Plants for small borders

Written by sandy rothra
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Plants for small borders
Periwinkle provides ground cover in shady areas. (periwinkle image by Alison Bowden from

Small borders normally delineate edges of driveways or paths. They may set off patio or seating areas. Larger borders may line a fence. When choosing plants for small borders, you must consider the growing conditions and the amount of maintenance each needs. With the use of several different kinds of plants in your small border, you can vary height and texture and add colour during the growing season.

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Small shrubs

Small shrubs can provide a base for your small border. The "Mops" dwarf mugo pine will stay dense and compact without trimming. It forms a globe shape and only grows 90 cm (3 feet) high. The "Bagatelle" barberry grows upright and reaches only 45 cm (18 inches) high. Its foliage, always deep red, becomes bright-red in the fall. The dwarf Oregon grape holly produces yellow flowers in the spring and edible berries in the summer. It grows only 90 cm (3 feet) high. The true dwarf Norway spruce forms a dense mound, no more than 90 cm (3 feet) high.

Ornamental grasses

Ornamental grasses can serve as accents in your small border. Some do flower during the summer, but they mostly add interest through their varied textures. Japanese forest grass, red switch grass and tall moor grass add coloured autumn foliage. For red foliage throughout the summer, try flame grass, fountain grass or red sedge.


Many perennial flowers prefer sun, but lilies of the valley grow well in shady areas. They bloom in early spring and bright green foliage colours your border the rest of the summer. In the spring, Chinese astilbe shoots up purple spikes above bluish foliage. The astilbe attracts butterflies and small birds. Marigold, sweet williams, pansies and other annuals self seed and, therefore need little care in the spring.

Ground covers

Low ground covers can provide colourful flowers and foliage while unifying the other plants in the small border. They provide living mulch and help prevent weeds from invading the border. Most varieties only grow about 15 cm (6 inches) tall. In sunny locations, lamb's ears produce soft, silvery-green leaves and spiky pink flowers all summer. Shane Smith and Steve Scott of Cheyenne Botanic Gardens describe vinca minor, or periwinkle, as a good ground cover under trees and in shaded areas. In the spring, its blue flowers show up against shiny green leaves.


Herbs add useful plants to your small borders. Lavender, a small shrub, produces aromatic foliage and flowers, often used in arrangements or sachets. Inhaled lavender may have a slight sedative effect. Camomile will form a ground cover in your border and makes a good companion plant for flowering bulbs. Drought tolerant thyme grows well in sunny locations.

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