Planning Your Perennial Border

Dianthus the pinks

The wise gardener plans a basic perennial border which will give continuous bloom throughout the season and little work in years to come

Your garden, first of all, should be an expression of yourself.

It’s a good idea to study the fundamental rules of landscape architecture and to consult authorities for good garden practices, but insert your own ideas, your own taste in design and plant material even if you learn by the trial-and-error method.

A well-planned perennial border will provide continuous bloom throughout the growing season. A perennial planting is a permanent planting. Once it has become established, a beautiful garden will grow each spring with little effort on your part.

When a perennial border is planned. first consideration should be given to location. In my own case the border is planted against a background of flowering shrubs on the north and east sides of the property. These shrubs include lilac, crabapple, forsythia and spires. Not only do they provide privacy from the road and adjacent properties, but they act as a screen against prevailing winds and furnish a brilliant show of color in early spring. Here and there pillar roses are interspersed to continue background color throughout the summer and fall.

For even greater beauty the basic perennial border can be augmented with bulbs for added interest in early spring, annuals for variety and color during the summer and chrysanthemums for fall splendor. Once the basic planting is established, replacements can easily be manipulated and current novelties added.

A perennial border may be anywhere from 3 to 6 feet in depth, although the narrower border is considerably easier to tend. It is a good idea to make a rough plan before any plants are ordered; many nurseries offer such plans as guides to their customers. Do not completely fill the border the first year, but rather leave ample room for the growth of the plants and for the addition of new varieties. A good rule-of-thumb is one and a half plants per square foot of area.

Careful consideration must be given to the color, height and blooming season of each plant in order to establish a harmonious succession of bloom. Most catalogs contain complete descriptions of all varieties they offer, and many books and magazines supplement this information.

A perennial border should be divided into three distinct sections front, middle and rear areas.

The front border should contain plants which do not attain a height of much more than a foot at maturity. The middle border should have 1- to 3-foot range and the rear border should include plants which exceed 3 feet when fully grown.

There is a wealth of material for the front section, including such favorites as violas in all shades, sweet william Dianthus, iberis, alyssum and primroses, whose yellows and reds have long been harbingers of spring. For fall coloring, don’t forget the dwarfs like aster flowers. Low plants which tolerate shade include Brunnera macrophylla (Anchusa myosotidiflora), the, true forget-me-not, creeping Ajuga reptans (bugle-flower) and Japanese anemones, which actually fare best under the shade of trees.

Middle Border

Phlox, poppies and peonies are outstanding contributions for the middle borders, as they offer a wide color range and a lengthy succession of bloom. Phlox varieties with a lustrous or continuous white bloom. Poppies provide brilliant splashes of color, while veronica commonly called speedwell, flower from July to September. Stokesia and Shasta daisy make a pleasing combination. Among the earliest varieties in this height range which tolerate shade are the old-fashioned dicentra (bleeding-heart), which can be followed by pyrethrum, or painted daisy, an excellent cut flower, Lilium canadense (meadow lily) and Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower). Such a grouping would provide a wide range of color, texture and blooming season.

Butterfly bush

Among the taller plants suggested for the rear border are delphiniums, whose deep purples, rich blues, white and pinks will appear in June and July and again in September. Lilium candidum (Madonna lily) is a natural companion of delphinium and Lilium testaceum (Nankeen lily) an excellent foil for the deep purple hybrids.

Butterfly bush – Buddleia Fortune or Flaming Violet will supply June and July color and are tolerant of semishade. Digitalis, or foxglove, offers a variety of color, while peony can provide early bloom. Gypsophila (baby’s-breath) and Liatris scariosa can be used to blend the colors.

A ruffled hollyhock will add notes of color to the background. Aconitum (monkshood) and Lilium henryi make an excellent combination in this section.

As the season progresses and the first lush blooms of summer have passed, it is advisable to plan the addition of annuals to provide an added wealth of bloom and color. The fragrance and deep rich purple of heliotrope is a must, and Peppermint Stick verbena is a striking addition.

Other annuals of great value include varieties of ageratum, petunias, zinnias and marigolds. For a heavenly fragrance known to attract hum. mingbirds, plant nicotiana (flowering tobacco), which brings a wealth of color through the long summer evenings. Digitalis, campanulas and delphinium should be started in seed frames outdoors in late July and August, so that young seedlings will be ready to set out in the border in early fall.


Chrysanthemums are a must in every perennial border. They may be grown directly in the middle section or in pots in the coldframe and brought to the border in late summer to fill in bare spots caused by the dying back of spring-blooming material.

Their variety is myriad and serve as excellent edging plants and are in bloom from July to frost. Among the northland daisies, which are exceptionally hardy, will give a profusion of cut flowers through September and October. Each year many excellent new hardy chrysanthemums are introduced.

While most perennials grow best in full sun and rich, loamy soil, these conditions do not always exist. Many gardeners are troubled by extremely dry, sunny places. In such areas Dianthus plumarina (hardy garden carnation), Alyssum saxatile (rock madwort) and nepeta (ground ivy) will thrive all spring, while gaillardia will give you plenty of midsummer cut flowers. Poor soil conditions can be improved by the addition of humus.

In low, moist spots. Japanese iris, with their rich purples, royal blues and pure whites, are the perfect plants. Trollius (globe flower) and spires (astilbe) will thrive equally well in moist or normal conditions.

For Dry Places

After the blooming season has passed in the fall, the tops of all plants should be cut and burned, as they may harbor disease and insects. When clumps of perennials become too large and overgrown they should be lifted and divided. This will be necessary every few years.

Spring-blooming varieties can be divided in the fall and the fall-blooming varieties in early spring.

Perennial beds may be mulched with oak leaves, straw, salt hay or buckwheat hulls for winter protection. The mulch should be applied after the first thorough freeze and removed very early in the spring. If buckwheat hulls are used it is not necessary to remove them, for they will serve to keep down weeds.

Give your garden good care, but above all, enjoy it! You can with perennials.

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