In the Garden:
Lower South
October, 2010
Regional Report

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A perennial border that is well planned can add ever-changing beauty throughout the growing seasons.

Six Tips for A Successful Perennial Bed

Most gardeners wishing to create a new perennial flower bed find themselves a bit bewildered at the start. Where do I begin? What plants go well together? How do I arrange them? The questions can make the whole endeavor seem overwhelming.

On the one hand it is good to have so many questions. Gardeners who don't usually end up creating poorly planned "impulse beds" that result in thriving weeds, struggling plants and frustrated would be gardeners!

Here are a few simple tips to creating a successful perennial color bed in the lower south:

Step 1 - Drive Around
That's right, start with a drive around the neighborhood and, if possible, a visit to a botanical garden or two. Don't get overwhelmed with the elaborate designs. Look for what you like. Make notes as to the shape and flow of beds, the color combinations, whether they are in shade or sun, and how they blend in with existing trees, hardscapes or the home itself.

Step 2 - Sketch it out
Start with a piece of graph paper. This way each square can represent a given distance such as one foot. Create a rough sketch of the area to be planted including existing trees or shrubs, walks, driveways, etc. Then draw out some ideas with a pencil- so you can erase!

Straight lines are orderly and easy to lay out. However for most folks they are rather aesthetically uninspiring unless you are designing a formal garden. Most gardeners prefer natural curves. When designing a bed consider the angle(s) from which the bed will be viewed.

Step 3 - Try it out
Take a garden hose or orange extension cord and lay it on the ground to create a trial design. Make the curves large and gradual to make mowing easier. Right angles are a pain to mow into or around.

Remember smaller is better for most landscapes. The more bed you build the more it will cost and the more you will have to take care of! A dramatic impact can be made with a fairly modest color bed.

Step 4 - Choose Well-Adapted Plants
Choose plants adapted to your soils, climate and sun exposure. Consider whether the bed area is sunny, shady or a little of both. Include plants for spring, summer, fall and winter interest. Most plants will do well in spring. Fall offers quite a few great blooming options. Summer is challenging here in the lower south, so include plants with colorful foliage for interest during the hot summer months when blooms are scarce. Winter is pretty sparse when it comes to interesting perennials.

Just because this is a perennial bed doesn't mean you can only use perennials. Perennials are wonderful but each has its "season". Include a few evergreen shrubs to provide a backdrop for perennial foliage and flowers or to add some winter life to the bed. A few annuals here and there can also provide additional color and interest in winter or whenever your perennials are between bloom periods. Ornamental grasses are especially nice for providing texture and drawing attention to colorful flowers in front of them.

Step 5 - Prepare the Planting Location
One of the more common mistakes gardeners make is neglecting to prepare the site before they plant. The first step is to remove weeds, especially the tenacious perennials ones. Failure to remove the perennial weeds in the bed area is inviting lots of future work and disappointing results. Whether you employ hand digging or herbicides or both, it is much easier to control the weeds before the plants go in.

Mix in several inches of compost and build the soil up into a raised planting bed if drainage is at all in question or if your area receives heavy rainfall during some seasons. This may not be as fun as plant shopping but, mark my words, spend a dollar on your soil before you spend a dollar on a plant and you'll save money in the long run!

Step 6 - Consider Plant Spacing and Location
Consider the final size of the plant when determining the spacing. If the planting is massed you will want the plants to grow together when full sized. If the plants are specimen plants or different species a little space between plants at maturity creates the most attractive effect.

Plant height is an important consideration. Trailing plants and other small-statured species need to be in front of the bed or they'll be lost from view. A typical design has low plants in front, medium height plants behind them and taller plants in the back of the bed. Taller ornamental grasses, evergreens, or any dark green foliage plant will provide a nice backdrop to the blooms of flowering plants in front of them.

Once you have designed the planting bed and drawn the locations for various plants and drifts of color, you can create a shopping list for the number of plants you will need. Now it's time to begin work on the bed.

Follow these steps and you'll be ready to get out in this great fall planting season to establish your beautiful perennial bed that will return blooming dividends for years to come.


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