I sat down to write about flower garden design ideas today based on a series of pictures I took of my own garden. My garden is an evolving, living painting; each day brings new colors, new textures, new focal points.
When you think about it, a painter must convey distance and perspective on a canvas. We who garden and design flower gardens have to consider not just color, but line, form, and texture. We must consider the growing habits of the plants and how they work together; we have to think not just about what the plants look like today, but what they will look like tomorrow and 20 years from now, as well as in four seasons.
The more I think about it, the more respect I have for landscape architects and their work.
Flower Garden Design Ideas
My own flower garden evolved over time. I’ve shared the story of how, when we first built our home here in Virginia, my husband asked me to plant flowers on a steep hillside next to the driveway. “I don’t want to use the riding mower on that hillside,” he said, and I didn’t blame him. It really was steep.
We didn’t want woods right to the edge of the driveway, so he asked me to plant a few flowers. I agreed, but I don’t like huge gardens. I like having contained beds. It’s how I grew up; I think about my garden in terms of plots, or areas, and I find it easier to plan and work with plants when a large space is divided into smaller pockets.
So one day, frustrated by my work, I headed outside with nothing more than a pail. Yes, a pail. I collected rocks from the lawn. We had too many rocks and the lawn mower kept hitting them, dulling the blade. I walked all over the lawn and picked up rocks. Then I walked back to the steep hillside and began laying out pathways.
I had a rough idea in mind to recreate my grandmother’s potager, or kitchen garden, from her backyard in Bellerose. I loved playing in her garden when I was a child. It always seemed like a magical place with its neat pathways, apple and pear trees, tomatoes and dahlias growing side by side. Many years later, I learned that my father had designed the garden for his mother for Mother’s Day, 1942. My uncle and aunt sent me a picture of the new garden and told me the story. What a cherished memory! I am glad my uncle told me that before he died. No wonder I loved that garden so much!
Anyway…I ended up with a garden with meandering, winding paths, a few beds, and a lot of space.
So we sent away for kits and planted them, then I added things I grew from seed, and then I added plants from the store that I bought on sale. The garden grew and it sort of sprawled without plan.
Flower Garden Design Ideas: Symmetry
This year, however, my flower garden design ideas are maturing.
First, I am moving plants to create more symmetry. The garden looks messy and unplanned to me because it lacks symmetry.
My first step was to move some clumps of monarda growing on the left side of the path to the right as you enter the garden. I have two peonies on either end of the pathway, and two heather and purple salvia. The monarda now balances both sides.
I also moved some of the purple and white, grape scented iris from my father in law to the left side of the path. A few digs with the trowel, some water and a lot of TLC, and those transplants are now taking root, creating a symmetrical welcome to the garden path.
I also moved a lot of foxglove to the pathway to create a more cottage garden feel. I’d planted foxglove seeds many years ago, and they are doing very well in the garden, but only in one location. Foxglove is a biennial, meaning the first year it merely grows, the second it sets flower and seeds for the next generation. My foxglove began on one side of the peony, but it’s begun spreading into the peonies and butterfly bushes, and you can’t see the pretty purple and pink spires of the foxglove once the shrubs get growing. I carefully dug out the errant foxglove plants and moved them to either side of the entrance pathway, again focusing on symmetry so that three plants on one side are balanced by thee on the other. I also moved a few to the foot of the peony on the right, so that the cluster of foxglove on the left balanced out the cluster on the right.
Mixing It Up: Plant Herbs Among the Flowers
Another idea I’d like to share with you is actually an old idea: mixing herbs among your flowers.
When I first started my garden, I had a separate bed just for herbs in the vegetable garden. Gradually, however, I realized I needed the space to grow more vegetables. I moved the sage and lemon balm plants into the flower garden.
Here is the sage (growing in the background) with ajuga reptans and day lilies under a wisteria. The sage loves it here and blooms freely in the summer. The soft silver green foliage and purple flowers looks wonderful with the purple ajuga and wisteria.
This year I plan to add basil and oregano to the flower garden, too. While basil is a tender annual herb and will die with the first frost, oregano tends to become a sprawling, lusty perennial herb that can conquer your entire garden. Mint gets like that, too. I’m going to plant mint among the flowers as well. Not only will both suppress weeds, but their flowers nurture bees, and I’ll have plenty of herbs to dry for culinary use. Other herbs I hope to add to the flower garden this year include German chamomile, purple basil, cinnamon basil, mints of all types, calendula and angelica. I’ve restarted my studies in herbal medicine and flower essence this year after a three-year hiatus, and I’m eager to experiment again with making tinctures, salves and various herbal teas.
To summarize my flower garden design ideas, here’s a list of things I’ve learned over the past seven years of designing, changing and evolving my flower garden here at Seven Oaks Farm:
- Flower gardens evolve over time. Don’t be afraid to move plants and change things around if what you started out with isn’t working.
- Plant more of what works and stop fussing with plants that won’t grow. I love roses, but I’ve killed more than I’ve grown, so I am sadly no longer planting them. On the other hand, iris thrive in my garden, and I love iris, so I add more each year. Work with what nature seems to want in your garden. Don’t fight nature.
- Strong “bones” or an outline of what you want the big picture to look like can help you create more of a form. My own garden ‘bones’ are loose and informal, a true country garden. That’s why the paths wander and the beds aren’t evenly shaped. I did that on purpose (really, I did) because I wanted the more formal garden beds to blend into the woods.
- Speaking of blending, if you have a sharp demarcation as I do between woods and garden, blend the two areas using woodland plants. I’ve created a fern and wildflower bower near the garden bend in the corner and am gradually clearing out the debris behind the bench to create a little meditation area. This green bower uses natural ferns from the woodlands around my house and ferns I’ve “rescued” and transplanted that were growing in odd spots, such as behind my air conditioner system. I think the moisture dripping from the AC unit encourage the ferns, but they were growing too close to the unit and we were afraid they’d tangle into it, so I had to move them. Using plants from around the property is both cost-effective and successful. It hasn’t cost me a penny to create my little green bower and the plants grow here naturally so they are already acclimated to my garden.
- Mix it up. Don’t be afraid to use herbs as ornamental flowers or to mix herbs, veggies, and flowers in one garden.
- Symmetry is your friend. It balances and soothes the eye as it travels over the garden.
- Grouping flowers around a central color theme is also soothing. Purple tends to dominate the spring garden, followed by a lot of blues, yellows and oranges in summer.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into my flower garden. It’s early yet, so a lot of the perennials aren’t blooming and of course I haven’t added the annuals yet. But because so few things are blooming, I think you can see the outline a little easier and imagine what will be.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.