A flowery border is a time-tested way to bring colour and vibrancy to any garden, and choosing the right plants can keep this excitement going year-round.
With so many flowers available though, it can be hard to know where to start. Which plants are best for borders – and in which combination? How do you choose plants that complement rather than compete with each other?
We’ve written this guide to answer these questions and many more, and to help you get the most out of planting a flower border in your garden.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What garden border planting is.
- The difference between garden edging and borders.
- How to design and plant garden borders.
- The best plants for garden borders.
- How to make sure your border plants have the best chance to thrive.
After reading you’ll have all the information you need to design and plant a beautiful border in your garden!
What is garden border planting?
The distinction between garden edging and garden borders can be confusing, so we’ll start with a quick clarification:
While edging is used to separate different parts of your garden – paths and lawns, for example – a garden border refers to the line running around the edge of your garden as a whole.
(If you’ve come to the wrong place and you’re actually looking for garden edging options, check out our guide to garden edging ideas)
Many people invest special effort into the border of their garden. Because there is nothing behind them except for maybe a fence, full attention can be paid to the plants here: You can work with height, depth, and colour in a way that may not be possible in general flower beds. And the results can be incredible.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, “planning a border is one of the most exciting aspects of gardening.”
That’s high praise, especially considering how vast and varied gardening is as a pastime. But to be honest, we’d be inclined to agree.
A planted border can bring a symphony of shape and colour to your garden that will attract and delight the eye. It is a canvas on which to create a piece of artwork that reflects your personality, style, and skill as a gardener. And done right, it is a key part of landscaping the garden of your dreams.
So how do you do it right..?
How to design and plant a garden border
There are a few stages to this process. Firstly you need to understand the space you have available to work with: The size and shape, soil conditions, sunlight, and so on.
Next, you need to think about the plants you’ll include in your border: how they look individually, the shape and size they grow to, and how they will combine visually with other plants nearby.
Then comes planning the border after you’ve decided which plants to go for. How will you arrange them all so that the visual effect is as stunning as it can possibly be?
Finally comes the physical act of planting your garden border. This is where the blood, sweat, and tears of gardening come in: You’ll be preparing the ground, removing weeds, and giving the plants the TLC they need to become fully established.
If that sounds daunting, don’t worry. We’ve broken the process down into twelve easy steps.
1. Look at the space you have available
Perhaps you have an area in your garden that looks a bit like the photo below. Empty, forlorn, and falling way short of its potential…
While it may not be particularly inspiring in its current form, try to imagine the potential of such a space. This is an important first step: Visualising how planting a border could revitalise this part of your garden. Once you have an image of what to work toward, the prospect of planning and planting becomes a lot more exciting.
2. Choose the right plants
You’re probably wondering, “what are the best plants for a garden border?”
Well, as with everything in gardening, personal preference plays a huge part. Your favourite plants will most likely differ from your neighbours, so there’s only so much advice that can be given on specific species.
The advice that can be given, though, focuses around choosing types of plant that are most likely to bring a garden border to life.
Part of this decision comes down to conditions in your garden. Is your soil acidic or alkaline, for example? And will your garden border spend most of its time in sunlight or shade?
As usual, the RHS has a fantastic resource on the best plants for a garden border. We recommend taking a look if you’re trying to find inspiration for specific plants to include.
Perennials are often favourite for garden borders because once planted, they’ll come back year after year.
3. Factor in flowering times
A great garden border will be in bloom for as much of the year as possible. By choosing plants with staggered flowering times, you can orchestrate different melodies of colour throughout the year.
Spring-flowering plants like snowdrops and tulips can give way to summer-flowering ones like poppies and delphinium. These, in turn, give way to autumn-flowering plants like chrysanthemums and echinacea.
Most herbaceous perennials – like achillea, centaurea, and papaver, to name three of literally hundreds – will die back completely in autumn and winter, which can detract from the vibrancy of your border.
Choosing plants that burst into action in the colder months is a great way to counteract this: Tall grasses and colourful shrubs, for example. Or perhaps a trained tree (more on that later)
Using the right plants in your border lets you maintain colour, texture, and interest for as much of the year as possible.
4. Think about balance
Although there are hundreds of flowers available that can be used to great effect in a garden border, we don’t recommend planting them all out at once!
The most effective and attractive garden borders use a few plants the look particularly good in combination. Whether you decide to base your design around colour – a collection of blue, purple, lavender, and mauve, perhaps – or around a thematic association like wildflowers, working with one idea will often yield better results than trying to combine a few.
