Mix Up Your Beds and Borders

By Barbara Perry Lawton

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener May 2006 issue.)

An image illustrating a mixed flower-and-vegetable bedTraditional gardeners and garden designers often create each garden bed and border with a single focus, with an emphasis on a particular group of plants. As a result, we often have perennial borders, annual beds, rose gardens, herb gardens and other “Johnny-One-Note” gardens.

While it’s sometimes fun to focus on a narrow theme, most of the time it makes better sense to include in your plans plants that fit the design qualities you want rather than limiting yourself to just one category of plants—annuals, perennials or herbs, for instance. Different species and sorts of plants will fill the bill for textures, colors, sizes and blooming times. I’ve found that when I broaden my horizons, I enjoy gardening more.

Salad Crops as Ornamentals

In recent years, I’ve been including salad crops in ornamental gardens. I grow mesclun, those wonderful mixes of sweet and pungent greens in a large planter on the patio. I also have grown rainbow-colored Swiss chard in a planter. The bright leaves and stems were striking, both outdoors and on the dinner plate.

Leaf lettuces make wonderful borders for gardens of all sorts. When you harvest them with scissors, they keep on growing, so that you can have fresh salads for several weeks. I’ve been able to easily get as many as three or four crops of leaf lettuce each growing season, thus keeping both my borders and my salad bowl attractive.

If you have small children or grandchildren, let them grow their favorite salad vegetables as short borders along the edges of ornamental beds. Include not only leaf lettuces and mescluns but also small carrots and radishes.

Herbs in the Mixed Garden

The silvery gray-green of some of the herbs—sage, artemisia and lavender, to name some—make lovely accents in mixed beds. The cool gray greens temper reds, oranges and other brighter colors. Use these to define and separate colorful perennials and annuals.

Rather than planting shrub and miniature roses in their own bed, mix them with perennials and ground covers to create unusual effects. For instance, the ground cover Lamium ‘White Nancy’ will make a beautifully textured rug of green and white under roses and around flowering perennials. The ground cover creates a transitional color that serves to tie the garden together.

Tenders and Annuals in the Mixed Garden

For shady gardens, the obvious tie-ins are colorful annual impatiens planted in waves around hostas and ferns. Use tender caladium bulbs with their striking combinations of variegated foliage to create similar effects. In spots that receive filtered light or just a few hours of morning sun, set large planters of impatiens, surrounded by true mints. Let the mints drizzle over the edges of the planter.

Groundcover petunias can be sensational in just about any bed or border. Use them to carpet a sunny shrub bed or a mixed border of tall annuals or perennials—each of these creeping petunia plants may cover an area 3 to 4 square feet or even more.

Use the tender verbenas as groundcovers as well as subjects for hanging baskets. Add tender salvias to fill in any gaps in perennial beds. Don’t forget to check out the latest marigolds, available in exquisite shades of lemon yellow, near white, bold orange and gold. Tall marigolds can serve as beautiful backdrops for perennial borders.

Try using some of the new cannas, tender bulbs in shades of yellow, pink or red, as colorful back-of-the-bed accents. Some of the newer cannas also offer variegated foliage, adding a different accent to mixed beds and borders.

Try a few bold new combinations each year. Experiment with new designs and combinations to keep your gardens lively and exciting. One of the great joys of gardening is discovery.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.