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How to Design your Landscape: 5 steps using Perennials, Annuals, and Biennials

Updated: May 24

It's about this time of year when my overwintered and early spring plants are petering out that I appreciate my perennials and biennials as they step in to fill the gap.

I had a budding gardener come talk to me bemoaning how she didn't think about seasons of color for her areas and I told her that was one of the main growth curves in gardening and to cut some slack because it takes a long time to get.

I'm hoping this post, while not comprehensive will help you shortcut that learning process.

I see a lot of people gardening without intention which is fine in the beginning. Something pretty catches their eye and they buy one or two things and stick them here and there without any planning. But maybe like my budding gardener friend, you want to figure out how to make your garden bloom longer.

I've boiled down my process into these 5 simple steps that I hope will help you make your space more beautiful.

  1. Define your space: This is super basic, but often doesn't happen. Outdoor spaces are just like indoor spaces in that they needs definition. Don't be intimidated by large swathes of yard. How do you define your space? Run through this checklist:

    1. Function: What do you need the space for? Some examples are open areas for play, barbecue area/patio, garden, firepit, storage, walkway, etc.

    2. Light: Track light in your yard throughout the day. A shady area defines itself and will need its own kinds of plants. A sunny area might be a great place for a garden.

    3. Natural definitions: such as around a water feature, or a lovely tree or nooks and crannies defined by buildings

    4. Designed definitions: Don't be afraid to create "rooms" in your yard that each have a theme. Think of the paths between spaces as the invitation to explore and discover. You don't need a huge yard to do this.

Once you figure out what spaces you have in your yard, draw lines around it on a piece of paper and then choose one area at a time so you don't spread your money out and lose impact. Choose a color scheme you want for your area so there is cohesion and impact in your plant choices.

2. Anchor the space with perennials: I get it. Perennials are expensive, but there's a reason for that--they stay in your landscape and keep growing and giving. Just like a room needs a focal point like a fireplace, a dining table, or a beautiful piece of art, outdoor spaces need perennials to anchor them as focal points.

Now there are two kinds of perennials: Herbaceous and woody. Herbaceous just means non-woody stems that die back to the ground every year. These don't provide any winter interest or habitat, but are nice for other reasons such as flowering. Peonies, yarrow, baptisia, columbines, daisies, lilies and echinacea are examples of herbaceous perennials.

Herbaceous perennials come back bigger and better every spring and can be split every few years or like bapisia, might spread through seedlings.

Woody perennials are the big anchor plants because they often provide bulk and height. Think hydrangeas, lilacs, roses, viburnums, and ninebark. You can also choose evergreens such as arborvitae, spruces, thuja, some boxwoods.

Let's throw trees in here as well since they are amazing anchors for a landscape. I'm thinking of ornamental trees such as flowering dogwoods, serviceberry, crabapples, japanese maples, etc.

There are also perennial grasses that provide interest and can be divided after a few years that are good anchors because of the height they add. I also love the whispy movement and habitat they offer.

Use perennials in key spots such as corners or along a wall or to define an edge. As they grow and fill in, they will give your eye somewhere to rest. Be sure to plant according to the tag so you leave enough room for them to fill out. It's hard to do when they are young and little, but you'll be glad you left space. I like to look up what mature plants look like in the landscape so I can see a visual of the height and width they will bring to my space.

TIP: If you are planting perennials to cut off of, you can plant them a little tighter since you are taking off plant material every year.

Bulbs are another kind of perennial that can be added to bring spring color. Do this after you plant your perennials so you know where you have space. Keep in mind the light your yard receives in early/mid spring is different that late summer so you may be able to plant bulbs in spots that get shady later one and it will be just fine.

BLOOM TIME: When you choose your perennials, think about when those perennials blooms and plan accordingly. Lilacs & viburnums blooms early followed by irises, peonies, baptisia, and then come roses, hydrangeas, yarrow, echinacea, lilies, and then you have mums and japanese anemones, and sedums.

Each of these can be its own blog post, but this is a good starting point. Don't forget to think height as well as width when choosing your perennials. I know it's a lot at once, but go back to the first tip--start small. Figure out one 10 to 15' space of your white moon garden, for example. Choose your tall plants and move forward thinking about height, spacing, and timing, and you'll create something beautiful.

Oh, and I can't leave you without saying, ALWAYS CHECK FOR DEER RESISTANCE. Or maybe it's bunnies for you. If you've been with me for any time, you know the battle against deer. Check your purchases because there is nothing worse than bringing home a David Austen Rose and finding that it is deer candy.

3. Fill in with annuals: Annuals live for one reason--to pump out color. These are often short plants known as bedding plants. They are ubiquitous in the spring at every garden center, grocery store, and hardware store. They can be flowers or foliage. You get these in flats and they are great for planting over places where spring bulbs have died back and at the front of beds such as lining a walkway.

Spring has pansies. Summer has impatiens and begonias for shady areas, petunias and geraniums for sunny areas. There's creeping jenny for lime green foliage, annual grasses for height, and ferns for big, bodacious body. Fall brings pansies again and mums. Annuals are here for a party and as long as you water them, they will keep pumping out.

4. Biennials: Flower farmers know there is a little gap in flowers between the spring blooms and summer blooms usually in late May/June where nothing is blooming. The overwintered and early spring flowers are done. This is where biennials come in.

This is an interesting plant that takes the first year to grow foliage--usually a low growing, basal foliage. Then, it goes through one winter and then blooms--you guessed it--in June, right in that gap. These are plants like foxgloves, rudbeckias, some sweet william, hollyhocks, and lunaria or money plant. Nowadays, some of these flowers have cultivars that don't need that cold period and will bloom the first year albeit shorter at times.

While these don't come back like a true perennial, they often reseed themselves and will grow again. If you have space for them, they are lovely precisely for filling in that gap period.

5. Adjust: Just because you planted something 2 years ago doesn't mean it has to stay there forever. Gardening is fun because you try new things every year and you get to change your mind. Maybe a tree dies and now you have a lot of sunlight in a previously shady spot. Adjust. Maybe you find out that plant is particularly tasty to deer. Adjust. Nothing is really forever. There are some plants like baptisia that dislike being moved. Maybe they have a taproot system. Even then, dig up young seedlings and give them a new home. You can always change things. That's half the fun and I hope that takes the stress off of getting it just right.

I hope that is a helpful starting point for you as you work in beautifying your space. Not only is it so good to work in your garden to clear and plant and tend, but it feeds you to have beauty all around you. The payback is awesome. Let me know what your questions and thoughts are below and happy planting!


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