Garden Beds and Borders

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Gardeners are quick to be critical of their home ground and that impetus, slowed down, can be useful in identifying the need for change. We sometimes get a bee in our bonnets over some small nuisance. However it’s best not to focus on aggravating details, but first take a broad view of the area and determine its character. Is this an old garden with accumulated artifacts from previous owners, or a new and barren landscape? Does it appear empty or crowded, disorganized or messy, vacant or overwhelming in size and scale? Are structures tumbled down, in disrepair, antiquated? Or is there nothing but a new sod lawn and board fence?

Gardeners are natural-born collectors and can’t pass through a plant nursery without several unplanned but deeply coveted acquisitions finding their way onto the cart. Restraint is just not their virtue–gardeners are shameless when it comes to impulse buying. Nature obliges this compulsion by producing endless species of ferns and campanulas, but if you’re going to enjoy them all you’d better have someplace to put them. And that leads to beds and borders.

Beds and borders

The purpose of a planting bed is to provide a showcase for ornamental plants that will complement the landscaped garden. Beds can be situated as focal points that gradually lead you through the garden, and in that respect, they are directional signals indicating which way to go or when to stop and pause.

Beds and borders can be used to balance a garden, perhaps placed across from large objects like swimming pools or surrounding a gazebo to provide context and tie the structure into the garden. Staggered along the sides of a long and narrow garden, they cause interest to shift from one side to the other; avoiding the bowling-lane effect of looking straight to the back.

Island beds

In a very broad garden, island beds can be set into the lawn area to focus attention inward and keep you from feeling lost in too much space. Making a bed in a very small area is sometimes the best way to bring a diversity of interest where nothing else will fit. Some townhouse gardens are so tiny that they can be given over to one big bed with a place for two chairs.

In a cold climate, it’s important to place some beds planned and planted for winter interest where they can be seen from windows, allowing you to anticipate spring while gazing on a display of ornamental bark, berries, and dried grasses with tall sedums.

Another important bed is by the front door, where the very earliest daphnes, violets, and primulas will perfume the still-frosty air. In this respect, beds are vehicles for plants that appeal to the senses, and you can bring them close to where you pass by every day.

Wherever your beds are located, you want to be sure they provide the best growing environment for plants, and that means paying special attention to soil preparation. The crucial issues of drainage, soil texture, and fertility are the underpinnings of all healthy plant life; it’s just throwing money down a hole to install new plants without improving the soil.

Older beds will need to be renovated every five years, the plants lifted and sorted out, some divided, others sent to new homes, and the soil improved throughout. This is also an opportunity to change the bed’s dimensions and give it a new shape.

It’s not always necessary to entirely renovate a bed, but certainly each plant can be given a hole with a generous bushel of premium soil. Some gardeners prepare bulk amounts of planting mix made of equal amounts of rotted manure, peat moss, and coarse sand, stored in plastic garbage barrels and ready for use in planting holes.

Starting new beds

If you’re intending to make new beds, first lay them out with a rubber garden hose (vinyl has its own shape and won’t cooperate) to find the best shape and line. Spend some time adjusting the hose until you’re satisfied, and then use a blunt-nosed spade to etch a notch all around the shape and consider how you want to construct the bed.

You can do it the hard way, digging out the sod and amending the soil with organic materials. Or you can construct a mounded bed by laying ten sheets of black-and-white newspaper over the grass, piling soil on top, and neatening the edges. Plan for a soil mix made of two parts topsoil mixed with one part rotted manure and one part coarse sand. You’ll need enough to cover the area with 18 inches, and it will sink by almost half in the first season.

Renovation of an existing bed

The best times to renovate an older garden bed are in early autumn or spring when the air is cool and the soil is moist. Plants are semi-dormant when the soil temperature is cold and will suffer far less root trauma in the process. Because the renovation will involve some amount of digging, you’ll want to work with soil when it’s soft and moist, not in the hard and dry state of warmer seasons.

Select an overcast day, or plan the work for early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky. If the bed is large and more work than you can handle at one time, plan on dividing it into sections and do one part each autumn and spring.

Overhauling a garden bed begins with an assessment of its contents. This is the time to be ruthless and cunning about what possible potential each plant has for future performance. Anything half-dead or limping along should be discarded, along with plants that chronically suffer from insect or disease infestation. Remember that every space you make by pitching something out represents a wonderful new plant to be purchased.

1. You can dispose of unwanted plants by putting them in containers clearly labeled with both common and botanical names, and setting them out on the sidewalk overnight with a “free to good home” sign. People value any plant with proper identification, and they’ll more than likely be gone by morning.

2. Now is the time to change the shape of the bed if it needs adjustment. You can use a soft rubber hose to outline a new area if you want to enlarge the bed substantially. Use a blunt-nosed spade to cut out the new lines, lifting sod out and turning the soil underneath.

3. Now carefully lift the remaining plants you intend to keep and store them in pots or plastic bags in a cool, shady area. Cut drainage holes in the bag bottoms and give the plants some water. Shrubs in the bed can remain in place, but loosen the soil around their roots with a garden fork.

4. To get the best results from this project you should use a minimum of 3 inches of coarse sand and 3 inches of organic amendments spread over the bed, but more is better. Organic materials can include compost, rotted manure, peat moss, leaves, pine needles, and grass clippings. The coarse sand will break up heavy clay and bring oxygen into the root zone, and the organic materials will increase soil fertility and help to retain moisture. If your soil is sandy and quick draining, leave out the coarse sand and use as much organic material as you can haul and spread. Dig these materials into the soil and around the roots of shrubs.

5. Set the plants back in, dividing overgrown clumps and changing locations for a modified design to the renovated bed. New plants can be added at this time if you’ve made a nursery-shopping trip. Water the plants with a commercial transplant solution, and if you’re intending to use organic mulch like shredded leaves or bark, spread it over the soil and around the plants.

Judith Adam is a horticulturist, educator, and landscape designer who lives and gardens in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This text was excerpted with permission from her book Landscape Planning (Firefly Books Ltd., 2002) ©2002 Judith Adam. The book is available on her website at

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