Lawn and Garden

Gardening with Flowers

By John Jett, WVU Extension Service horticulture specialist

Flower gardening is the horticulturist’s reward for hard work. Flowers and flower borders provide color against the predominant green of a landscape. They are the accent and contrast that make a landscape lively and interesting.

Flowers also complement most of the features that conventional landscaping materials such as trees and shrubs establish. They can add depth, dimension, form, and texture and change heights and slopes in addition to providing their most obvious asset – color. Flowers also can be useful, providing culinary herbs for the table and cut flowers for arrangements.

Planning the flower border

Much of the excitement of creating an herbaceous border lies in its great flexibility of design. In form, placement, and selection of plants, the contemporary border follows few rigid rules and allows fullest expression of the gardener’s taste.

Selecting plants

The first step in planning the material for an all-season, mixed-perennial border is to select key plants for line, mass, color, and dependability. Line is the silhouette or outline of a plant, mass is its shape or denseness, and dependability refers to its ability to remain attractive with a minimum of problems. Garden books and catalogs can be very useful for reference.

fence-garden The most attractive flower borders are those located in front of a suitable background, such as a fence, shrubbery, or building. In some cases, tall flowers such as hollyhocks or sunflowers may serve a dual purpose as flowers in the border and as background plants. Annual or perennial flowers of medium height may serve as background plants for a small border planting (Figure 19-1).

Curves can add interest to a flower border

hose-layout A general rule, unless the garden is very spacious or formal, is to avoid a ruler-straight front edge. A gentle to boldly sweeping curve, easily laid out with a garden hose, is best even along a fence, and the border can taper as it recedes from the main viewing point if an effect of distance is desired. The deeper the curve, the slower the eye moves and the greater the visual enjoyment. A border outlined with bricks or flat stones set flush with the soil is better than a steeply cut lawn edge that must be trimmed after mowing.

Grouping plants

Establish plants in groups large enough to form masses of color or texture. As a rule, five or seven plants will create the desired effect. A large delphinium or peony will be of sufficient size to be attractive, but a random collection of different small to medium-size plants will present a disorganized, checkerboard appearance. Each group of flowers should have an irregular shape. These masses of color and texture should blend into a pleasing pattern of color harmony. Dwarf flowers may be used as a continuous edging or border along the front of the bed.

Flower borders may be of any width, depending on the space available. In a small yard, the bed may be only 2 or 3 feet wide. In a spacious location, the border planting may have a width of 6 or 8 feet. If the border is quite deep, a pathway of stepping stones may be helpful as a means of walking among the flowers without compacting the soil.


Plant height

Tall flowers should be selected for the back part of the bed, with medium-height species in the middle and dwarf varieties along the front as edging plants. This is very easily done because the height of all varieties is stated in seed catalogs. Plants along the front edge of the flower bed should be located back far enough to allow easy mowing of the lawn.

Plant height is best limited to two-thirds the width of the border; for example, no plants taller than 4 feet in a border 6 feet wide. Height lines should be broken up by letting some tall plants extend into the medium-height groups, with a few recessed clumps or drifts leading the eye back into the border. This gives a more natural effect than a step profile. Try to vary heights, but in general keep taller plants in the back and shorter ones toward the front.


The distance between plants in a flower border depends on the form of individual plants and the desired effect in the landscape. Allow adequate space between plants. Many gardeners crowd their plants too much.

As a rule, tall spired flowers, such as hollyhock, gladiolus, and rocket snapdragons that are trained to a very few stems, should be spaced about one-fourth as far apart as their mature height. Tall bushy plants may be spaced about one-half as far apart as their mature height. Rounded bushy annuals and perennials should be spaced about as far apart as their mature height. Creeping, groundcover plants may be spaced about twice as far apart as their mature height. In all cases, if a solid mass of plants is desired, the spacing may be reduced. If individual plants are to be conspicuous as specimens and be allowed to produce large flowers, the distances should be increased.

Color and Location

The enormous color range in perennials and their easy movability if disharmony occurs give the gardener great latitude in choosing and combining colors. A border in tones of the same color can be effective, or several closely related colors may be used, or the border may be made wildly exuberant with a vast variety of hues in one or more seasons. Hues are modifications of color such as orangish red. The objective is a balanced composition in every season, with no section at any time being too heavily weighted with color, and the bloom so distributed that it always makes a pleasing pattern through the bed.

warm_garden Many gardening books give excellent lists of compatible colors; these plus a garden notebook and camera are invaluable for planning and revising color schemes. For real floral artistry, it is perhaps more important to consider intensity – the vividness of a color – rather than hue. For example, placing light tones near dark ones or contrasting palest tones with the most intense can give new interest and life to the border.

Also consider location and color. Near patios, white is especially good because it shows up well in the evening or dusk hours when patios are often in use. Some colors are suitable only as dramatic accents: deep pure red clashes with almost anything (unless softened by dark green foliage), yet properly used it confers strength and depth. White flowers and gray foliage are indispensable as separators of conflicting colors.

cool_garden Red, orange, and yellow are warm colors. Blue, green, and violet are cool colors. The use of warm colors in the flower border of a small yard will give the illusion of little space. Conversely, the use of cool colors gives the impression of openness and space. In general, the smaller the area, the fewer warm colors should be used.


As a gardener becomes adept at producing constant color harmony in the border, he or she becomes more aware of the roles played by plant forms and foliage. Good foliage is obviously vital in plants with short blooming periods. Consider how much of the plant foliage will be usable and whether it is a positive or negative attribute. Some plants practically disappear when their blooming season is over fern_hosta (e.g., oriental poppy and bleeding heart), but others stay presentable even when not in flower. Plants with distinctive forms, color, and foliage – airy and delicate or strong and solid – are wonderfully useful for creating interest. Ornamental grasses and even handsome foliaged vegetables like broccoli and asparagus can be used for effect.

Selecting plants

The most logical way to choose plants is by:

  1. location (taking into account the amount of sun or shade and water required – you can easily find this information in books and catalogs)
  2. period of bloom
  3. height and width
  4. color

The only restrictions on any given plant will be environmental – inability to tolerate winter or summer temperature extremes, or special soil, moisture, or light needs – and any limits the gardener has on time available for maintenance.

Even in a small border, single plants of different varieties should not be used. This gives a jumbled look. Do not set in precise rows but in groups like they might grow in nature. Allow enough space for each group to grow comfortably. Decide which flowers you like best and let them be the basis of your planting. Place them in several spots, if you like, down the length of the border, but don’t overdo any one plant.

The longer the border has flowers in bloom, the more you will enjoy it. Consider the months when each plant will be at its best. Do not confine yourself to material that blooms all at one time. Aim for a steady succession of color.

A last bit of advice: Don’t be afraid to be bold even if it results in some mistakes. Flowers are easy to move, change, or take out altogether. There is no need to be conservative or confined. Flowers are fast-growers and can be transplanted almost anytime to help create the desired effect.