Designing a Perennial Garden: Essentials For a Great Winter Project

With the holiday season behind us,now is the time to plan that new perennial bed you’ve been dreaming of!

With the holiday season behind us,now is the time to plan that new perennial bed you’ve been dreaming of!   It may seem like a daunting task but take your time and follow these suggestions to help you achieve your garden goal.

First take some time and check out online perennial websites and gardening magazines for inspiration.  Take note of what colors, textures and garden styles appeal to you.  

Next don your winter jacket and take pictures of the new bed location from various angles.  Print out a few copies of each picture.  Study the pictures taking note of sun exposure, drainage, will it be viewed from one angle or all sides and shrubs and trees in the area.  Deciduous shrubs and trees will be leafy in the spring and summer.  Will they provide a lot of shade or non at all?  An area is considered full sun if it receives 6-8 hours per day: part sun 4-6 hours; part shade 2-4 hours and full shade less than 2 hours per day.  Do not be afraid to draw or write on the pictures. Use them as a drawing board to test out bed sizes and shapes; plant heights and colors.

While you are outside, do a rough measure of your bed area.  A simple rectangle can provide a framework on graph paper, enabling you to play with bed shapes within that rectangle. An easy scale to work with is 1 sq. in. = 1 sq. ft.   For the beginner,  a bed size of 15 ft. x 6ft. (90 sq. ft.) is manageable.  It is easier to add to your perennial bed in future years;  much harder to size it down!  Flowing, curving lines work best with bungalows conveying an informal style. Modern homes with strong vertical and horizontal lines may look best with those lines repeated in the landscape.

Once your bed shape is established, move on to the exciting part – the plants!

First choose a theme.  Do you want to focus on a cutting garden with mixed colors, a cottage style look, or a drought tolerant bed with few flowers and more leaf texture?  A monochromatic  theme can be very pleasing with varying tones and shades of the same color.  
Keep in mind that dark colors recede while light colors pop out.

Plant selection can be overwhelming.  Narrow plant choices down to –

  1. Zone first
  2. Light and moisture exposure of your new bed.
  3. Flower Color
  4. Bloom Time
  5. Height x Width of mature plant.  

Pick out the perennials for our zone with the longest bloom time and a few with spring and fall bloom times to extend the season. If perennial bloom times overlap; even better!  I like to use small shrub roses in sunny perennial bed designs.  They provide exceptionally long bloom time well into fall.

Make multiple copies of your graph paper bed shape.  Try your chosen plants out by placing them on the  graph paper bed outline.    Draw in light circles representing the mature width of your plants.  Like perennials are most effective when grouped in odd numbers. Taller plants can be placed at the back of the bed or in the middle if being viewed from all angles.  

As a final step create three rough color representations of your plan from spring to fall. This does not have to be perfect.  Quick blotches of color on the graph paper will give you an idea if your bloom colors work and their placement for each season.  

In spring lay out your bed shape with a rope or garden hose.  The most important step of all is the soil preparation. Spade the area deeply adding compost, aged manures and quality topsoil.  Once the plants are in place‘mulch’ the area every season with a 2 inch layer of compost around each plant.  

Save your plan and your plant tags!  Most of all take your time and enjoy the process.  It’s a wonderful winter project!  

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