Designing your first flower bed can be a daunting process. You probably know where you want it, but how big should it be? What should you plant in it that won’t die? How can you keep everything as low maintenance as possible so you don’t have to spend the whole summer weeding? And how much is this thing going to cost?
I’m going to walk you through the process of selecting a location for your flower bed, preparing the soil, picking plants, and finishing it off so it’s as low maintenance as possible.
A few disclaimers before we start–I garden in zone 3b in the Canadian Prairies, so my flower selections are going to reflect that. My choices should work well in zones 2-8, but there may be other flowers that would work better or are more common in your area.
It’s also impossible for someone on the internet to know exactly how much light your yard gets or the exact number of plants you should buy for your particular space. While I do my best to give you advice that should work, use your common sense. There’s no shame in having to buy an extra perennial or two after the fact, or moving a plant somewhere else next year because it didn’t work the way you thought it would.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get planning!
Deciding on Where to Plant Your Flower Bed
There’s not too many rules when it comes to where a flower bed will do best. You’ll have more plants to choose from if you choose a sunnier spot, but basically you can find perennial flowers for both shady and sunny situations.
Wherever you choose to put your flower bed, you’ll want to make sure your soil has a fresh layer of compost and manure to give your new plants the best possible start.
If you’re planting new flowers in an existing, overgrown flowerbed, you’ll have to weed and remove the unwanted perennials first before you dig in and add new ones. You want to give the new perennials the least amount of competition possible so they can establish good roots and get the nutrients. (Weeds are greedy when it comes to soil nutrients.)
Starting completely from scratch? Rototill the area in question, add soil, and get started, or lay cardboard over the area with a thick layer of soil overtop. (The cardboard method works best if you do it in the fall and plant in the spring, but it can be done in spring with a spring planting.)
Guidelines for Choosing the Best Flowers for Your Space
While you can put a flower bed almost anywhere, you need to know a few things about the area you’ve selected so you can pick the best plants possible. Here’s a few questions to ask yourself:
- How much light does the area get? (Hint: Full sun=6 or more hours, Part Sun/Part Shade=3-6 hours, and Shade=3 hours or less.)
- Is the soil acidic, basic, or neutral? You can easily test with a home soil test kit to find out. If your flower bed is planned for underneath a coniferous tree, you can guarantee the soil is acidic.
- How much moisture does the area get? Some spots in your yard will be dryer than others.
- Have I picked an area with any special considerations, like intense heat or lots of wind? For example, tall flowers like delphiniums would need staking if the flower bed in question had no protection from harsh winds.
By knowing the answers to these questions, you can research the best flowers for your situation and buy the plants that are actually going to work. Here’s a couple of guides I’ve written to help you pick your perennials:
- 53 Favourite Perennials
- 28 Nightmare Perennials you Want to Avoid
- 50 More Perennials You’ll Regret Planting
- 36 Best Flowers for a Cut Flower Garden
- 14 Flowers for Companion Planting
- 17 Perennial Flowers that Love the Shade
- 30+ Plants for Underneath a Tree
A Few Design Rules for Which Flower Should Go Where
Designing a flower bed doesn’t have to be an impossible task. It’s kind of like composing a group photo. Tall people in the back, short people in the front. Lines will work, but it looks more natural if everyone is in clumps. Finally, make sure that the colours of everyone’s clothes don’t clash.
In terms of flowers, this means that the taller ones go in the back, bushy ones in the middle, and shorter ones and ground cover at the front. Arrange your flowers in clumps instead of lines.
However, there can be clumps within the lines–it’s just single lines of flowers that look a bit ridiculous. But in the end it’s your flower bed, do what you like.
Finally, be aware of the colours of all your flowers–or not. I’m one of those impulsive people who plants whatever I want regardless of the colour. I just want to try as many things as possible. If I wasn’t constantly experimenting, I would pick three colours for my flowerbed and try to generally stick to that colour scheme for a more cohesive look.
For Best Results, add Mulch
Beginner gardeners often make a flower bed with high hopes in the spring, then are crushed to discover by summer that everything is a weedy-mess-struggle-garden.
Save yourself a ton of work and surround your perennials with a healthy amount of mulch. Yes, it’s more work and it costs extra money, but it’s so worth it to be able to actually enjoy your summer and your flowers, instead of spending it weeding or feeling guilty about not weeding.
Fill in Spaces With Annuals
Beginner gardeners are also disappointed to discover that it takes a lot more flowers to fill up a space than they bargained for. While you’re waiting for those perennial flowers to fill out, add in some annual flowers for season-long colour. Here’s 22 picks for shady spots. I haven’t written about sunny spots because, let’s face it, if you planted in a sunny location the world is pretty much your oyster.
Realistic Expectations for Your Flower Bed
Have you ever heard the saying about perennials, “First year sleep, Second year creep, Third year leap?”
There’s profound wisdom in this statement.
Your flower bed is likely not going to look the way you imagined it in its first year of growing–especially if you used smaller perennial plants. In fact, it won’t look much better in year two.
However, don’t give up!!
In the third year, your perennials should get to a more mature size, and your flower bed will start to look the way you envisioned. By year five, those perennials will likely have started to multiply, creating a lovely, full flower bed.
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Are you planning a flower bed this year? Tell me about it in the comments!
Kristen is a former farm kid turned urban gardener who owns the popular gardening website, Shifting Roots. She is obsessed with growing flowers and pushing the limits of what can be grown in her zone 3b garden. She also loves to grow tomatoes, but oddly enough, dislikes eating them raw.