A bland expanse of lawn can be transformed into an attractive landscape by the addition of one or more garden beds that add color, texture—and overall interest—to your property. A garden bed can take many forms. For example, you might create a simple shrub island consisting of flowering shrubs and perhaps a small ornamental tree as an elegant, understated touch. Or if you want to make a more striking statement, you can fill a planting bed with very bright annual flowers that offer bright color from early spring to late fall. And today, it's perfectly acceptable to use a garden bed for vegetables and other edibles.
But the most popular form is the mixed border garden, which traditionally might contain a small shrub or two, some annuals for long-lasting color, but mostly perennial flowers of various sizes and differing bloom periods. Such a garden is often described simply as a "perennial border." It is remarkably easy to create, and much of the enjoyment comes from the planning.
When to Create a Garden Bed
The physical work of creating a garden bed within a lawn is best begun in the early spring as soon as the ground has warmed enough to be easily worked, but the planning of a garden bed often begins months earlier. Pondering what your garden bed might look like and browsing magazines and books for ideas can be a great way to spend winter days when no garden work is possible.
Planning a garden bed is an excellent activity for new homeowners looking to put a personal stamp on their newly purchased property.
Before Getting Started
The most important step in planting a new flower bed is to visualize the future. While your bed might not look like much when it's first planted, remember that in a few months it will be much fuller, taller, and more colorful. The key is anticipating the heights, colors, textures, and mass of all the various plants. This can be best accomplished if you start early by paying careful attention to other gardens you admire in your neighborhood. A trip to a local arboretum or public garden can also give you ideas. And garden magazines may include planting diagrams aimed at achieving a particular look for a finished garden bed.
If you want to take a chance at creating a garden design that's purely your own, keep these goals in mind:
- Try to include perennials that bloom at different times during the year, so that something is in bloom at all times. While fill-in color can be achieved with annual flowering plants, ultimately your goal should be a fully perennial garden that sustains itself without additional annual plantings.
- Strive for a garden bed that has a backdrop of tall plants at the back that creates a "canvas" for the rest of the arrangement. This is a technique 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. A nicely layered flower bed provides maximum visual appeal when all the plants mature.
- Pay attention to how colors interact. And this is not only a matter of flower color but also foliage color. Avoid colors that clearly clash.
- Consider shape, texture, and form as well as color. A well-designed garden bed will offer variety in several different design principles, not just color. Small shrubs can be an excellent way to introduce textures into a planting bed.
- Remember that you can always change your garden design, moving, deleting, and adding plants as you see fit. Don't worry too much if you don't get it right from the beginning.
Equipment / Tools
- Utility knife or garden shears
- Garden staples
- Garden shovel
- Plants of differing heights, colors
- Soil amendments (compost, etc.)
- Landscape fabric
Choose a Garden Bed Location
The first step is to choose an appropriate yard location for your garden bed. In most cases, a full-sun location that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight each day will give you the most options for growing flowering plants, but there's no reason you can't create a garden bed in a shadier location, provided you are willing to limit your plant choices to shade-loving species.
In general, an area of your yard where grass grows robustly is likely to also support a good garden bed. Avoid areas where tree roots are prevalent, as trees rob the soil of moisture and nutrients and will make it hard to maintain a healthy garden without extraordinary effort.
If your yard soil is poor, it may be necessary to have additional topsoil delivered to create a garden bed that's suitable for growing the plants you want. This will allow you to create a garden bed just about anywhere you want, provided the sun exposure is adequate.
Choose a Garden Bed Style and Color Scheme
A garden bed can take many forms and colors, from an "island" where you'll grow various flowering shrubs, to a very orderly cutting garden where you'll grow annual flowers in carefully defined rows for vase arrangements. For most people, though, "garden bed" means a mixed perennial border bed that will feature predominantly perennial flowers with perhaps some annual flowers to provide season-long color. Such a garden may also include a shrub or two to provide shape, texture, and winter color.
Entire books have been written about how to design and arrange a perennial garden bed, but for beginners, there's no harm in simply focusing on the plants you like. One of the great things about gardening is that you can readily change your mind, adding or deleting plants, or moving them around each year, until you find an arrangement and mixture you like.
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. Some people, for example, like to focus on a single color in various shades (a white "moon" garden, for example), while others prefer a mixture of colors. One popular scheme is to fill a garden bed with blue, purple, and yellow or gold flowers. These colors are complementary and almost always work well together.
The real fun starts as you choose the plants to fill your garden bed. This can involve a lot of enjoyable research into the cultural needs and characteristics of various plants. Most important is to choose plants that are appropriate to the USDA hardiness zone of your area. This is usually not a problem if you are shopping at a local garden center, which will stock only plants appropriate to your region. But if you are shopping online, then make sure to choose only plants that will work well in your climate.
Also, pay attention to the cultural needs of various plants and make sure they match your style of gardening. Growing irises, for example, will require that you dig up rhizomes and divide them every couple of years, while daylilies will happily grow with little attention for many years. Some people see gardening as an enjoyable hobby and good exercise, while others want to avoid gardening chores whenever possible—choose your plants accordingly.
