Blue Hydrangea

Designing With Perennials

 Whether you are an experienced gardener or just getting started, perennial gardening can be adapted to suit your needs, and your budget. You can start on whatever scale you wish. No matter what you gardening situation is, full sun, shade, dry, moist, there are perennials available that will meet your criteria. With perennials, the only limitation is your imagination!

The use of perennials has really regained popularity over the last few years due in large part to the vast number of new varieties that have come onto the market. Whether we are adding perennials in with evergreens and flowering shrubs in a mixed planting or doing mass plantings of perennials in a bed on their own. Another area where the use of perennials is blossoming is in container gardening.

We first need to establish what is meant by the term ‘perennials’. The term perennial refers to any herbaceous plant (herbaceous meaning that they do not develop a woody stem) that dies down in the fall and come back up from the roots the next spring.

Fern and Bowles Golden Carex Helenium DSCN2346


Why design at all? Why not just plant a bunch of perennials together and see what happens? Well, this can be done, but often the result is chaos and an unhappy gardener. Designing a flower garden and seeing it develop before your eyes can be rewarding. It takes time, knowledge and experience to prepare a good one. The planning stage is too often overlooked by the impatient gardener resulting in a haphazard collection of plant materials. The eye needs a sense of order. Too many variations in sizes, shapes, colors, and textures create confusion. Remember, the most spectacular gardens all begin with a carefully thought-out design.

Here are some steps for you to follow:

Step 1 – Analyze Your Site

When determining a garden site you need to consider the following factors:

  • Is the desired garden area getting sun or shade? What time of day is it getting sun?
    • 6 hours or more – full sun; 3-5 hours – part shade; less than 3 hours – shade
  • Viewing angles – determine what areas of your garden are key areas from both indoors and outdoors to help you locate your focal points
  • Existing features that you will need to work around
  • Existing growing conditions
  • Is the area very dry, even moisture, damp or wet?
  • Do you have sandy loam soil or clay soil?
  • What plant hardiness zone are you in?

Step 2 – Choose your StyleHidden Treasures in the Garden

Once you have analyzed the site for your garden you then need to choose what style you would like to have.  Gardens fall under two categories when it comes to style – formal or informal. Formal gardens follow straight, geometric lines to determine the shape of the beds. The geometric shape selected may be copied from an architectural feature found on your home. Formal gardens rely on symmetry. One garden will match another. In a small space, the symmetry becomes the focal point. Formal gardens date back many centuries. Palatial castles often had formal gardens. If contemplating this style, keep in mind the best way to view a formal garden is from an elevated point. When looking down, you are able to appreciate the symmetry and balance. Formal style is high maintenance.

Informal gardens are more popular. They follow the natural terrain by using curved lines. The human eye follows curves easier than straight lines. In fact, curves are more natural. There are no perfectly straight lines of great length in nature. All perfectly straight lines are man-made. Balance is created not through symmetry (as in a formal garden) but with plant material characteristics such as plant shape, color, size, and texture.

Even though there are different trends that seem to be popular, it doesn’t mean that the older ways of designing with perennials are wrong. Design according to your own tastes. Let your personal character dictate your choices. You can give 20 different people the same 20 perennials and they will arrange them differently according to their preferences, interests and experiences No one style is wrong.

Step 3: Choosing the Right Plants

Now it is time to choose the right plants.

 Choose plants with a variety of colour.

  • Colour doesn’t just refer to flower colour, but also to leaf colour. Make sure that the plant looks good both in and out of bloom. This is done by paying attention to the leaves as well as the flowers. Your garden should look colourful whether or not there is anything in bloom.
  • Opposite colours on the colour wheel provides contrast (yellow-purple; red-green)
  • Combining various hues of the same pigment creates harmony (pink-lavender-purple)
  • Cool colours such as mauves, pinks, pale yellows and silvers are relaxing and tranquil. They tend to recede in the garden. This is useful in a small garden situation where you want it to appear larger than it actually is. Cool colours make you feel peaceful and meditative.
  • Warm colours such as reds, oranges, golds and burgundys are vibrant and exciting. They tend to pop out at you in the landscape. These colours are good around entertainment areas such as decks, patios and pools. The use of warm colours is also effective on large properties when you are viewing a bed from a distance. Remember: Nothing in nature clashes. Don’t be afraid to try new colour combinations. 

Lamb's Ear Heuchera Jack Frost Brunnera

Choose plants with a variety of shapes 

  • Shape can refer to the overall shape of the plant and also to the shape of flower and shape of leaves.
  • Once again, if you had plants that had all the same shape of flower (say daisies) the garden would not have much interest.
  • Make sure you have a mixture of different flower shapes: spikey, daisy, globe, lily-like, etc
  • Leaf shape is just as important. Is the leaf rounded, grass-like or linear?
  • Also look at the overall shape of the plant. Is it mounding, low lying or tall and spikey?

Choose plants with a variety of textures

  • Planting for Texture – small feathery leaves and dainty flowers give a delicate, subtle look and are appreciated more if seen from up close.
  • Bold flowers and large leaves can be appreciated from a distance.
  • To achieve a balanced look, make sure that there is a good mixture of bold and delicate flowers and foliage.
  • It is very important to have all different textures in any garden whether perennial or otherwise.
  • To have a garden full of plants with all the same textures means that everything will just blend  together and there would be no accents, there would be just a mish mash of leaves.
  • Again, texture just doesn’t mean flowers. With flowers you will have a choice of fine and feathery and large bold flowers and everything in between. But, also remember the foliage. Your garden should look good both in and out of bloom. Not only is the size of leaf important but the physical texture of the leaf. Is the leaf: glossy, fuzzy, heavily veined, puckered etc.

Japanese Bloodgrass Bergenia Fern

  • Choose plants that look good both in and out of bloom.
  • Choose plants that are more disease and insect resistant.
  • Choose plants that have different seasons of interest (don’t forget winter)
  • Group plants with similar requirements together – similar light, soil and moisture requirements.


  • If you have nothing in bloom in your garden at a certain time of the year, that is the perfect time to go to the garden centre and see what is blooming. We tend to do most of our shopping in the spring, so most the things blooming in our gardens our in the spring.
  • Avoid overcrowding – leave some space in between plants to allow them to fill in naturally.
  • Incorporate bulbs to lengthen the garden’s bloom time. Most of the bulbs are up and have bloomed before the perennials begin to fill in.
  • In larger gardens or when viewing a garden from a distance, remember to mass plant. To get the same effect as you get up close. Up close – you can use groupings of 1 or 3 or maybe five. Further away – you might have to be using groups of 5, 7, 9 etc to get the same effect.
  • DO NOT FORGET WINTER INTEREST. We only get to see our perennials for about 7 months of the year. There is no reason why there should not be something of interest the remaining 5 months. There are many perennials that can provide winter interest such as: ornamental grasses, Sedum, Echinacea, Rudbeckia etc.

Growing together,