How to plan a truly successful flower border

January 10th, 2021
Posted In: Garden trends & design

The start of the year is a good time to plan a flower border.

So I’ve asked three brilliant garden designers – Lee Burkill of Garden Ninja, Jack Wallington and Posy Gentles – for their top border tips.

There are five basic ingredients to a flower border. They are trees. shrubs, bulbs, perennials and annuals.

Professional garden borders

These beautiful borders come from two professional gardens, both open to the public. The top is the double border at Gravetye Manor and the border above is at Doddington Place Gardens. Visiting professional gardens really helps improve your understanding of gardening and it’s inspiring, too. But don’t feel that your garden needs to look this good – these borders are the equivalent of the Paris fashion shows.

The five key elements of a successful flower border

The five elements of a good flower border are a tree, shrubs, perennials, annuals (or biennials) and bulbs.

Perennials are plants that stay in the border for 2+ years. Some are evergreen but many die down in winter, to re-emerge in spring. Find out more about perennials and what they can do for your garden here.

Annuals are plants that germinate, flower, set seed and die within one year, and biennials do the same in two. These are often called ‘bedding plants’ and are very useful for filling gaps.

Bulbs are plants that store all the energy and nutrition they need for a year’s flowering in an underground storage unit called a ‘bulb’. They, too, disappear underground around 6-8 weeks after flowering, leaving space for you to plant another flowering plant. Spring bulbs include daffodils and tulips, in summer you have lilies and in autumn, there are nerines. There’s more about how to plan spring bulbs here.

Some plants are similar to bulbs and are grown from tubers or rhizomes. These are generally considered perennials.  They include alstroemerias, cannas and dahlias. 

Award-winning plant grower Rosy Hardy has tips on how to choose the best plants for your border here.

Every garden needs at least one tree

Could you add a small tree to your border? Do you have enough trees in your garden?

Trees offer vertical interest in your garden. By taking the eye upward, it takes longer to see the whole garden. So the garden seems more interesting and can even feel bigger.

Trees can also offer year round evergreen interest or blossom in spring and good autumn colour. Both add important elements to your garden.

Start planning your border with shrubs…

Shrubs have fallen out of favour in gardens over the past few years. They are small or medium-sized plants with woody stems that stay above ground all the year round. Some shrubs can grow into trees, and some small trees can be used as shrubs.

Posy Gentles suggests starting your border plans with shrubs. If you’re planning a new border from scratch, consider using a shrub or shrubs as a central point or points in the border. Then arrange perennials, bulbs and annuals around them.

Use shrubs as an anchor plant

This distinctive shrub in the foreground of Posy’s garden is Cryptomeria japonica. It provides a focal point, plus year round interest, and is an anchor to other plants in the border.

As well as designing gardens, Posy often renovates flower borders for clients. She is called in when people feel that their borders are getting boring or overgrown.  So she’ll look at a border and see what elements can stay – which plants should be pruned and which should go. And then she builds up a border with colour, impact and style around

‘Shrubs have been somewhat forgotten in garden design over the past few years,’ she says. ‘But they are a very valuable element in the border. Shrubs give you long-lasting interest in the garden.’

If you choose one or more spring flowering shrubs – such as weigela or philadelphus – then you will prune them immediately after flowering, in late spring. That clears some space around the shrub for later flowering perennials such as persicaria or asters.

Hebes and euphorbia with bulbs

Globe-shaped hebes and euphorbia wulfennii (the citrus green shrub at the back) in Doddington Place Gardens with bulbs in spring.

And at the other end of the spectrum, you can add late season flowering shrubs, such as hydrangeas. These will start flowering when your summer flowers, such as lupins, foxgloves or verbascum have gone over.

Shrubs add structure and texture. ‘And they give you some interest in winter. Evergreen shrubs – such as rosemary or hebes – give you shape.’

Lee Burkhill also recommends shrubs in the mix, such as winter flowering viburnums or deciduous spirea.

‘Even deciduous shrubs add to the winter garden,’ says Posy, who loves the elegant structure of bare stems.

