Perennial Gardens: How Do I Design My Own Garden?

While you are sourcing basic plant stock, begin planning out the garden that you might like. There are a few straightforward questions first. What are your favorite colors? How big is the garden? More importantly, what zones and light will you have to work with? These answers tend to narrow the very large field a bit, and if you’ve got reliable books, should give you an idea of what will and won’t work.

Zoning requirements are very important. Every plant has a range of climate that it feels comfortable in, and while for the most part local nurseries tend to sell stock that’s hardy within that climate, it isn’t always the way. Also, when you start to shop for specialty items, you may be shopping by mail or net from localities not nearly similar to yours. You need to know where you are.

Grab some pencil-crayons and paper. Draw an outline of your property, and the shape of the garden that you want to work with. Unless the architecture of the whole is so structured that it really needs straight lines, try to choose relaxed curves for an outline. Curved shapes have generally a more friendly feel and accommodate the chaos of natural growth more forgivingly. Bear in mind that perennial gardens need quite a bit of width, at least 3 to 4 feet in order to accommodate several different types of plant.

Most perennials are in bloom for just a few weeks in a year, so you’ll want to combine more than one type of plant within a depth of field. Next, take a look at the light in this area, is there shade from a tree, fence or house that you’ll need to take into account? Describe and lightly color in these areas in grey. Define with different colors any other significant areas that you are aware of, areas by gutters that get damp, areas under trees that are dry in addition to being shady. Then get a piece of clear plastic and washable type markers, and place that over this page. Start roughing out the garden’s basic shape on this plastic. You can use different colors of marker to signify the different colors of plants. In most cases plants look better in groups rather than individual specimens, (one single lily is good for a vase, and not a garden) so you should be prepared to plan out sweeps of a particular kind of perennial.

The size of that sweep will vary, but the average-sized garden likes groups of 3 to 5 of one kind of plant. I have a bad tendency to want to get one of everything planted at home, I am the type of obsessive gardener that falls into the “collector” category but I know objectively that the garden looks better with areas that are mostly massed. Massing makes the garden look and feel years more mature, too. Another common mistake that I know well is the desire to plant those showy full sun types in areas that you know are risky for light. Eventually dying plants get depressing, and you begin also to see there really is an honest perennial that you will love for every application.

Shape the scheme of the garden as you go along. Taller plants should go to the back, and you can build to crescendos (waves of height), to build continuity. Bear in mind that the heights given on the plant tags can be really rough, and sometimes even laughable. It’s a good idea to make the differences of heights between taller and shorter plants no less than 12 “. If errors in heights do occur, you can move things later. Double check that you’ve got the shade/sun requirements right.

Next, take a strong colored marker and mark a basic “Sp.” (for spring), “Sum.”(for summer), and “F” (for fall), and review your sketch while trying to mix up those all over, so that you don’t have an area devoid of color for a season .

By the time you’ve done this, you’ll have a headache and the basics for a very good perennial garden. I know that there are many other variables that can be considered when designing a garden. As you get used to gardening, you’ll tend to see your foliage more, and start to rearrange or add some plants according to how their leaves look together. Eventually, too, you’ll see that even if two plants have the same height, they often have big differences in their mass. Some are long and lean, others bulky, and yet others ferny and airy. It’s nice to contrast these different elements, and so I’d advise to leave space as you go along. You can easily combine annuals into any bare spots that are awaiting inspiration. Although nearly all of your perennials can be moved, you don’t want to have to start throwing things away just because you have a new idea and no more room.

Also, we’ve not looked at incorporating bulbs into the area yet, but that can wait. These other variables are part of the finer art of planting, and can for the most part be addressed later, as your interest might warrant. For now, you’ve got the start of something good.