Wow power

Five simple techniques show you how to mix flowers and foliage for high impact
Kathleen N. Brenzel

If you're new to gardening, planting a flower border may seem intimidating ― a job best left to professionals with lots of experience.

The truth is that even seasoned gardeners sometimes struggle with plant selection and placement before getting it right.

And here's the good news: Like any other task, creating a border isn't difficult if you break it down into a few simple elements ― curves, lace, accents, layers, and color echoes.

Photos: Inspiring border designs

Once you do this, you'll discover that borders don't have to be large or complex to have visual impact; just four or five well-chosen plants can work wonders in these beds designed to be seen from one side.

You'll realize that drifts of plants don't need to include lots of colorful flowers to attract attention; even foliage plants can weave a tapestry if you select varieties in compatible colors but differing textures and shapes.

For example, hostas with big, blue oval leaves really shine above mounding, fine-leafed grasses such as 'Frosty Curls' New Zealand hair sedge or 'Elijah Blue' fescue. And yellow gloriosa daisies with brown button centers look right at home beside Japanese barberry with chocolate-colored leaves.

Ready to try? A forgotten corner of the backyard or a small bare spot beside a garden path might be just the place to start.

April is one of the best months of the year to visit nurseries and choose plants that go well together (try mixing and matching them on your nursery cart).

Sun, shade, and soil

Before you plant anything, check out the site you have in mind for your border, especially its exposure and soil. Both, as well as your region's climate, will determine the kind of plants to choose.

For a day or two, watch how the sun passes over that part of your property. Does the site get light shade all day because of shadows cast by trees or walls? Partial shade (sun until noon, shade in the afternoon, for example)? Or does it get full sun all day long? Select plants to match the exposure; the photos above show two ways to go.

If your soil is very heavy clay and drains poorly, you might want to build a raised bed. Or choose native plants that are adapted to the soil in your region.

To improve sandy or regular soil, cover the border area with 2 to 4 inches of compost. Use a spade or rotary tiller to work it into the soil, then level with a rake.

Flowers, foliage, or both

Before heading to the nursery, pick a color theme, whether tried-and-true hues such as green; cool colors like blues and lavenders; or simple contrasts like yellow with blue, or red with white. Then choose flowering and foliage plants that carry out the scheme. Since flowers come and go, plan to incorporate some small evergreen shrubs to give structure to the border from season to season and provide foils for flowers.

If you're feeling exuberant, go for flashy combos such as hot pink million bells and orange Asiatic lilies with lime green-leafed 'Pretoria' canna and a fringe of chartreuse 'Angelina' sedum.

Key ingredients of a great border

Curves. Curving borders, like the one in Ralph Hasting's Whidbey Island, Washington, garden, are more interesting ― and more complementary with casual landscapes ― than straight-edged ones. Before planting, put down a rope or hose, and adjust it until you form a pleasing design. If your border space is straight ― as along a driveway or in a curb strip ― soften its edges by clustering low plants there that billow and ramble.

Lace. Small-flowered plants such as asters, coral bells, nemesia, and yarrow are great fillers. Plant them in drifts between larger-flowered ones. To edge your border, use low, mounding plants such as creeping zinnia, curly sedge, lamb's ears, 'Lime' thyme, Santa Barbara daisy, sweet alyssum, or ― in shade ― Lamium maculatum or Semperflorens begonias.

Accents. To give the border visual punch, cluster a few plants whose flowers are bigger or of a deeper color than the surrounding plants. Also, plants that have unusual foliage, such as the burgundy-leafed rhododendron shown above, make dramatic accents, as do clusters of candle delphiniums and ornamental grasses such as purple fountain grass. Or tuck a hefty Tuscan urn or a birdbath among plants.

Layers. Arrange plants by height, from lowest ones in front to tallest ones in back. Space plants close together so their "shoulders" will touch when they're grown. Make sure to include backbone plants to give the border some structure in winter ― small evergreen shrubs, perennials, grasses, or dwarf conifers, for instance. If space allows, add plants for seasonal interest, such as bulbs and shrubby Japanese maples.

Color echoes. A cohesive border has a primary color theme ― pastels, for instance, or sunny yellows and blue. These colors repeat throughout the design. Plant in clusters or drifts, by plant type, or by flower and foliage color. When choosing your plants, keep in mind the colors of the house, as well as paving, fences, and walls.