The lone voice of horticultural reason

Tips To Creating Flower Beds

As a new gardener creating my first flower beds ten years ago, I had decided two things: first, plastic edging would be forbidden on my property. Spanking-new spade in hand, all it would take was an easy once-a-week regimen of a few hours toil for my gardens to forever exhibit the gentrified look of perfectly edged lawn crisply defining each prim, serpentine bed. A simple daily hand-trimming of the few errant grass blades and quick filling of newly exposed worm holes with a dab of black dirt and I’d be welcoming tour buses to the perfect suburban garden in no time.

Second, annuals were for cheaters. If one couldn’t master the modest task of creating season-long color with the plethora of bulbs, native wildflowers, early and mid-season perennials and bountiful fall bloomers available to the pallet, best to divert your leisure time to belly dance classes and leave the real gardening to real gardeners.

How trends change! Even this year I wish I had made more use of annuals, and resolve next year to up their presence in my flower beds to at least 30%. Their constant color is the design savior for those inevitable periods when one area is fading before another hits full bloom. Ignore the plant tag instructions for spacing annuals, by the way. Growers use the same plant tags for every region in the country, a majority of which have growing seasons a lot longer and warmer than Minnesota’s. The impatiens you plant here are darn near a perennial in Arizona, so of course you’re instructed to space them 10″-12″ apart. That’s what annuals need to grow for six months and more into full, mature plants. In Minnesota, annuals are dead from frost after five months, so ram ’em in a lot tighter when you plant, 6″ spacing or so, which is plenty of room for their brief dance in the sun. You’ll get a fuller splash of color quicker, at no sacrifice to the plant.

My discovery that grass grows sideways and is forever procreating well within the confines of a flowerbed came early the first June. Not only did the green plague virtually gallop into my freshly turned and fertilized garden soil, I discovered that any active, hardy fescue has a particularly keen eye for clumps of Siberian iris, from which it is inextricable. So one spring I broke down and circled my garden with plastic edging, though was careful to install only the thick, wide, heavy-duty commercial product one buys at hardscape supply yards and not mess with the rinky-dink cheap stuff you buy at Menard’s and the frost heaves out. Luckily the same year I raised the beds, for I had grown weary too of the flat look of flowers rising from the same level as the lawn. I’d also lost perennials by that time from beds near the road where salt from the winter and soggy conditions after rainstorms were rotting the plants out.

But what border material to use to contain the raised beds? Railroad ties of any size or hue were out, of course-nothing looks less natural than flower beds segregated from lawn by straight, square, flat wooden timbers, except perhaps those attempted with concrete retaining wall block. Stacked and deadheaded, running straight up in a wall to keep a cliff from sliding down where you had to cut in a driveway, OK, I can see using ties, but that’s it. God may have created the tree but had nothing to do with milling it into a 6″ x 6″. The only characteristic ties share with a dead tree is they rot.

The dozen varieties of interlocking retaining wall block I deemed equally insipid, visually accomplishing nothing more than bringing a touch of downtown’s Multifoods Tower into your own backyard. They lend themselves to neglected shrubbery around government buildings, I think, not joyous perennial gardens. In fact the only discernable advantage to retaining wall block over wooden timbers is that the block will look like hell for a considerably longer time.

So what to do? Go shopping, of course, which is what I did, and next week, so shall we all.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener