Flower Bed Design
How to Design with Plants

Flower Bed Design

Learn how to design with plants.

Think about plants in terms of shape, texture, color and position in your border and garden design.

How to group plants... Where to put a focal point....?

Plants are essential to any garden design. They can form part of the garden structure and framework (for more about planting as structure click here...).

flower bed design - garden to a house, designed with shrubs and trees with strong structure

They can also be used more 'cosmetically' as 'infill planting' to bring:

  • interest
  • color
  • texture
  • movement
  • vitality
...into your landscape designs.

Planting should be one of the last things you consider, after your main structure and layout (more about these earlier stages of the design process here...)

You should also plan your structural planting framework early on, too - to make sure that your garden has a decent long term and all season structure, before you put in your smaller and/or more temporary plants.

For most people, planting won't be a one-off task...

...once you get into gardening, and planning a garden, choosing plants, and adding to and improving your basic garden design can be a very enjoyable past-time.

I love browsing for plants, and often I just can't resist an impulsive purchase which I just 'must-have' for my garden!

You can use the ideas on these planting pages whether your garden will be planned meticulously on paper, to every last plant and seed - or whether you take a longer term and more 'organic' approach to choosing plants and designing your garden, adding plants as and when a particular one takes your fancy...

...or perhaps you're somewhere in between! It doesn't matter, go with whichever planting personality suits you - the plant and flower bed design ideas which follow will all still be relevant and useful.

When choosing plants for your shrub and flower garden designs, don't forget to also take into account your conditions in your own garden and your soil type.

More about creating your plant and flower bed design

There's lots to consider when choosing plants for your garden. Try to get a good mix of:

  • Large or medium trees and focal point plants
  • Shrubs - plants with woody stems that create a permanent 'structure' in your garden. Some can have beautiful and colorful flowers.
  • Perennials - leafy and flowery plants (soft stems). These can look stunning in season (usually over Summer). Most will die down into the ground over Winter, but 'Spring' back into life in Spring.
  • Evergreens - good for structure and year round interest and color
  • Bulbs - like perennials, these 'over-winter' in the ground each year. Very useful for Spring color and pretty flowers.
  • Annuals - these only last one season - 'disposable' gardening. Often these are plants that aren't hardy in your gardening zone, but may last longer (several years) in warmer parts of the world

Using all these types of plant will mean you get a good mix of heights and good, full designs for your garden flower beds.

flower bed design - use a mixture of plants, arranged artistically-roughly by height

Arranging Plants by Height

It is usual to arrange your garden flower bed design by height...

For most situations:

  • Arrange the tallest plants and trees at the back of the border, and gradually reduce plantings in size, until you get to the smallest at the front.
  • Try to 'stagger' planting by size a little, so that you don't create a rigid 'stepped' effect, with plants arranged in neat rows. Merge some medium-sized plants in with both small and tall ones, for an attractive and natural effect.
  • Some taller, light, 'see-through' planting can look very attractive at the front of a border. Don't choose anything too big and solid - think wispy grasses, foxtail lilies, alliums etc - which are all good for creating this sort of effect.
  • You might like to position a taller tree, shrub or plant near the front of your border, if you'd like it to become a focal point. Some plants you might consider using in this way are:
    • Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
    • Crab apple (Malus sylvestris)
    • New Zealand Flax (Phormium)
    • Corkscrew Hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta')

    You certainly don't want your focal point plants hidden away out of sight at the back of a border!

    More about focal point plants here...

  • For island beds, or beds to be seen from more than one side, put your tallest plants in the center, and gradually move down to the smallest around the edges.
  • You might need to bear in mind the final growing heights of the plants when deciding this - and how long they'll take to reach this height (check labels or plant encyclopedias to find out this information).

    Larger plants can always be kept well-pruned, to make sure that they fit their allocated space. You can grow annual or other short term plants to fill in any gaps while you wait for the permanent planting to grow.

  • Don't forget about climbing plants, to add height to your scheme. These can be grown up walls and fences, or up obelisks or other structures, in the center of your flower bed design.

Looking at the SHAPE of plants in your flower bed designs

Of course, we know plants all come in different shapes and forms. In garden design, plants tend to be categorised by their basic shapes...

If you aren't sure what 'shape' your plant is, try reading the descriptions below, and squinting to look at your plant, to see which overall 'impression' is strongest.

Vertical Plants

  • Tall, thin plants

  • vertical plant flower bed design - tall catus

  • Plants where the emphasis is on vertical lines, such as:
    • Phormium
    • Lupin
    • Yucca
    • Bamboo
    • Conifers
    • Many trees
    • Foxglove
  • These are good for structure in your flower bed design, and for creating focal points.

