Design tips: Living on the edge

Updated Nov 5, 2019

Shutterstock 34536667How to make border plants the stars of any garden design

In the big picture of landscape design, border plants often steal the show despite being assigned a supporting role.

The woody plants may be the bulk of the garden, but choosing borders to complement and contrast them is often the part of the project that landscape designers like best.

1. Maintenance and sustainability

While you should consider the obvious elements like size, shape and color when selecting border plants, there are several other critical components that should influence your choice.

“My first question to a client is how much time and effort they are willing to commit to maintenance,” says Ann Hildner, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Ball State University. “We also talk about sustainability. Public landscaping is going more in the direction of perennials and compositions of plants compatible with each other that can live in a self-sustaining community.”

To determine compatibility, look at the plant’s competitive nature, Hildner says. “It’s always sort of a battleground (in the landscape). Plants like catmint will just take over, so match up plants that work together.”

Designing under these parameters translates into choosing mainly perennial plants, although Hildner says there is still a place for annuals in the landscape. She likes to use cottage garden annuals like cosmos and flowering tobacco as plug-ins among perennial plants. “Although annuals are more labor-intensive, requiring more frequent watering, effort and cost, they are still great accent plants,” she says.

2. Natural vs. styled

The next step of the selection process involves categorizing your overall design. Do you want a naturalistic look or a stylized look? If you’re unsure, the style of house or building can help determine which look your design should support. Stylized designs result in a patterned look, while the naturalistic design is reflected in the way it drifts.

“For a naturalized look, colors should be subtle,” says Hildner. “Stylized colors, by contrast, feature brighter colors and emphasize shape.”

While you plan, don’t forget winter interest. “Grasses are great, especially in combination with perennials that you don’t have to cut back until early spring, and can leave through the winter to hold the snow and offer that contrasting foliage against the white,” Hildner says. She likes to incorporate Liatris and cone flowers into this type of design.

3. Find your inspiration

Hildner recommends that anyone planning a landscape look for resources to provide not only instruction, but inspiration, too. “Find a resource that can demonstrate what has worked for others and in other landscapes,” she says.

Two of her favorites: Roy Diblik’s Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance Approach offers great advice on planting combinations. Piet Oudolf is known as the father of the “New Perennial Movement” and famous for his new-wave planting style. Specifically, he devotes much of what he writes to the shapes of plants.

Creating your own database of plants and plant combinations that you want to use or have used successfully will go a long way to help your design. Hildner suggests putting together a PowerPoint presentation to show clients your ideas.

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