Garden borders: 25 ideas for the perfect planting scheme

Use these garden borders as inspiration to ensure your garden is in full bloom year round

garden borders in autumn
(Image credit: Future)

Garden borders provide infinite opportunities for imaginative planting and are central to a successful garden design. And, with a bit of know-how, you can keep your garden borders looking colorful year-round, even in the depth of winter. 

Whether you like a landscaped, formal look, or would like to create a natural garden, follow these tips from horticulturalist Matt James and create luscious, thriving garden borders. Just grab your best gardening tools, and you're good to go.

1. Work with your garden's natural layout

a colorful garden full of plants such as lavender, with stone paving in the foreground

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Working in harmony with your garden is always best. Garden plant ideas work when grown where they’re happiest – which will also mean they'll need less attention and will both flower and fruit better.

Spend time noting the characteristics of your beds and borders: are they sunny or shady? Wet or dry? Sheltered or exposed? Chances are you’ll find different growing conditions in different parts of the garden. Look carefully, and then choose appropriate plants to match each one.

  • Find more gorgeous garden ideas in our feature full of stunning borders, planting tips and more ways to use your outside space

2. Plan your planting scheme carefully

a bed of lavender in a pretty outdoor garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

All good gardeners make their mistakes on paper, not on the ground, saving both time and money in the process. Use graph paper and draw on the outline of the area to be planted, preferably to scale (1cm on paper to 50cm on the ground –1:50 scale – is ideal for all but the most complicated schemes). Then, considering the scale you’ve selected, play with different arrangements until you find one that works. Plot plants with their mature size in mind to be sure they’ll fit.

3. Research and find inspiration

a raised border full of bright flowers and colorful planting

Planting beds surround this raised water feature with rendered walls designed by Ann Marie Powell and built by Garden House Design. The colourful planting is designed to develop and mature to soften the harder lines

(Image credit: Ann Marie Powell/Garden House Design)

Find combinations you like, look in books and magazines, and if growing conditions are the same as those in your garden, copy them. Neighboring gardens and labeled displays at nurseries are also useful for ideas.

4. Consider maintenance carefully

a spring garden with lavender

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

How much time do you have? For young families and those at work all day, winter and summer bedding, rose bushes, fruit, vegetables and floppy perennials are too time-consuming.

If you're limited on gardening time, instead favor shrubs, tidy conifers, ornamental grasses and tough-but-colourful mat-forming perennials such as Stachys Byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’. All need little attention once established, and suffer few pests or diseases.

5. Choose a planting theme for your garden borders

a vast outdoor garden full of colorful flowers including lavender and roses

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Picking a theme brings clarity and focus to the design process. Personal taste and how you plan to use the garden have an influence, but the space itself can offer clues as to what works best. For example, a sunny free-draining slope is perfect for an informal Mediterranean-inspired gravel garden. Visually, it won’t look out of place either.

6. Keep the border planting scheme simple

a gravel walled garden with lavender plants in the borders

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Hold yourself back from including every plant on your shortlist, as the planting will look chaotic and unplanned. Aim to create a sense of harmony and unity by choosing a color palette or theme early on.

7. Repeat planting in a border for a designed effect

a garden border with repeated flowers throughout

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Repetition in garden borders is the easiest way to unify a planting scheme. It’s also the one thing that marks out a ‘designed’ border, from one that happens by accident. Perhaps use the same hedging throughout or repeat evergreen perennials, or ornamental grasses in drifts at the front of beds and borders (where repetition is most obvious).

8. Use a variety of plants to create contrast

a simple garden border with a variety of plants and flowers including sunflowers

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

While harmony is important, so is diversity. Plants with distinctive colors and dramatic shapes, such as spiky palms and pencil junipers, make great focal points. But a little goes a long way, so use sparingly or the planting will look over-stimulating. With standard-sized borders (1.5-2m wide) one focal point plant every four to six metres should be enough. 