What to do with overgrown shrubs in your border

Whether your own borders have got over-grown or you’ve just moved into a house where the garden has been neglected, the chances are that there is a shrub that has got too big. It’s blocking out the light or taking up too much space.

‘Thin out one in five stems from the bottom,’ advises Posy. This will create more space around the shrub’s base for other planting, such as bulbs, perennials or annuals.

Or if the shrub has a good shape, you can ‘lift’ it by removing the lower branches. This also creates more light and some interesting shapes.

Trees and shrubs in flower borders

Thin out established shrubs to make them more airy. This multi-stemmed shrub in the Hillier garden at the Chelsea Flower Show shows how bare lower stems on trees and shrubs can create space for planting below.

Or the shrub may have to go entirely. Posy often moves shrubs in her own garden. ‘It may not survive if it’s moved,’ she says. ‘But if it does, you’ve got a free plant in a better place. And if it dies, you were going to get rid of it anyway.’

Plan your colour scheme before you go shopping…

Garden designer Lee Burkhill also offers garden design advice via his blog and YouTube channel. His tip is to plan your colours before going to the nursery or garden centre. ‘If you just pick up the colours you like or your favourite plants in the garden centre, your flower border can all turn out looking a bit like a pick-and-mix sweet counter,’ he says.

Lee Burkhill

Award-winning garden designer Lee Burkhill of Garden Ninja garden design, blog and YouTube channel.

‘Go either monochromatic – pick one colour but use lots of different hues and shades of that colour.

Monochromatic planting colours

A ‘monochromatic’ colour scheme – this one is in Posy Gentles’ garden. A range of different pink shades from deep pink snapdragons to mid pink roses and pale pink astrantia.

Or go for dramatic contrast, such as yellow rudbeckia with purple penstemon.’

Red, white and silver flower border

The impact of this border is created by high contrast – it’s a theme of red, white and silver. See more of this garden in How to Plant on a Slope.

Of course, the way you want your garden to be is entirely personal. For a brilliant border created by Frances and Paul Moscovits who don’t prioritise colour schemes when planting, see this post on how to make a herbaceous border look amazing. But it’s worth saying that Frances and Paul are now quite expert gardeners. If you’re starting out, having a colour scheme will make choosing plants much easier.

Include pattern in your flower border…

Garden designer Jack Wallington’s latest book is The Gardener’s Book of Patterns (RHS). Pattern is rarely talked about, but it’s an essential element of garden design. He describes pattern as ‘rhythm or repetition of shape, line or colour.’

The Gardeners Book of Patterns

Look at pattern in your garden. The Gardener’s Book of Patterns by Jack Wallington is for both professional garden designers and amateurs who want to design their own gardens.

‘As a garden designer, I use pattern in designing a border as much as I do colour or shape.’

‘Some plants are themselves patterned,’ he says. Their shape or the shape of their leaves is distinctive – almost geometric. So think about leaf shape and the shape of the plant as a whole. Some plants have a very distinctive shape – such as cannas or banana palms. They add pattern to a border

He also mentions plants with variegated leaves. Variegated leaves haven’t been fashionable until recently, but people are getting much more interested in them so consider what an element of variegation can do for your border.

I really recommend The Gardeners Book of Patterns to give you an insight into a different way of thinking about your garden. Then go outside and look at your own garden. You’ve probably included pattern without realising it. Or if there’s an area you’re not happy with, then it may be because there isn’t enough pattern in it.

Use repetition to create pattern in a flower border…

Jack suggests using repetition to create a successful flower border. You can use repetition in two ways. Either repeat the same group of plants in different parts of the border.

Or repeat the same group of plants but change their order slightly, ‘which can look more natural or relaxed.’

Or you can use the same plants dotted around a border. ‘Your eye will unconsciously detect a pattern there, and it’ll be the kind of pattern you see in nature, but it’s not a formal pattern.’

Flower border at Pettifers Oxfordshire

An excellent use of repetition in Pettifers in Oxfordshire. It’s also a superb use of pattern as well – look at the contrast between the larger leaves and the smaller ones and the distinctive pom-pom heads of the purple alliums.

