Creating a Mixed Border

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Creating a Mixed Border

I don’t really believe that there is such a thing as low maintenance gardening.

Gardening is hard work and I think for many gardeners, it’s the process which offers so much pleasure. Still, I think there are ways to design your garden so that it doesn’t require you to work full-time just to maintain it.  With this in mind, about eight years ago I began to design my front garden. I knew that I wanted it to offer interest during every season, which here in the southeast means relying on foliage, texture and structure as much as flowers, which can be fleeting. I also wanted to enjoy the garden from inside the house, so that when we look out we see the garden. The bed curves and the border goes all the way to the street.

First I decided to put in a low curved wall to define the garden bed.  The wall was made of granite to complement our granite house. This was the most expensive part of my garden but I will never have to do it again. The next step was to bring in truckloads of screened topsoil and compost. Before I began planting I made lists of plants for different seasons and grouped those with pastel colors in one area and those with hot colors in another.  

late april blooms

Shrubs play a major role in my garden. A key shrub, Viburnum macrocephalum, Chinese snowball, acts as a focal point at the back of the border near the street. It has been limbed up to expose the trunks and is more like a small tree than a shrub.

Rudbeckia-'Herbstonne'-with-lilies-in-July

Evergreen anchors are provided by anise, Illicium parviflorum and a variegated selection (with yellow and green foliage) of Hinoki cypress, Chameacyparis obtusa. A tutuer offers support for Rosa ‘Zephirine Drouhin,’ one of my favorite roses. One additional rose, ‘Perle d’ Or,’ has fragrant soft pink flowers in spring and on and off summer through fall.   With its apple-green foliage, it looks good even when it’s not blooming.   Key trees include a Japanese maple, a white flowered form of Japanese flowering apricot, Prunus mume, and a smoke tree, the perfect backdrop for the hardy Amaryllis x johnsonii.

Perennial favorites like Amsonia hubrichtii and Euphorbia wulfenii look good whether they are blooming or not. Amsonia also offers striking golden yellow foliage in autumn.

snow day

Phlox paniculata ‘David’ is a stalwart and its white flowers are always welcome in late summer.   Other good doers include Allium millennium paired with lambs ear, Baptisia ‘Carolina Moonlight’  and for a groundcover in front of larger perennials I use Veronica ‘Georgia Blue ’ ( it blooms in spring),  various coneflowers and Calamintha nepeta nepeta which flowers for weeks and provides a good filler. Hemerocallis ‘Autumn Minaret’ is behind a ninebark shrub and grows 6 ft. tall without staking.  

acer in november

Other tall oversized plants like Joe-pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum and the cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum form a tall living screen at the street.  

At this point I am editing and trying to keep up with the weeds, especially after the rainy spring we’ve had.  I add violas for winter and early spring and replace them in summer with plants like Zinnia linearis.  

As the garden grows, I add and subtract plants but the basic framework stays the same and with each year I learn more about what works and what doesn’t work.  

One thing I can count on is change and the challenges of weather but most days there is at least one plant that brings a smile to my face.