Gardeners like to talk about easy-care shrubs, but when it comes down to it, few can resist planting flower borders, even if it requires a little more work.
GARDENERS ARE always touting foliage over flower. No gardening conversation is complete without someone advocating for small shrubs over work-heavy perennials, and declaring that it’s really trees they love best.
How do I know this? Because I indulge in such talk myself. And at the time I even mean it. But all that practicality flies out the window as soon as I see a well-orchestrated flower border. These garden classics seize the heart and the imagination, for they seem the very vibration of nature herself, all concentrated into a mass of colorful budding, blooming and fruiting.
I’d venture that most of us can’t help but covet that lush, English, flowery look despite knowing full well all the labor, time and water it takes to maintain such a gorgeous sweep of plants.
Masterminding a border with color harmonies, foliage contrasts and sequenced bloom times is quite a feat. But so worth it for such delicious scents through the seasons and all those flowers to cut for bouquets. And the wide diversity of blooms attracts so many birds, bees and butterflies that the garden hums with life and activity.
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It’s possible to plan a border to bookend the gardening year, starting with bulbs and finishing with dahlias and asters in autumn. You can plant for a medley of colors and textures. Or, for a more modern look, use ornamental grasses and spiky foliage plants to help carry the show.
No matter the style you’re aiming for, here are a few ideas gathered from some of the best gardens I’ve had the pleasure to hang out in over the years:
• Start by strategizing the bones of the flower border. Displays of flowers need a backdrop. Architectural elements like screens, fences, trellises or evergreen hedging carry the border through every season, while larger shrubs with colored leaves, like a cotinus or a Diablo ninebark, serve as striking backdrops.
• When it comes to the flowering plants, never think in singles. Plant in drifts, swathes and sweeps for impact. You’re making broad brush strokes with color and form, creating patterns with plants.
• And a big part of this patterning is color, so indulge in the colors you love best, and repeat them in ribbons or irregularly shaped blocks throughout the border. My garden is so small I limit myself to my three favorites — chartreuse, deep purple and orange. Well, mostly. No need to restrict your eye or your palette to color rules that don’t exist, anyway. If you like pink and orange together, go for it. Let the plants mingle and twine, weave and settle into their own color patterns. The varying greens of the leaves mitigate and soften the disparities of flower color, which constantly changes depending on sun, clouds and rain. There’s nothing static about gardens, which can be both frustrating and freeing.
• Stay loose as you plant, aiming for a casual, naturalistic look. Rows are for vegetable patches, not flower borders.
• Fill in around the edges with annuals for all-summer color; sweet alyssum and nasturtiums seed happily about and attract pollinators. On a larger scale, long-blooming shrubs like hydrangeas lend continuity, as do shrub roses, like R. glauca or R. mutabilis, that have the slightly wild look just right for a flower border. Add a few slim ornamental grasses for vertical punctuation, and you’re on your way to a flowering border that’ll give you years of pleasure … as well as work.