Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
March, 2009
Regional Report

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The repetition of evergreens in this border provides order, while giving it a pleasing rhythm and visual cadence.

Build a Better Border

I had to chuckle when Rosemary Alexander, founder and principal of the English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, pointed to a hodgepodge border and called it a "dog's dish." Projected onto a big screen at a horticulture symposium, the offending garden displayed a chaotic jumble of plants in every hue of the rainbow.

It was no laughing matter, however, when I returned home to find my own garden in similar disarray. Overgrown plants had splayed and sprawled, garden thugs had crowed out polite neighbors, and the once harmonizing color scheme had been run amok with impulse plant purchases.

Like most gardeners, I find my enthusiasm for new plants always challenges my desire for cohesive design. Yet, like any other task, creating a stunning border isn't difficult if you keep a few principles in mind.

In the next few days, I plan to dig out the flower border around my front porch, amend the soil, and replant the garden -- balancing elements of order and contrast -- for a more successful outcome.

One of the best ways to establish order is with color. My experience has taught me three easy color combinations, and the advantages of each.

Monochomatic schemes, created with tints and shades of the same color, will unify a space and give a small area more impact. Analogous schemes, such as "hot" combinations of red, orange, and yellow, and "cool" combinations of purple and blue, create a mood of excitement or serenity. Contrasting schemes of colors opposite one another on the color wheel, such as purple and yellow, lend drama, especially when used in conjunction with a focal point.

Order in the border can also be created with "bones," or structural plants that give shape to the garden. As a general rule, a quarter of the plants should maintain their form throughout the year. Shrubs and small trees do this best, and can also be useful in carrying out color schemes. Remember, flowers are fleeting.

Accent plants, with foliage or flowers that are larger or darker in color, also create order by giving the eye a place to rest. For additional punch, clustered several plants together, then repeat the clusters to give the border pleasing rhythm and visual cadence.

Contrast, on the other hand, keeps things interesting. A border of bigleaf hydrangeas would be spectacular when it bloomed in May, but dull as dishwater the rest of the year. Selecting plants with different forms, textures, and bloom times will ensure year-round beauty.

Look for some plants that are tall and erect, some that are round or weeping, and some that hug the ground. Then layer the plants, arranging them by height, with the lowest in front and the tallest in back. But, be sure and make an exception or two, introducing an element of surprise and breaking the monotony of pattern.

Too often, borders are filled with plants with small or medium textured foliage. For extra zing, add plants with big leaves, such as cannas or caladiums.

Another common mistake is to focus on a single season, usually summer. Allow the border to evolve with plants that bloom throughout the year, from spring bulbs to fall grasses. Add to longevity of the display by choosing plants with multi-season interest whenever possible.

What does this mean in my own garden?

I'll be reviving and refining a hot pink and bold yellow color scheme, accented with burgundy and chartreuse foliage. In time, the variegated leaves of canna will tower over rounded mounds of multi-hued lantana and clumps of pink cone flowers, while golden creeping oregano and 'Ace of Spades' potato vine creep over the ground.

Flanked by evergreen shrubs, spring-flowering daffodils will give way to crinum lilies and summer perennials. Late season interest will created by burgundy spears of New Zealand flax mixing among colorful sun coleus, and the vibrant blooms of dahlias and salvias.

And all those extra plants? They'll either find a more appropriate home in the garden, or be potted and sold at the Master Gardener's spring plant sale.

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