How To Design a Perennial Garden

Wondering how to design a perennial garden that sustains the test of time? We have the answers for you. I've created a nine-step plan to help you get started.

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Wondering how to design a perennial garden that sustains the test of time? We have the answers for you. I've created a nine-step plan to help you get started.

Before buying any plants, you need to create a plant and choose your style. Then, you can choose the best plants and colors for your landscape. Always keep maturity size in mind and pay close attention to where you plant full sun, partial sun, partial shade and shade categories plants and flowers.

To start, we’ll discuss what perennials are and why people love them so much. Then, we’ll get into the four main types and some examples of each. After that, I’ll wrap it all up with a nine-step plan to design a perennial garden you'll enjoy for years to come.

When I planted my flower starts last year, I had no idea which ones were perennials or annuals. Flowers were scarce in 2020. So, I purchased whatever was on sale when I visited my local nursery. It almost broke my heart when I had to pull up so many annuals this spring. But my perennials are still going strong over a year later. This is what I’ve learned on this journey.

Table of Contents

What Are Perennials?

Perennials are plants and flowers that return for at least two years. Some come back every single year, especially in warmer growing zones. USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

They have limitless potential. Which is one of the most common reasons for growing them. There’s no need to replant them each year because even if they die back a bit during the winter frosts, they re-emerge in full bloom by spring.

4 Main Types of Perennials

Perennials fall into four main categories. Let’s discuss them and go over a few examples of each one:

1. Short-Lived

Survive 2-3 years. Examples include:

  • Columbine
  • Baby’s Breath
  • Hyacinth
  • Iceland Poppy
  • Hybrid Tulips

2. Long-Lived

Survive at least 5 years. Examples include:

  • Coneflower
  • Daylily
  • Hosta
  • Butterfly Weed
  • Blanket Flower

3. Herbaceous 

Die back annually during frosts in colder zones due to the soft, non-woody stems. Examples include:

  • Hardy Mums
  • Peonies
  • Oriental Poppies
  • Mayapple
  • Tomatoes

4. Woody

Lose their foliage during winter frost, but their stems and root systems continue living. Examples include:

  • Rose
  • Fig
  • Boxwood
  • Cape Jasmine
  • Peppers

9-Step Plan to Design a Perennial Garden

Let’s go over nine basic tips for designing a perennial garden on your landscape:

1. Create a Plan

Before running out and buying all sorts of flowers, plants and shrubs, make a plan first. There are some amazing perennial garden planning apps around that can help you create the best design for your needs and style. Or you can go the old-fashioned route and pull out a pencil and paper to sketch your design by hand.

Either way, measure the area. And be sure to include your permanent hardscapes, such as:

  • House
  • Swimming Pool
  • Fences
  • Water Structures
  • Porches
  • Deck

2. Choose Your Style

When it comes to designing a garden, your architectural style matters. Think of your garden as an empty canvas. And you are the artist charged with creating your own personal masterpiece.

You can design it how you like. But here are some tips just in case to ensure that your garden helps bring out the beauty in your landscape’s architecture:

  • Larger Homes – It’s best to go with a more formal approach to gardening with homes that have stronger design aspects or large plots of empty land. The common way of planting in these cases is in straighter lines.
  • Smaller Homes – The most popular approach with bungalows, cottages and other small homes is to mix things up when planting perennials. Keep things informal, lively and colorful.

3. Choose the Right Plants

The best perennial gardens provide eye-popping color for as long as possible during the year. So, you want to choose plants, shrubs and flowers that bloom throughout spring, summer and fall.

You also want to have a little color in your garden during the winter too. This can be accomplished by planting some perennial evergreens.

4. Consider Colors

There are so many routes you can take when it comes to choosing colors and color schemes for your garden. Personally, I love purple. So, I can’t get enough of it.

However, thanks to weather issues, bugs and rogue California cats, things don’t always work out as planned. That’s why I tend to turn to a color wheel to help me determine other colors that may blend well with my favorite color.

But here are some common perennial garden color schemes you may consider:

  • Monochromatic – Combination of various shades of the same color – Such as lavender to deep purple
  • Analogous – Combination of colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel -  Such as red, purple and blue
  • Complimentary – Combination of colors that are opposite to each other on the wheel – Such as purple and yellow

5. Remember Maturity Size

Know what plants you’re buying and how large they get at the time of maturity. Yes, they can be cute and tiny when you first buy them as starts. But some plants can grow to be 12 feet tall or even 8 feet wide.

That’s why I recommend paying close attention to the instructions on the seeds packets. Or if you plant starts, buy them from your local nursery. The employees of big box stores and home improvement centers don’t necessarily know anything about plants.

However, the people at your local nursery actually grow the plants they sell. So, they can answer any and all questions about anything you plan to purchase. Plus, they know your local growing zone.

6. Think About Height

One of the biggest mistakes I made when planting flowers in my front yard flowerbed was not asking the people at my local nursery about maturity height. I just planted the cute, little starts where I saw fit at the time.

When my perennials returned the following spring, that bed was a mess for a while. I had flowers planted in rows of three, with the taller ones in the middle. This blocked the sunlight from the ones in the back. Plus, you couldn’t see them.

Always plant the ones with a taller maturity in the back. And smaller plants should be in the front. If you’re not sure how tall a plant will get when it becomes an adult, check the tags or Google it.

7. Location Is Key

When it comes to sunlight, perennials and all other greenery fall into four main categories:

  • Full Sun – Generally means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. However, many vegetable plants need at least 8-10 to really thrive.
  • Partial Sun – Generally means about 3-6 hours of direct sun. However, they tend to tolerate the afternoon sun fairly well.
  • Partial Shade – Generally means 3-6 hours of sun as well. However, they don’t care much for afternoon sunshine at all.
  • Shade – This doesn’t imply that the plants can thrive with no sunshine at all. It just means that they can survive in areas that may only get a couple hours of direct sun.

Before planting in a new garden bed, I study the area very well. I basically, what I call, chase the sun. I take a picture of the bed every 30 minutes to determine when it gets shade and what’s causing the shade.

If it’s an annual plant that will be removed soon, I keep that in mind. However, if it’s my neighbor’s house, I take that permanent source of shade into consideration as well.

After chasing the sun for a day, create a perennial plan that puts the right plants in the right places for the amount of sun they need. If not, you’ll find yourself replacing those sun-scorched Black-Eyed Susans or digging up your pepper plants trying to transplant it somewhere else.

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