Translating a design into a bed or border is easy once you know the language of gardening. The overall steps — dig, amend, and plant — are the same for every bed and border no matter the shape or size. But success is in the details. For healthy plantings that will go the distance, follow these tried-and-true techniques.
Beds Versus Borders
Beds and borders are often lumped together, but each serves its own purpose in a garden. A bed is freestanding — a circle, square, rectangle, or any other free-form shape surrounded by lawn, hardscaping, or groundcovers. Plantings are visible from all sides, so the tallest plants are typically placed in the center, with plants descending in height to the bed’s edges.
A border usually snuggles against a wall. Plants in borders are positioned in order of descending height, with the tallest at the back and the shortest in front.
Use beds to break up large expanses of lawn or pavement and borders to soften paths, house walls, and fences, or to frame the perimeter of a lawn. Borders tend to travel farther than beds, displaying more foliage-and-flower combinations in a repetitive pattern. Beds create strong focal points.
Whether you plant a bed, a border, or both depends on how you plan to use your outdoor space. A few key factors will affect their success.
Choose a Location
Appraise your yard’s conditions before you plant. Note sun and shade patterns over the course of a day, and let your findings guide the plants you use. Pay attention to prevailing winds, and choose a site where beds are protected from strong gusts. If necessary, install a hedge or fence as a windbreak. Examine the area’s drainage. Avoid any area that regularly appears swampy, or install a raised bed.
Know Your Soil
What type of soil do you have? Is it sandy, or is it squishy clay near the surface? Chances are you’ll run into one or the other and will need to adjust when you dig your bed or border. Both soil types can be moved a step closer to perfect soil, called loam — which is crumbly and well-aerated, with a significant amount of organic material called humus. Just add organic material such as leaf mold, decomposed manure, sawdust, or peat moss at planting time.
Prepare The Planting Area
Use a garden hose to map the edges of curving beds and borders. (Use string and stakes to outline a square or rectangular bed or border.) Move the hose until the planting area is the desired shape and size. Then mark the outline with flour or chalk dust, or create a cut line with a square-nose shovel so you can move the hose out of your way. Remove existing sod.
Dig a 1-foot-deep and 1-foot-wide trench along the length of your bed or border. Place the excavated soil in a wheelbarrow, or toss it onto a tarp next to the planting area. Remove any large rocks, roots, and weeds, then use a garden fork to loosen the subsoil to a depth of 1 foot. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic material on top of the aerated soil in the trench.
Move over a foot or so, and start the next trench. This time, throw the dirt into the first trench. Continue this pattern until the entire area is double-dug. Top off the bed with a second 2- to
3-inch layer of organic material, as well as any fertilizer you want to use, mixing both into the top 6 inches of soil. To speed this process, rent a rotary tiller, which will churn the soil to the desired
6 inches. Smooth the soil with a rake.
Plant The Bed/Border
Start at the back of a planting area and move toward the front so you don’t step on plants you’ve just planted. Avoid kneeling, sitting, or stepping on the exposed soil, or you’ll compact it and undo your tilling and digging work.
Create holes for seeds or seedlings with a trowel. Sow seeds to the depth recommend on the seed packet. For a seedling, dig a hole double the size of the root ball. Break up the bottom and sides of the hole, then loosen the root ball before placing it into the hole. Make sure the crown (where plant foliage meets the root ball) sits level with the topsoil surface; backfill the hole if it is too low. Secure the root ball by pushing soil around it with your trowel or hands. Give the plant a drink of water.
Keep a close eye on your plants the first few weeks after planting, making sure they have plenty of water so their roots don’t dry out. To help soil retain moisture and starve the inevitable weeds, put down a layer of shredded bark mulch. Reapply as it decomposes. Be diligent about weeding, too.
To keep beds and borders in line, you also may want to employ some type of edging. Edging stops grass from jumping its boundaries into your beds and makes mowing easier. A shallow, spade-cut trench also can do the trick; just redefine the cuts periodically to keep them crisp.
Tall perennials often require staking. Install wire cages in spring, or use bamboo or wooden poles and string in summer.
Deadhead spent flowers to encourage a second round of blooms and keep your beds and borders bursting with color through the growing season. In fall, you can cut back spent foliage, or let it dry and serve as structural art during winter.