University of Illinois Extension

Designing Flower Beds

Five simple steps can make planning a flower bed successful, said Sharon Yiesla, U of I Extension horticulture educator.

“Flower beds fill in the framework provided by trees and shrubs,” said Yiesla. They can connect the landscape to the house, add color and interest, and truly bring the landscape to life.

“The five simple steps involve determining the point or points of view, considering existing conditions, deciding on a style, choosing a type of display, and selecting the plants.”

The first step should place flower beds in areas where they can be easily viewed and appreciated. Look at the site and decide from what side the flower bed will be viewed. Some flower beds, such as those planted up against a foundation, may be viewed from one side. An island bed planted in the center of the front yard will be viewed from several sides.

“It is important to be sure that beds look good from all views,” she said.

Flower beds do not exist in a vacuum. That is why it is important to consider existing conditions.

“We need to look at the existing physical conditions to be sure we select plants that will live in the yard,” she explained. “Is the yard sunny, shady, or some of both? Does the soil drain properly and what is the pH of the soil? What will surround the flower bed? Are there plants already in place that need to be incorporated into the design? Are there existing structures such as sheds, swimming pools, and other things that may have some impact on the flower bed?

Photo of black spots on a rose“Consider the visual impact of the existing conditions. What is beyond the property line? What are some positive and negative features of the yard? What should be hidden and what should be emphasized?”

Flower beds can be done in a formal or informal style. Most people go with an informal style, but the decision will be based on personal preference and perhaps the style of home. Some homes lend themselves to a more formal look, while others do not.

“Formal flower beds rely on symmetry for balance, straight lines, and sometimes geometric shapes,” she said. “Formal beds do not have to be stuffy and boring. Consider using straight lines in the garden, but allowing the plants to attain their natural shapes rather than clipping them into hedges and formal shapes. Use more repetition to attain a very planned look.

“Informal beds flow with the natural terrain of the yard and often employ curved lines. Create balance without using symmetry. Achieve that balance using a variety of plant sizes and colors. Use less repetition. Keep in mind that informal does not mean unplanned.”

There are different ways to display the flower bed. For many years, the border was the standard in flower beds. A few years ago, interest in island beds increased. More recently, there has been a great deal of interest in naturalized areas such as mini-meadows.

Photo of scorching“These are all good choices for flower beds,” said Yiesla. “The important thing to decide is which one is right for your landscape. You may choose more than one type, depending on the size of your landscape and the effect you wish to achieve.”

A border is a flower bed that runs along the boundary or edge of something else. They are often planted next to a house, fence, or driveway. Planted against a structure, they are viewed from one side and fairly easy to design. Along a driveway or sidewalk, they may be viewed from more than one side so some effort is needed to ensure an interesting view from all points.

“Borders can create a feeling of space, since they are along the perimeter of the yard and they leave the lawn open and uninterrupted,” she said. “They can be useful plantings for families with young children, since they allow for unimpeded recreational use of the yard.”

An island bed is a flower bed surrounded by an open expanse, such as a lawn. They can be any shape, and irregular-shaped island beds are good in informal landscapes. Round, square, and rectangular beds give a more formal look. Island beds are viewed from many sides and present more challenge.

“Island beds have the advantage of being easier to maintain since they are accessible from all sides,” she said. “As a design element, they can be used to break up large, open areas. This can be a useful tool for the individual who does not want a large expanse of lawn to maintain.”

Naturalized areas can take many forms. They include a single bed planted with wildflowers and/or native grasses, an entire yard that has “gone wild,” or a planned mini-meadow. The idea behind all this is putting plants into a natural setting. This can be achieved by using native plants, planting in masses to simulate meadows and prairies, and mixing plants in a manner so that it looks “unplanned.”

“This type of planting can provide a relaxed, informal appearance,” said Yiesla. “It also allows the gardener to be very creative and expressive. Care should be taken with naturalized plantings. A naturalized planting may look out of place in a typical urban or suburban neighborhood where all other homes have traditional landscapes. What looks good in nature may look out of place in a residential area.

Photo of black spots on a rose“It is a good idea to have a maintenance plan in place so the naturalized planting does not turn into a “weed patch” in the eyes of the neighbors.”

Since naturalized plantings may take a little more planning and work, she recommends starting small and expanding over time. Start with one or two naturalized flower beds and see how you like them. If the result is pleasing, the planting can always be expanded in the future. If it is not pleasing, it is easy enough to make changes.

“Proper plant selection is essential to the design process,” she said. “The design will be a failure if the plants selected cannot physically survive in the site. In addition to hardiness zones, also look at the cultural requirements such as light, soil moisture, and soil pH.”

Plants need to fit into the design visually in terms of form, texture, and color. Watch the use of textures. Sometimes extremely different textures may clash. When considering form, think about both height and width. The plants should physically fit and each plant should have enough room to grow.

“If you are planting small plants that will take time to reach their mature size, fill in the open areas with annuals, rather than squeezing too many perennials together,” she said. “When looking at color, look at all parts of the plant. Obviously, flowers will provide color, but some other part of the plant may contribute color as well. Think about incorporating plants with colored foliage, stems, or fruit.

“As for flower color, take into consideration when the plants bloom and what color will be provided. Most perennials flower for a short period of time. It is important to make sure that you have color throughout the season and that the colors that appear together are appealing to the eye.”