3 Simple Concepts to Enhance Your Flower Gardens and Borders

When I started vegetable gardening 32 years ago it was primarily to supply food that I would not have been able to acquire otherwise. (We still depend heavily on the vegetables I raise.) I started flower gardening I guess because it’s just in me.  I feel sure the love of it was passed to me by my Grandmother who gardened until she was almost 100.

I remember when I was a child visiting her in Wisconsin.  She had a large border of “colorful” flowers.  There was a large tree in the border with a swing that had been made for me.  Some 60 years later the colorfulness of her border remains in my memory still.

After Granddaddy died she lived with my Uncle who was one of the last homesteaders in Idaho.  Little by little my Grandmother “carved” out a garden on the property.

She had a good sized flower garden (maybe 40 x 40 feet) that she laid out and yes — she worked it herself.  Although— she took every opportunity to enlist the aide of whatever strong and willing young man (or woman) came along for whatever task it was that she could not readily accomplish alone.

All 3 Concepts were Instinctively Practiced by my Grandmother

Looking back, it is amazing to me that my Grandmother, with no way to visit gardens of significance or to acquire garden books to learn and see what was being done, still instinctively put into play 3 of the same concepts that famed author and garden designer, Penelope Hobhouse, used to constantly improve the National Trust Gardens at Tintinhull.

Of course, the manner in which Grandmother practiced the concepts reflected her way of life and lack of financial means.  Nonetheless, they were the same concepts.

Although she could not afford to buy green bushes and trees (for Concept #1) she used many trellises and harbors, constructed of whatever material she was able to find or gather. They gave form to her garden and “carried” the garden even when the flowers were not blooming.

Her garden statutes, many of them gifts, also added  ‘year round interest’ that shrubs and trees would add to a more formal plan.

There was a surprise at every turn and new delights tucked in places you didn’t see until you were almost right on top of them. (Concept #2)

Most flowers were gifts or inexpensive “sale” items that she was able to purchase in later years. In spite of that she seemed to have it all.  Flowers would climb and drift as though nature had planted them.  (Concept #3)

Of  What Benefit to You is Penelope Hobhouse’s Knowledge and Accomplishments

Not all have the time or the means to design large acres (or even small plots) of garden and plant them in their entirety the first year.  Fortunately, famed garden designers like Penelope Hobhouse do.

How is that of benefit to you?  By knowing what she has done, you save yourself lots of time and make more educated choices. And you can do it as your time and means permit.

Already World Renowned Gardens – But Always Striving to Improve

The National Trust Gardens at Tintinhull in England are said to represent the English Natural Style with a grace seldom achieved.

In a video filmed while Penelope Hobhouse was curator there she told of making notes each year, adding new things, and removing other things in an effort to continually improve the already world-renowned gardens.  As she talked with Audrey Hepburn, she mentioned (among other things)  3 simple concepts used in planning these borders.

3 Simple Concepts

#1 Use Green (trees, shrubs, evergreens, and even grasses) for Structure and Interest

Although the goal is always to keep colorful bloom going all the time, said Ms. Hobhouse, no one succeeds 100% of the time.  Bits of the border come to a peak at different times and green can hold the garden together without flowers.

This is a good principle no matter what the size of your borders or gardens. Green (trees, shrubs, evergreens) also holds the garden together in times of drought and in the winter.

Is your garden interesting in the winter?

Much to my dismay 90% of my borders are not interesting in late winter. If yours is the same, start planning now.  You don’t have to correct the problem all at one time, but do something towards it every year.  As much as you can. Three years ago I started adding flowering shrubs, evergreens, conifers and ornamental trees.

(Picture below shows a Japanese Maple planted 3 years ago.  We’re looking forward to seeing it develop.)

When you choose look for

  • bark, shape and color to enjoy in the winter
  • summer foliage in different shades and hues
  • shrubs and trees that flower (and some spectacular ones that don’t)
  • Add a few conifers. There are many wonderful miniature and small conifers available.

