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How to Design a Mixed Shrub Border

Mixed shrub border

Want to know a secret to getting a lush and beautiful garden like the one pictured above (which is, by the way, a private garden somewhere in Seattle)?

Mix it up.

It's that simple! Mix trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials together and you'll get a multi-colored, multi-textured garden that delights the senses at every turn.

This type of garden is sometimes called a "mixed border." It has a "cottage garden" type of look, and it is always lush after allowed to grow for a few years.

But surely designing this type of garden is much more complicated than it looks?

Actually, it isn't!

Color, Form, Texture

To design your own mixed border garden, you'll need to learn how to work with color, form, and texture.

Color: The color of the leaves and the flowers on a shrub impact its place in the design. 

Form: What is the shape of the shrub (or annual plant or perennial plant)? Is it round? (Most boxwood shrubs are round.) Or is it pillar-shaped? (The Sunjoy™ Gold Pillar barberry has an upright/columnar form.)

Texture: Texture in the garden is just like texture everywhere else, but generally it is the leaves of the plant that display the texture. Plants with small leaves are considered fine textured. (Boxwood or Hebe are examples of this.) Plants with larger leaves are coarse textured. (Viburnums are generally coarse textured.)

DIY Design

Now that you know a bit about what you're working with, you're ready to start designing.

First decide upon a color scheme. Will it be all warm colors (red, yellow, orange, pink) or cool colors (purple, blue, lavender), or a combination of both? After deciding upon colors, look at leaf textures. Choose some plants with large leaves and others with small, fern-like leaves. Last, tackle form. Pick out some plants with stiff, upright growth habits and others with softer, draping growth habits.

shrubs and perennials

One way to make designing a border easy is to pick a group of three or five types of plants and repeat the groupings for the length of the garden. 

Another is to simply focus on repeating colors, forms, and textures throughout the garden, without worrying whether you're using the same plants.

In the picture, left, the silvery color is repeated in the brunnera (foreground) and the dogwood shrub (left, back). The shape of the hosta leaves and brunnera are both coarse, while the dogwood leaf texture is finer, matching that of the phlox plants pictured, back right.

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Working Annuals into the Equation

Annuals are no different than shrubs and perennials, in terms of a mixed border. One advantage is that they provide a relatively constant show of color throughout the summer, while shrubs and perennials can change throughout the season--moving in and out of bloom, changing leaf colors, etc.

Choose annuals to mix in that repeat the leaf colors of the shrubs or flowers of the perennials. In the picture above the coleus has burgundy accents that complement the loropetalum shrubs and pinkish hues that mimic the blooms of hyssop blooming in the background.

The key to gorgeous garden design, though, is to have fun and don't be afraid! Just "grow" for it!