Horizontal Plants

  • Plants with strong horizontal lines. Such as:
    • Ground cover plants
    • Many larger tres and shrubs with strong sideways branches
    • Flat, plate-like or 'daisy-like' flowers
    • Large, rounded leaves

  • Rudbeckia flowers - horizontal plants for designs for garden flower beds

  • Some examples are:
    • Cotoneaster horizontalis
    • Sedum
    • Achillea
    • Rudbeckia (see photo above)
  • 'Horizontal' plants can make a very interesting contrast to 'vertical' plants, can be good ground cover, and are very good for creating structure.

Domed Plants

  • These are rounded plants, that have grown naturally into a dome shape, such as Hebe (although you can also trim a plant into a dome, such as in topiary.)
  • These can be very useful plants for:
    • providing a sense of stillness and formality to a garden
    • creating a visual 'stop'
    • creating a repetition of shapes
    • good for topiary

flower garden designs with domed plant shapes

'Mixer' Plants

  • These are the plants to fit in, in between these other plant shapes. They are usually quite a bit smaller than the more 'statement' vertical, horizontal and domed plants, and are useful to 'infill' your garden area with foliage (leaves) and flowers.

How to Put it all Together

To create the best results for your flower bed design, try to concentrate on one 'shape' of plant for the basis of your scheme, and use the others more sparingly, as 'accents' to make a statement, or to create a focal point feature.

Looking at TEXTURE of Plants in your flower bed design

Succulents for texture in your flower bed design

Plants have texture too - this might be very 'smooth' (or 'fine'), or 'coarse' looking.

They might look wispy and feathery or glossy and shiny.

Look at the texture and surface of the foliage - is it smooth? glossy? rough? soft? spiky?

Also stand back, and look at the overall effect of the plant - does it look rough? light and feathery?

It's good to include all kinds of plant textures in your flower bed design, but try not to end up with a messy, mish-mash of textures.

Try to group similar textures together, and then contrast against another type, as a focal point.

How to Arrange Plants in Groups

Any kind of plant, or planting, in your flower bed design, works better if you consider it as part of a group (except for focal points - and we'll look at those next).

Most plants work better as a team - so rather than a single plant, try a group of 3 or 5 together (odd numbers usually work better than even numbers, too!)

You can also 'repeat' the same, or a similar, grouping, elsewhere in your border, and garden as a whole, to continue the 'theme'.

Also look at what you are putting each small grouping of plants next to. Decide if you are wanting to create:

  • a similar effect
  • or a contrasting effect

flower bed design - deciding on plant groupings

For a successful flower bed design, you'll need a mixture of both.

Most planting will be based on 'similars' to achieve a nice 'unity' or cohesive feel and theme.

You'll then add in a few (not too many) 'contrasts', as focal points and accents, to add interest and 'wow'.

Focal Point Planting

Focal points are your main 'features' around your garden.

Sometimes these might be part of your hard landscaping, such as:

  • a summerhouse
  • a pergola
  • a sundial

More about planning garden buildings and other structures as focal points, here...

And more about choosing decorative garden accessories as focal points, here...

But, quite often they'll be part of your planting. Focal point plants in your flower bed design are the more striking and unusual plants - the stand alone plants, that, either through shape, size, color or some more noticable feature, will draw the eye straight to them.

You will probably have more than one focal point plant in your design for garden flower beds.

These should be nicely spaced around your garden (remember the concept of 'balance' discussed here...), and you will probably want to include focal point planting of various sizes.

  • Try a specimen tree, such as:
    • Magnolia
    • Crab apple (Malus sylvestris)
    • Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
    • Kilmarnock Willow (Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock')
  • Make sure these stand out, so don't include them within other tall, full, shrubby or 'bushy' areas. They'll be much more noticable if they stand alone, ot surrounded just by low planting, or ground cover plants.

  • a blossom tree makes a stunning focal point for your garden design especially in spring  - and is good structure year round

  • You can also choose your focal point plant by color - a contrasting color works well. You can find color in flowers, but also in autumn leaves, bark, berries, or winter stems.
  • Or you can choose your focal point plant by shape, texture or unusual foliage - remember, you can use a single 'vertical' shaped plant amongst horizontal plantings, to make a statement, or vice versa.
  • A single 'dome' plant can act as a 'full stop' visually, in a border, as the eye comes to rest on it.
  • Some plants with unusual foliage or flowers which can make suitable focal point plants:
    • Cordyline
    • Phormium
    • Yucca
    • Fatsia japonica
    • Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana)
    • Delphiniums
    • Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia)
    • Lupins
    • Foxtail Lily(Eremurus)
    • Gunnera manicata

We've not really touched on color much on this page, that's because it's a large and important topic for garden design, and deserves to be treated separately - so we'll look at it separately...

Learn about Color in your garden, here...

You can also start to think about choosing a style for your garden, if you like, as certain plants really do suit particular garden styles better than others...

Also, don't forget to bring your site conditions and considerations and your soil type into the equation when choosing your plants. Refer to the notes you made in these earlier sections.

We'll find out more about actually drawing the plan, next...

How to go about creating your planting plan

Keep your flower bed design looking nice with our handy maintenance schedule reminder

Return to the main Planting and Flower Bed Design page

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