How to design a perennial border

Updated July 20, 2017

Perennial borders accent your yard or garden. Grasses, shrubs, small trees and flowers are a few of the types of plants that you might include in a perennial border. By planning a simple design using a complementary colour scheme, varying leaf textures, and staggered bloom times, you can have beautiful perennial border throughout the growing season. Additionally, perennial borders are a great way to reduce yard maintenance, and to attract birds and beneficial insects.

Choose a site for your border. Create a bed 4 or more feet wide with a curved edge to produce the most natural look. Note the light throughout the day to determine if your site is sunny, shady or a combination of sun and shade. There are perennials that can thrive in sun or shade, or a mixture of the two.

Add any soil amendments needed, such as compost or manure. Make sure that the soil is loose and well-drained by turning it with a shovel, breaking apart any clumps and removing large rocks and clay.

Select a colour scheme for the border. Start with two or three different colours to maintain repetition and a natural feel throughout the bed. Choose complimentary colours, such as reds and blues, or purple and yellow. Look through books, at neighbours' gardens or at your local nursery to find plants that have flowers in those colours.

Choose plants that flower at various times of year. When you purchase plants at a nursery, it is tempting to buy only plants with beautiful blooms. But once those plants have finished blooming, your garden will no longer be colourful. Buy plants with staggered bloom times, such as tulip bulbs for early spring blooms, irises for late spring blooms, and coneflower or daisies for later summer blooms, keeping the colour palette similar.

Select plants that have contrasting leaf colour and texture for added interest. Dissected leaves, such as those of ferns, look nice against broad or round leaves, such as leaves of lily plants. Vary the height of the plants so that low-growing plants are visible in the front of the bed, taller shrubs and grasses are in the middle (or back, if the border is against the front of a structure), and the tallest plants are toward the back of the border. Trees and larger shrubs look attractive toward the middle, and slightly off-centre. Be sure to choose some shrubs or grasses that lend winter interest, such as dogwoods, which have colourful bark.

Lay the plants out before you start planting. Set them up in the bed until they look natural, and you like the arrangement. Put some similar plants in clumps, the way they might grow in nature. Plant at least three to five plants of each different species in each border. Repeat some of the plantings throughout the border to create a pattern. Space the plants apart at least 2 to 3 feet, giving them room to fill out over the course of three years. Be patient.

Maintain your perennial bed with care the first year, to ensure healthy plants in the future. Weed often so that other plants do not take up precious nutrients from the soil and invade the bed. Soak the new plants often; do not let the soil dry out. Mulch around the plants with wood chips to help suppress weeds and keep the soil moist.

Things You'll Need

  • Shovel
  • Twine or hose
  • Compost
  • Plant resource guide
  • Perennial plants
  • Mulch
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About the Author

Otehlia Cassidy has been writing for 13 years. She has had her work published in various publications including the Yellow Springs News, and the East Emerson Neighborhood Association newsletter, and has a forthcoming article appearing in “Wisconsin Woman” (Feb. 2010). Otehlia received her master’s degree in Conservation Biology from University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also writes about travel and culinary adventures in her food blog.