A lot of space to cover? A tree border would work, but again, less is more with tree borders – choose one or two species for a start. Shade gardens also prove that it's important to place plants where they will thrive the most.

9. Consider the color wheel in garden borders

a modern garden border full of white flowers

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Color is a personal preference, but if you want to be more precise about it and create memorable plantings like the professionals, choose a classic combination, taking into account the color wheel. Colors opposite each other complement through dramatic contrast. Those adjacent are harmonious, and the easiest way to combine color over a large area.

You could pick the shades, tints and tones of one color only for a sophisticated monochromatic look. Or alternatively, choose an exciting triadic combination using three colors from the wheel, each spaced equidistantly apart. A multicolored scheme is also a possibility, but isn’t that easy to pull off successfully.

10. Add layers for extra interest

a garden border with stones and decking

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The easiest and most visually effective way to arrange plants is in layers, with borders backed by walls or fences, tall shrubs, tree borders, bamboo and lofty grasses first. Place roses, smaller shrubs, mid-sized perennials and ornamental grasses in the middle. Feature shorter shrubs, mounding perennials and ankle-high ground-cover plants in front.

However, try to avoid arranging everything like a series of steps. On occasion sweep low plantings towards the back, and taller ones to the front, to create depth and interest.

11. Make big garden borders

a garden with a garden border full of multi-colored flowers

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Thin strips under 50cm wide will only allow for a low hedge, a wall shrub, or a line of tidy perennials arranged uncomfortably like soldiers on parade. Beds and borders in excess of two metres, however, can accommodate multi-layered mixed plantings with shrubs, roses and more natural drifts of perennials and grasses.

Some designs, naturalistic ‘prairie-like’ plantings in particular, need lots of space for the effect to be appreciated. In small gardens this might mean sacrificing lawn space – consider if you want to do this.

12. Create mixed borders in urban gardens

rose arch and climbing roses at front of Victorian house

(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons)

In urban and suburban gardens, continuity of interest is important. The mixed border is best, as you can call on every plant group – trees, shrubs, roses, perennials, and bulbs – for interest, with each group sparkling at different times of the year.

13. Consider plants with autumn and winter in mind

plant pot in an autumn garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Plants with fiery autumn leaves, stunning seed heads, colorful fruits and berries, brilliant bark or evergreen leaves prolong seasonal interest and help to lift the spirits on drab days. When planning your garden borders, remember to consider seasons other than the summer!

14. Focus on shapes to add interest to garden borders

different potted plants in a garden border

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

The shape of plants is just as important as flower color, and because it’s around for much longer (with woody plants, all year round), shape helps to structure the planting. The color and texture will then supply the finish.

15. Line path borders with bags of bulbs

thatched cottage with daffodils within the garden borders

(Image credit: Future / Kasia Fiszer)

Brilliant for seasonal interest in spring, summer and autumn, most bulbs cope with competition so can be planted to grow through frothy perennials, giving you two colour bursts from the same place – ideal where space is tight. Only large-flowered tulips need replacing each year.

16. Add volume with shrubs

low maintenance front garden idea, with shrubs in a garden border

(Image credit: Lucy Willcox Garden Design)

Offering year-round interest for little effort, shrubs bring all-important ‘body’ to your borders, too. As a guide, most mixed plantings should contain at least 40 per cent, spaced evenly throughout the display, from the back right down to the front.

Evergreens with good form and shapely leaves should be first choice, especially in small spaces. Consider size at maturity carefully, though, as some shrubs can grow to monstrous proportions.

  • If big plants are your thing, explore how to make an impact with mature plants 

17. Cover all soil with plants

late season flowers in colorful garden borders

(Image credit: Future)

Plant plenty of ground-cover perennials and mat-forming shrubs to smother the soil and keep down weeds. But, don’t cram plants in cheek-by-jowl for an instant effect. Observe the correct spacing (your garden centre or nursery will help here), or be prepared to undertake some judicious pruning in a few years’ time.

