University of Illinois Extension
Perennial Placement - Stepping Stones to Perennial Garden Design - University of Illinois Extension

Perennial Placement

"When at last I took the time to look into the heart of a flower, it opened up a whole new world... as if a window had been opened to let in the sun."
-- Princess Grace of Monaco (1929-1982)

You are now ready to start putting all your research efforts together. It's time to plan the actual garden. You have adhered to your garden goals, selected the location of your garden based on viewing angles, decided on the garden style and selected plants you want to see in your garden. Now, you can start to be creative and position the bed and the plants.

How do you determine the size of your garden? There are several methods you could follow. You could assign a random size and start to place your plants, making adjustments as necessary. Another method is to arrange the plants and draw the bed around them. The method used here is actual bed placement first, arrangement of plants second.

Photo of laying out garden bed with garden hose

Walk out to the area selected. Using a flexible garden hose, start to lay out the bed design. If you are designing a border bed, the back is a straight line and the front will either be formal or informal depending on your style. The length of the garden is dictated by space and limited to your gardening experience. A novice shouldn't lay out a 100-foot long border. Start smaller. Remember, let your experience and knowledge expand as you enlarge the garden over the coming years.

Lay out the garden hose experimenting with curves. As a general rule of thumb, the width of either a border bed or island bed should be no wider than what you can comfortably reach without having to step into the garden. In other words, an island bed should be no wider than 6 to 8 feet or what you can comfortably reach from all sides for maintenance. A border bed follows the same rule except if you can't access your garden from the back due to a wall, 3 to 4 feet is then the recommended width. If you choose wider, you must allow for access into the garden. Perhaps a path allowing you to walk through the garden would be the solution. Step back and analyze the shape you have outlined. Does it follow the lay of the land? Does it follow or blend with already existing curves? Do you like it?

Look at it from all perspectives. Sit where you would be naturally viewing it. Look out the main windows. It is so much easier to move a garden hose now and reshape your design, than to start digging and wish you had taken the time to analyze it first. When you have decided on a shape, it is a good idea to wheel your lawn mower around the curves - is mowing convenient? Do keep curves simple. The garden edge is a strong visual line. Use your curves to lead the eye. Everywhere you create a bulge (an outward curve), the eye will pause there.

Measure the bed. Rather than leaving your garden hose out there, mark the bed outline with spray paint.