How to Select and Arrange Plants for Flower Beds

Garden flowers
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  • 01 of 09

    A Sample Flower Bed

    This flower bed (image) consists of shrubs and perennials. Mulch is your floor and weed-fighter.
    David Beaulieu

    The most important step to planting a new flower bed is to visualize the future. While your bed might not look like much when it's first planted, 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. 

    The sample flower bed shown here consists of two rows of annuals and perennials in the front and a staggered row of taller plants (mainly shrubs) in the back. Even though everything is pretty much the same height when the bed is planted, eventually the background plants will greatly surpass everything else in size. 

    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 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.

    While it's possible to start with a greater visual impact by selecting more mature shrubs, larger plants cost much more, and nurturing plants from a tender age (or from seed) is half the fun. The small shrubs in the sample bed are available at a very good price in most areas. In addition to the mature height, the plants were selected with the following considerations: 

    • The flower bed is a very sunny location, calling for sun plants.
    • It features some perennials, including some perennials that bloom all summer
    • The plants offer interesting textures.
    • The color scheme is blue-purple-gold, which are complementary colors.
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  • 02 of 09

    Choosing Colors and Textures

    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. The color scheme in the sample flower bed is created with blue, purple, and gold plants.

    Also consider the plants' foliage, not just its flowers. For example, you can kill two birds with one stone by using iris, such as Iris pallida 'Aureo-Variegata'. Its flower provides purple color, while its variegated leaves inject a light gold color. In addition, its large, blade-shaped foliage makes for a nice contrast of textures with the other plants.

    The background shrubs add some complementary yellow/gold tones. Emerald 'n Gold euonymus shrub has the colors of gold and green on the same leaf; like the iris, 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.

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  • 03 of 09

    Removing Grass

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

    If you are creating a flower bed from scratch in an area currently covered with grass, you must first remove the sod. One effective technique is to use a standard pointed shovel to cut out the sod in chunks (about 4 inches deep by 10 inches wide by 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.

    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 your soil type is clayey, add peat moss as an additional soil amendment

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  • 04 of 09

    Installing a Weed Barrier

    Garden staples for securing weed barrier
    David Beaulieu

    Weed barriers are meant to be used in conjunction with garden mulch. Mulch helps hold the weed barrier in place, shield it from harmful UV rays, and hides it from view. The best weed barrier for a garden bed is a woven landscape fabric. Unlike the sheets of black plastic commonly used in weed control, woven weed barriers permit air, water, and nutrients to penetrate down to the soil to reach your plants. In addition to garden mulch, use garden staples to hold weed barriers in place.

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  • 05 of 09

    Installing Plants

    How to cut incisions in landscape fabric
    David Beaulieu

    After laying down the weed barrier, plants are added 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 the slits. Pull the mulch from the planting area and slice through the weed barrier (without actually cutting any of it off), fold back the flaps of fabric, dig your hole, and lower the plant's root-ball into the ground.

    It's possible to install the plants first, then fit in weed barriers afterward, but 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.

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  • 06 of 09

    Use Low Plants for the Front Row

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

    The front row of the sample flower bed features '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 the 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 it outgrow the place 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.

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  • 07 of 09

    Use Medium-Height Plants for the Middle Row

    Victoria Blue salvia
    Craig Knowles / Getty Images

    The middle row of the sample flower bed consists largely of different perennial salvia plants. Although each salvia plant in this row is different, all conform to the overall color scheme, providing either blue or purple flowers. Also included is another purple-flowered specimen: 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).

    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')
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  • 08 of 09

    Use the Tallest Plants for the Back Row

    Picture showing tall plants for the planting bed.
    David Beaulieu

    The "back" row of the sample flower bed includes 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 the tallest plants, reaching a mature height of 3 to 4 feet. All fit into the blue-purple-gold color scheme. While landscape designers typically recommend grouping plants of the same type together for a sense of sense of unity, a unified design may not be your primary goal. Instead, you may simply want to grow particular plants that interest you and arrange them more individually.  

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  • 09 of 09

    Add a Focal Point

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

    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 color scheme. In the sample garden, a ceramic planter adds a tall blue element, and it holds a trailing moneywort plant with golden foliage that will cascade over the blue piece and stand out against it. 

    Golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') is listed as a plant for partial sun or full shade. Because the bed gets a lot of sun, it's best to keep the moneywort in a container, in case it needs to come out of the sun during hot, sunny weather. But chances are it will do just fine, as moneywort isn't too fussy.