Creating plant perfection

How to design a border

A 10 step guide to creating stunning floral displays in your garden

Sometimes our attempts to make our gardens beautiful somehow never seem to work. What we plant looks out of place or at worse, sadly dies.

So here to help is a nine step method for creating great borders. 

Step 1. Know your garden.

You cannot hope to create a fabulous planting border unless you know the conditions that plants face once they are in your garden. The following list explains what you must consider.

Slopes and dips

A sloped garden has its own complications – rainfall may wash away nutrients from the top of the slope and water may run in rivulets and damage plant roots. At the bottom of the slope or in dips in the garden, water may collect in pools in warmer weather or become frost pockets in the winter.


How warm or cold does your garden get and for how long. In the height of summer when the days are long and warm it is easy to forget the damp and icy conditions of winter. Tender summer plants can suffer and die in icy conditions.

Step 2. Analyse Your Site

Now you know the conditions and issues that can affect your plant you need to make notes on where these problems occur.

If you are able to, take a year to do a site analysis. Note things like:

  • The coldest and warmest temperatures and when they occur
  • The average temperature for the month
  • How much rain you get and when? Does the water collect in dips or troughs.
  • Your soil type – check this every 2m (6ft) or so, you’ll be surprized at the differences from place to place
  • Your soil pH – again check it every 2m
  • Note how much wind you get, when and where does it blow, do you get regular squalls that blow in certain places
  • Finally and most importantly, note the amount of light and shadow your garden receives throughout the year. Which walls or areas receive the most sunlight and when. Does the heat cause any issues such as dry and desiccated ground.

Step 3. Make a Plan

Before you consider adding your plants, you need to make a plan of your garden or bed.

This topic is a little too long to fit in this post so here is a link to the best online description of how to do it, courtesy of the garden design college I graduated from: Oxford College of Garden Design.

Step 4. Understand Form and Structure

Now you have your plan and know what conditions your garden has you can plan the plants and trees that will fill your space. Initially you need to decide on the larger plants that will give your garden form and structure.

Use borrowed landscape

Your neighbours may have trees or shrubs in their garden which may look interesting and are visible from your own site.  Or their may be views to distant hills or woodlands that are worth looking at.  This borrowing of external views can make it easier to design a space.  You can make that beautiful scene or your neighbours fabulous shrub look like they belong in your garden own by creating structured planting that frames or accentuates those views.

For a little more information on how to create a planting plan have a look at this video from my own garden design tutor: Duncan Heather.

Step 5. Understand Plant Form

Plants come in many different shapes – known as forms. Each of these creates a different effect in the planting sceme.

Step 6. Understand Flower Form

Flowers come in many varieties and forms. How these combine together can make a border look wonderful. Amongst these are the herbaceous perennials which can change shape dramatically throughout the year.

There are six universally accepted flower categories as devised by Piet Oudolf and Nöel Kingsbury.

Step 7. Understand Colour

Hues, Tints , Shade and Tones

  • Each of the primary, secondary and tertiary colours can be further segmented using hues, tints shades and tones these being:
    • Hue – a colour
    • Tint – any colour plus white
      • i.e. lilac = violet + white
    • Shade – any colour plus black
      • i.e. navy blue = blue + black
    • Tone – any colour + grey
      • i.e. gold = yellow + grey

Colour combinations can be broadly grouped into two main types

  • Harmony and
  • Contrast

Harmony uses adjacent colours

Contrast uses opposite colours on the wheel


Here are some examples of using harmonious colour schemes


  • These use different shaded tints of only one colour (+ green)
    • The look is bold and sophisticated
    • Suits formal or crisp modern designs


Step 8. Put it all together

There are nine golden rules of planting

Rule 1. Keep it simple

  • Less is more
    • Don’t be tempted to plant all your favourites in the same place
    • Leads to a bitty, chaotic display
  • Reduce the number of plants and
    • Plant the remainder in larger masses

Rule 3. Scale and Proportion

  • Consider the size of the garden you are planting in, the buildings that surround it and the areas to be planted
  • Try and work with plants that are in proportion to your garden
  • Avoid plants that grow too big or arrangements that look too small
  • Notably large gardens need large borders with larger plants or smaller plants arranged into bigger groups
  • In smaller spaces, height is needed from taller plants but be careful to limit the number of such plants otherwise it makes the garden claustrophobic

Rule 6. Rhythm

  • Rhythm in planting occurs when plants are repeated throughout the border or organised into sweeping drifts. 
  • Borders look better if the plants are organised in a distinct repeating patterns especially if these create change in height.
  • The larger the planting area, the more rhythms appear in it.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary focal points

Primary or larger focal points, like a tree, draw the eye from a distance and tempt you to explore the space around them. Up close the tree becomes a backdrop so you will need have a set of secondary focal point to draw they eye once you are there. Also include plenty of smaller scale accents or tertiary focal points in the border to add interest when you are looking at the planting up close.

Rule 9. Balance

  • This is the state or equilibrium between elements in the garden
  • A counter example may illustrate this best.
  • The planting of large evergreens on one side of a path and nothing on the other looks odd and badly balanced.
  • Central axis planting is the easiest way to achieve balance, one side of a path can balance the other. This can be done by creating a mirror image on either side of the central axis or by adjusting the planting into an asymmetrical balance.
  • Volume balancing is another method. One large shrub can be balanced by a group of 5 smaller shrubs.
  • It is a bit of an intuitive thing. If it feels right, it probably is.

Step 10. Plant Research

All the above tips and rules will not work unless you know the details of the plants and trees you hope to add to your garden. Do your research look for the type of plants that you want to use and check if they will work in your garden.

There are a number of online resources that I like to use myself for plant research these being:

Larger online nurseries are also useful sources of information, notably

Further Reading

Three books I can’t do without

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