The great thing about gardening is that you can change things over time. Plants can be added and removed depending on how the garden border looks – but it will always be easier to add something than to remove it.
If you’re not sure about whether a plant will work, or whether there’ll be enough space for everything once the plants in your border reach full size, why not wait a couple of years and see? Popping a plant into space and letting it grow into an otherwise-established border is a completely acceptable option.
5. Visualise what your border will look like before planting
When you’ve got a shortlist of plants, think about how you want them to look when they’re fully established. While planting willy-nilly will probably look OK, taking care to plant according to a clear vision will give you a better end result.
The key thing to think about here is the flow of your garden border. Ideally you want it to attract attention, and for the eye to be able to follow clear lines along its full length.
Plants grow to different shapes as well as sizes: Some grow into mounds that go inward as they get higher, while others grow outward. Factoring in the eventual shape of plants, as well as the lines they are planted in, gives you a lot of options to work with.
6. Play with height
In the same way that coordinating colour and theme is important in making your garden border aesthetically pleasing, you can also work with height and depth.
The picture below shows how combining low-level flowers like pansies with taller ones like lavender can create a layered effect. Each plant is able to shine to its fullest, and their colours work to complement each other, rather than detracting.
Don’t feel like you’re restricted to two rows of colour, either. The flowers above could easily be backed up by a bush or shrub that lends another colour and texture to the visual palette.
7. Using fencing in garden borders
If your garden borders an open space rather than a neighbour’s garden – or, if you and your neighbour are happy to share a low fence – you can incorporate the fencing into your design.
We just spoke about playing with height: If you’re working with a tall fence, you could consider planting a trained tree to create interest way above the tops of the rest of the plants in your border. This type of tree has its growth restrained and curated, so that the branches and buds are much narrower than they would be otherwise.
A fence can also be integrated more directly into your garden border design. As an example, the picture below shows how the clean white lines of a low fence can interplay with the bright and confident colours of the plants forming the border it is marking:
8. Plant at the right time
When you initially plant your border, you need to do so at the right time of year to ensure the plants have the best chance of thriving.
As a rule, planting between September and March is your best bet. Obviously this will vary between species, so we recommend checking the RHS website for information on specific plants.
If you’re making your garden border plans in the spring, resist the temptation to plant everything out early. Planting in the advised seasons is the best way to ensure the health and ongoing vitality of your plants.
9. Plant in the right conditions
To boost your plants’ chances, add compost to your soil if you’ve not planted here before. Mixing in a couple of buckets per square meter of soil should do the trick, as well as layering a couple of centimetres on top once the planting is done.
This provides the fledgeling plants with the nutrients they need – another vital step in maximising their chances of taking.
10. Get rid of any weeds!
As with all aspects of gardening, weeds can play havoc with a garden border. Before planting, take good care to remove as many weeds as possible from the area you’ll be planting in.
This is probably the most physically demanding step of this process, especially if the area of the garden you’re planting into has been left unattended for a while. If this is the case, stay strong! Clearing established weeds is much harder than removing the odd ones that grow in a clear bed.
11. Keep your plants watered
During their first season, it’s important to stay vigilant and ensure your garden border plants get all the water they need. In the UK, planting between September and March usually guarantees them a thorough rinsing, but should unseasonably dry weather occur, pop outside with a hose or watering can and give a little extra.
12. Maintain your border
Once planted and established, a border needs to be maintained just as much as the rest of your garden. This involves things like deadheading plants after flowering, removing seed-heads to prevent self-seeding and overgrowth, and removing any dead plants.
Keeping an eye on the health of the plants in your garden border will highlight any potential issues they may be having. Taking steps to rectify these will often let you salvage the plants before any permanent damage is done.
Time to get to work…
By investing time and energy, you can turn a garden border into an exciting and vibrant flourish of colour. No longer does this space need to be forgotten and unattended – instead you can create beautiful and eye-catching combinations of flowers to bring this part of your garden to life.
The steps in this guide are designed to break the process of planting an amazing garden border into manageable steps. We’ve covered evaluating the space available, choosing the right plants, combining them for the best visual effect, preparing the ground, and ongoing maintenance.
Now, after reading, you should feel inspired and ready to start designing the perfect border for your garden.
We wish you luck, and we’d love to see how you get on.