As these plantings age, your enjoyment of your garden will be multiplied many times over.

Above – This hardy, dwarf shrub (hypericum hidcote) has added a lot to my front borders.  Below – We added these flowering shrubs about 3 years ago to our back border as a natural fence and to give the borders structure, form and interest as well.

#2 Create Surprises in Your Garden

You can arrange all your new plantings in a manner that will allow perennials and annuals to be placed amongst them.  This will allow you to create surprises in your garden. In other words, your garden should not all be revealed at a single glance.

An example in my border is a rather tall grass that is placed to conceal the ‘surprise’ around the other side.  I just love it!  That particular spot is striking and it always delights my guests (and me) to come upon it when we are walking about the gardens. (Part is shown below.)

I’m planning to use my plantings of trees, shrubs and evergreens the same way I have used this grass – to conceal certain floral delights until the viewer is almost on top of them.

#3 Keep it Natural Looking

It takes planning to keep a border looking as if nature planted it.

  • An idea that will go a long way towards achieving the goal is to include insubstantial flowers with petals that are not solid and that weave into each other. (Lavenders, yarrows, and queen anne’s lace are good examples.)

I’ve used lavenders in spite of their height at the front of the borders (above) to give a lacy, natural look.  They mirror each other — but a little off center —across the walkway which is just visible in the picture.

  • Another idea is to allow a plant that has colonized in your garden to spill over and do its thing.  Keep it in check enough to control it, but at the same time allow it to enhance the natural look you want.

As you garden through the fall,  take a good look at your gardens and borders and think about how you can improve them. I’ll be doing the same.

Using these 3 simple concepts will go a long way towards giving you a more enjoyable garden experience.

Above – One of my favorite spots in my fence border near the road.  Asters, sedum, grasses, and chrysanthemums blend for a more natural look mimicking the tones in the surrounding landscape.


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  • My grandmother walked to the neighborhood grocery everyday. When visiting her, it was such a treat to make those walks with her and take the bus into Louisville to Stewart’s department store. Maybe if she had been a gardener, I would have followed that path instead of finding delight in grocery stores. Fortunately, my husband’s grandmothers were gardeners!

    I loved the post!

  • Hi Ann,

    Every family needs a shopper as well as a gardener, so things worked out just right. :^)

    I’m glad you loved the post. I enjoyed writing it.


  • I was looking back at some of your old posts. What beautiful gardens you have. I had not looked at these pictures before. It’s a rainy day and I had time to play around. You have done such a wonderful job with your flower beds. How can I get back to your first posts?

  • Hi Beppy,

    I think it interesting that statics show that most people don’t see the archives. That in mind, I have plans to make it easier for folks to see at a glance what articles are on the site and hope to have some of the new “improvements” up by Thanksgiving.

    Glad you had time to go back and look at some of the previous articles and that you enjoyed the pictures of my garden and flower beds.

    Best as always,

  • Very well explained. I began gardening by growing flowers, but never managed to make them look anything other than soldiers lined up looking stiff. At least with vegetables, a regimented row of little lettuces or cabbages is a beautiful sight! In the last year, as my children transition from being babies and toddlers, I find I have a little more time to think about my sadly neglected front ‘borders’ – I find this kind of advice really helpful for those of us who don’t naturally have, ‘an eye’. I shall start looking at the green element first. Inspiring photos as usual.

  • Sandra, I think most of us will spend a lifetime trying to make our borders better. In the last 3 or 4 years I have tried to add green structural plantings every year. But — of course they take time to grow. Even then, it’s making a difference. So keep working at it —- it’ll make a difference.

    As I think you already know, I owe the wonderful photos to Bill. He’s so wonderful about helping me make the posts better with great photos. I appreciate your noticing.

  • Yes, the photos illustrate perfectly the points you are making in the text. You are a good blogging team!

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