18. The more the merrier in garden borders

kitchen garden and climbing roses

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Never place each plant as a solitary specimen. This results in a bitty-looking display. Instead, plant in groups proportionate to the size of space.

In small gardens/borders, shrubs and roses planted in groups of three is common, unless they’re larger specimens, where one by itself is fine. For perennials and grasses, plant in groups of three to 12 plants, depending on the importance of the plant and how distinctive it is; some plants – particularly pastel-colored single-stemmed perennials, for example – are invisible by themselves.

19. Think vertical when planting borders

climbing roses around an arch in a spring garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Height is important for interest, contrast and to pull the eye skyward. Fastigiate (pencil-like) shrubs and climbers trained on wigwams are ideal. Take full advantage of walls and fences, too, perhaps combining tidy non-invasive climbers that flower at different times to prolong the season of interest. Roses and large-flowered summer clematis is a classic combination.

20. Fill garden borders with scented plants

a garden border with shrubs and striking flowers

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Scented plants enliven any garden, so try to include them when possible. There are so many different ones to choose from, but how powerful the perfume is will determine where they work best.

‘Free scents’, such as Dutch honeysuckle and white jasmine, perfume the air for yards and are generous, sometimes to a fault. ‘Up close and personal’ scents, such as from roses, witch hazel and Daphne, are more subtle, so position near areas you use the most. ‘Touchy-feely’ scents, such as from thyme, are released only when the plant’s leaves are picked; position in patio pots or next to paths, within easy reach.

21. Mix flowers and grasses in garden borders

grasses and flowers in a garden border

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp Photography)

For a natural, free-flowing look, grasses make a great addition to garden borders that need bulking up. From the traditional Pampas grass to the delicate and wispy Stipa, mix them with flowers such as anemone and phlox for an effortless look. 

22. Add a tropical palm tree to your garden borders

garden border tips: plant a palm tree as seen in this picture

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp Photography )

Break up a traditional garden border with an exotic palm tree for a more contemporary look. Fan palms, cotton palms (Washingtonias) and needle palms all tend to do well in milder climates. 

23. Use lawn edging to create a formal look for borders

real stone Arcadian lawn edging by Haddonstone – a stone garden border

(Image credit: Haddonstone)

Lawn edging can help create a formal look for your garden borders and zone your garden; it will also protect your border when you mow your lawn. There are tons of materials and styles to choose from, and what you choose will largely reflect your budget and your garden's style. 

24. Garden border ideas for autumn: top plants

Michaelmas daisies, by Rosario Janza

(Image credit: Unsplash/Rosario Janza)

Autumn presents many garden border ideas that are colorful and will keep you garden looking great well into December. Asters are the stars of the autumn garden, with many varieties blooming well into late October and sometimes November, if it's mild. Michaelmas daisies are a particularly popular variety, coming in wonderful shades of purple or dark pink. Combine them with wispy grasses and evergreen shrubs for a stunning late-season display.  

Heather in Stockholm, Sweden, by Linus Mimietz

(Image credit: Unsplash/Linus Mimietz)

Another autumn classic that is sometimes unfairly neglected is heather. Heather is a hardy, native plants that can provide plenty of interest throughout the colder months. Choose one of the Calluna vulgaris ‘Garden Girls’ varieties for bright spikes of color well into January. Heathers do require a sunny position, though.

Asters in garden border, by Dalal Nizam

(Image credit: Unsplash/Dalal Nizam)

25. Liven up a north-facing garden with a tree border

small garden trees: Acer Palmatum in a pot in a garden

(Image credit: Thompson & Morgan)

Have a north-facing garden border that's not doing much? North-facing walls can look severe, but it's actually relatively easy to bring a shady garden border to life. Consider a layered planting scheme with a tree border at the back (choose shade-tolerant trees and shrubs such as yew and skimmia), and a textured display of shade-loving ferns at the front.