring blue. It's an impressive piece, standing at about 3 feet tall. But what to plant in it? I decided to look for a trailing plant with golden foliage--something that would cascade over the blue piece and stand out against it. A type of moneywort turned out to be...MORE the answer.

    Golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'), is listed as a plant for partial sun or full shade. My planting bed is in full sun. But since I'm growing this "creeping jenny" in a container, I can always pick it up and move it into the shade for a spell, if necessary. Besides, landscaping in New England, I've never known moneywort to be all that fussy about such matters.

    As you can see from the photo above, the moneywort is not planted directly in the heavy ceramic planter but in a smaller plastic container, which is in turn wedged into the ceramic planter. The plastic container is much easier to move.  Even if the moneywort tolerates the full sun and doesn't need to be moved, I may wish to swap it out for another specimen later in the summer--just for a different look.

    This focal point stands in the back row, at the northern edge of the planting bed, in between the two euonymus shrubs where it won't cast excessive shade on any of my plants.

    Need more ideas for your flower beds? In a companion piece to this article, I offer resources that will help you make sound decisions regarding the color, form, and texture of your plant selections, as well as how to arrange them in a way most pleasing to the eye. You can access this resource by clicking on the "Landscape Design Ideas" link below:

    Landscape Design Ideas

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