Along with plant color, give some consideration to plant shape and texture. A well-designed garden will include plants with a variety of foliage textures, from sword-like gladiolus to the fine lacy texture of bleeding heart. And remember that "green" foliage comes in many hues, from deep blue-green to nearly yellow. You can also kill two birds with one stone by using iris, such as Iris pallida 'Aureo-Variegata'. Its flower provides a purple color, while its variegated leaves inject a touch of light gold. In addition, its large, spear-shaped leaves make for a nice contrast of textures with the other plants.
Finally, give attention to including a variety of plant sizes in your plan. In most garden plans, the back of the garden will include tall, towering specimens, the mid-garden will include moderate-sized plants, while the foreground edging is best suited for creeping, mat-forming plants.
Lay Out the Garden Bed
In most regions, active work on creating a garden bed is best started in spring, as soon as the soil is warm enough to be worked. The first step is to lay out the garden bed on the lawn area. This can be done with spray paint, powdered chalk, or by using a flexible garden hose to outline the garden bed on the lawn.
A garden bed can be whatever size you want, but a common mistake is to plan a garden that's too small. Of course, it's always possible to enlarge a garden after the fact, but it's better to create a nice, spacious garden bed right from the start. A bed that's 5 or 6 feet deep and 10 or 12 feet long should be considered a minimum. You can make your garden any shape you want, but most designers advise that an oval or kidney-shaped garden has the best aesthetic appeal.
Remove the Grass
If you are creating a flower bed from scratch in an area currently covered with grass, you must first get rid of the grass. One effective technique is to use a standard pointed shovel to cut out the sod in chunks (about 4 inches deep x 10 inches wide x 10 inches long). Then, lay the shovel on its side, with the blade perpendicular to the ground, and pound the sod against the shovel's blade. This removes most of the soil from the sod so that it is not wasted. Dispose of the sod by placing it in your compost bin.
Another popular method is to simply kill off the grass. This can be done with a broad-spectrum, short-lived herbicide, such as glyphosate. Glyphosate effectively kills all plants but then becomes inert almost immediately after contact with the soil. Carefully spray the grass within the garden bed outline, then wait a week or so until the grass turns brown and dies. Then, you can churn up the dead grass with the soil by repeated deep digging. The dead grass adds organic material to the soil and also improves its texture.
Another, more organic method of killing grass is to "solarize" it by covering the garden bed area with sheets of plastic. Left in the sun for two or three weeks, the intense heat will kill off the grass and weeds, as well as soil pathogens. After the grass is dead, simply dig it into the soil.
Add Soil Amendments
Virtually all garden beds will benefit from the addition of an organic amendment, such as compost, peat moss, or well-decomposed leaf mulch. Compost increases the soil's fertility, and by working compost into the ground, you'll also be loosening the soil, making it more friable. If your soil type is clayey, add peat moss as an additional soil amendment.
This is also a good time to have a professional lab or university extension service conduct a test on a sample of soil taken from your garden bed. The results of the test will give you valuable information on what nutrients your soil needs and what amendments to use. For example, if you want to grow azaleas, which are acid-loving plants, the soil test may suggest adding agricultural sulphur as an amendment to lower the soil pH.
Add a Weed Barrier (Optional)
While not mandatory, many gardeners like to add a weed barrier to help reduce garden chores. The best weed barrier for a garden bed is woven landscape fabric. Unlike the sheets of black plastic often used, woven weed barriers permit air, water, and nutrients to penetrate down to the soil to reach your plants. Later, mulch will go down on top of the weed barrier to hold it down. The mulch will also shield the weed barrier fabric from harmful UV rays as it hides it from view.
In addition to garden mulch, you can use garden staples to hold weed barriers in place. Staples are especially helpful on planting beds set at a slope.
Put in the Plants
After laying down the weed barrier, plants are added simply by cutting X-shaped slits in the fabric. Lay your plants down on the fabric, mark their location, then use a utility knife or garden shears to cut the slits. Next, fold back the flaps of fabric, dig a hole, and lower the plant's root-ball into the ground. Pack fill soil around the rootball, then fold the weed barrier back around the stem of the plant.
Make sure to give adequate space for each plant. You should expect that your garden will look a bit sparse for the first season, but it will soon fill in and become more dense.
After all plants are installed, cover the soil or weed barrier fabric with a thick layer of mulch. Landscape mulch comes in many forms, including organic materials such as shredded wood, bark chips, or compost; inorganic natural materials such as crushed rock; and synthetic materials such as shredded recycled tires. Choose whatever material you wish, but be aware that mulches require some ongoing maintenance, such as adding more as the material breaks down or washes away.
Experienced gardeners often opt for an organic mulch that breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil, even though this means regular replenishment. Over the long run, inorganic materials such as crushed rock or shredded rubber can become something of a nuisance.
Add a Focal Point (Optional)
If your bed needs a little something extra as a finishing touch, you can add a focal point that puts an exclamation point on your design scheme. For example, a decorative ceramic planter or small birdbath can draw attention. Other options might include a gazing ball, a hanging birdhouse or hummingbird feeder, a small piece of statuary, a small decorative boulder, or a decorative trellis for supporting a clematis or other flowering vine.
Don't overdo it, though. In most cases, a single accent piece is sufficient as a finishing touch for a small garden bed.
Watch Now: How to Install Landscape Fabric for Weed Control