Gardening Advice: Avoid Pitfalls With These Garden Design Tips

Use these garden design tips to plan an attractive garden filled with healthy plants.


Midway through the summer, the verbascum is suddenly towering in front of the irises or petunias and they are lost to view, and the flowerbed just looks wrong.

Courtesy Timber Press

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Your garden is supposed to be fun — a place to relax in and recharge your batteries, a source of beauty and pleasure. But all too often, things go wrong. Those expensive tulip bulbs you planted last fall never came up. Your lilac doesn’t bloom. The lawn looks terrible. And worst of all, you don’t know what to do about it. The Anxious Gardener’s Book of Answers (Timber Press, 2012) contains great gardening advice to help you solve virtually any gardening challenge. In this excerpt from the chapter “Design,” author Terri Dunn Chace provides garden design tips for avoiding common mistakes. 

Not paying attention to the bloom season of the plants you pick

You want a garden bursting with color, so you head to the garden center on a nice spring day to buy all sorts of plants. You were smart enough to choose annuals on the verge of blooming, hinting at the glorious show that soon appears in your yard. If you selected perennials, you picked ones that were in bloom or looked like color was on the way.

The peak passes, flowering slows down or stops—and it’s a letdown. Looking back, you’re disappointed. You wonder if anything blooms well later in summer or in the fall, and how to make a longer-lasting show.

The right way to do it: While it’s true that many popular plants, annuals and perennials alike, bloom around early summer and then slow down, you can get an extended show by becoming a more educated shopper. Impulse buying is not the way to go. Make a list ahead of time, just like you do when you buy groceries with a special recipe in mind.

Information about bloom seasons is widely available. Group your wish list into late spring, early summer, midsummer, and late summer into fall. Make a separate listing of plants that bloom over an extended period to form the backbone of your colorful flower garden. Then shop from your list. (Your garden center may not organize its offerings in this way—many don’t.) When you get your plants home, be sure to give them appropriate spots and good care so they can realize your vision of a long-blooming, colorful garden.

If I goofed, can I fix it? Yes. You can remove plants and replace them with later bloomers or other colors. You can shift around others. Do your homework on those that bloom at other times, and add plants as you find them. Remember, however, that annuals and perennials fare better when planted in cooler weather. Making additions or changes during the heat of summer is hard on plants.

Planting a tall plant so it blocks a shorter one

Here’s a problem you don’t always notice until it’s too late. Midway through the summer, the verbascum is suddenly towering in front of the irises or petunias and they are lost to view, and the flowerbed just looks wrong. Perhaps when you bought the plant as a tidy rosette, you didn’t quite realize what big flower stalks it was capable of making. Maybe you simply didn’t check expected mature heights of the plants before you placed them. In any event, you now have a design problem, and you are reluctant to restore order by chopping down a blooming plant in its prime.

The right way to do it: Flowerbed planning is not difficult, nor do you have to start with a clean slate. Just make sure you know about a plant’s growth habit, bloom season, and expected mature height. If this information is not on the nursery tag, or some of it is missing, do some research. This data is available anywhere from plant catalogs to web searches to gardening books.

The general rule is to relegate the tallest plants to the back of a bed, medium-height ones to the middle, and short and sprawling ones to the front (or if the bed is an island, tall in the center, and so forth). Even those of us with rebellious personalities have to concede that a display that applies this principle looks good. Depending on how much space you have to work with, there can be some flexibility. Yes, there are exceptions; for example, you can place a tall, airy Japanese anemone in front of some hostas and you’ll still be able to view them through it.

If I goofed, can I fix it? You can move a too-tall plant to a more suitable backdrop after it is done blooming. Or you can groom it judiciously so it doesn’t totally obscure the plants behind it. If a tall plant is flopping over its neighbors, stake it, which can have the added benefit of reining in a rangy or too-wide profile.

Read more: Read another excerpt from The Anxious Gardener's Book of Answers in Avoid These Container Gardening Mistakes.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Anxious Gardener’s Book of Answers, published by Timber Press, 2012.