Pay attention to how big the plants will grow and what space they need

Lee Burkhill says that if you cram plants in so that your flower border looks full almost immediately, then plants won’t grow properly. The vigorous ones will out-compete the less vigorous ones, and you may end up with a mess.

‘Plant for the ultimate height and growth I expect plants to achieve in a year or two, not what they look like now.’

There are more very useful tips on how you can physically plant a border like a pro here. And also some advice from head gardener and garden writer Tom Brown at West Dean on how to create stunning borders here.

Don’t try to plan the whole border at once…

Posy suggests planning your main planting, and then filling in gaps as the season goes on. ‘You can add colour where you need it with annual bedding, and you can buy really good annuals these days.’

Annuals and perennials in an exotic garden

A mix of annual cleome (the pink flowers) and ricinus (red ball-like flowers) with perennial persicaria (in foreground) and hedychium (yellow) , perennials at the Salutation Gardens (now closed), designed by Steven Edney.

Annuals are plants which germinate, flower and go to seed all in one year. If you grow them from seed, they’re a very cheap way of filling a flower border. And they’re not expensive to buy as young plants either. Popular annuals include cleomes, cosmos, poppies, marigolds, zinnias and snapdragons.  They flower over a long period and are very pretty.

Some annuals will self-seed in your borders, popping up year after year. You can either weed them out or leave them to fill gaps. There’s more about 25 top self-seeding plants here.

See more of the gardens in video

You can hear what the designers have to say and see more of the featured gardens in this video on how to plan a border.

Get a garden designer to design your border…

Many people call in a garden designer to deal with just one part of the garden, such as a border or borders. For example, Posy Gentles does online and in person consultations, planting plans and advice for borders as well as for whole gardens. She works around London, Kent and Southern England.

And Lee at Garden Ninja offers a one hour online consultation for ‘trouble shooting and garden design issues’. He specialises in small gardens (or ‘awkward gardens’!) in the North West of England, around the Manchester/Cheshire area. He also runs the Garden Ninja blog to ‘help get newbies into gardening.’

However Jack Wallington only designs complete gardens, as do many of the garden designers I checked out on the Society of Garden Designers ‘Find a Garden Designer’ service. Jack specialises in contemporary gardens, with an emphasis on structured but naturalistic planting, sustainability and wildlife

I think the best way of finding a garden designer who can do just one element of your garden is to put ‘garden designer near me’ into a search engine, then check the individual websites. You’ll get an idea of whose style you like from the websites.

Shop my favourite gardening books, products and tools

I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve put together lists of the gardening books, tools and products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, so I may get a small fee if you buy, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. And I only recommend things that I buy or use myself, or which have been reliably recommended to me.

Pin to remember flower border planting tips

And do join us for more gardening tips, ideas and inspiration every Sunday morning.

How to create a beautiful flower border

10 comments on "How to plan a truly successful flower border"

  1. Daphne says:

    Hello Alexandra,

    Would you please be able to tell me which variety of Cryptomeria Japonica that is in Posy’s garden?

    1. I’m really sorry – I don’t know. However, this photo was taken a few years ago and she is now finding that it has got too big so she is thinking of taking it out.

  2. Isobel Reid says:

    Great article, thank you, especially the advice that you shouldn’t feel the need to fill every inch of a new border from the start. This is the mistake I made last year. I’m going to use these bad weather months to redesign!

    1. Thank you! The weather has been dreadful, I agree.

  3. Marcel says:

    I have a raised patio out the back of my garden and was looking for ideas how to decorate it. After reading this post I’m thinking of putting in a flower border on the front. :) Many thanks!

    1. Thank you. I’m sorry that I’ve had to remove the link to your website, we’ve had to do this widely in comments as it was being misused.

  4. Jackie says:

    This article is full of ideas for the amateur designer such as myself. I have a new garden to design on a former cow pasture . This article had given me confidence that my new garden will have the X factor in time . Thank you

    1. Thank you. How exciting to have a new garden to plan and plant.

  5. Anne says:

    Timely advice as I have a couple of Xmas gift vouchers I’m itching to use! I’ll spend some more time just looking and planning.

    1. Enjoy your planning! I’m still re-reading catalogues too.

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