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One of the most invigorating moments of spring is walking into a greenhouse and buying new flowers. And, perhaps one of the most disappointing moments is when the flowers don’t become the fragrant oceans of color that we expected.
Starting a flower garden begins in the winter or early spring; long before you plant a flower garden. The key to full, healthy flower gardens is preparing the flower bed and researching the plants that do well in your climate zone.
Flower beds have similar soil preparation steps as vegetable gardens, but the overall goal of a flower garden is to be aesthetically pleasing, while a vegetable garden is more about the quality of the food. This does change the planning and preparation stages, making flower beds more of a hybrid between a landscape bed and a veggie garden.
Building a Flower Bed
The first step for starting a flower bed also happens to be the most boring: soil preparation.
The health and vibrancy of your future flower bed is totally dependent on soil quality, light, and water. If you start with a healthy foundation, your flowers will be more drought and pest resistant, and the root systems will be able to support heavy blooming.
Flower Bed Location
Flower beds can either be part of an existing landscape bed, or a stand-alone feature in a lawn or garden. Choose the location for your flower bed or beds, and then decide if you want to plant the flowers in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers.
In-ground flower beds are cheaper to establish than raised beds or containers, but you are at the mercy of the existing soil. You can till and add compost, but your plant choice will be limited by the soil in your lawn.
This is not a real problem for flower beds, because there are so many different annuals and perennials that you can find plants for almost any climate and soil condition.
In-ground flower beds are better for deep-rooted perennials, pops of color for existing landscape beds, and native plant flower beds.
Raised-bed flower gardens are more expensive to establish, but they give you more control over your growing media and irrigation. Plus, raised beds are easier on the knees.
Flower beds require more maintenance than shrubs and trees, so plan to spend more time deadheading, planting, and mulching than in an established landscape.
Create raised beds by building:
- Retaining walls
- Raised mounds of soil
- Wooden boxes or frames
- Recycled pallet beds
There are hundreds of thousands of designs and ideas for raised beds on DIY websites, and you can build any length, depth, or width for a flower garden.
You can find annuals that fit into a small, 6”x 6” space, so don’t let a small growing space dissuade you from building a flower bed.
Container flower beds are more versatile for small spaces, and they help add vertical visual interest for patios and along fences.
The difference between a container and a raised bed is that a container is held above the ground and drains out the bottom, whereas a raised bed is built on top of the soil and drains directly into the ground.
Raised beds hold moisture much better than containers, unless you find a good, balanced growing media. If you decide to do container beds, try choosing plants that are drought-resistant and have more shallow root systems.
Containers are also a great option for trailing or vining plants.
You can also mix all three flower bed designs into one landscape to create a layered flower garden. Mix raised beds and containers into an in-ground bed to add height and texture to small spaces.
Prepare the soil for a flower bed by doing a soil test (for in-ground beds) or choosing a soil mixture for your raised beds or containers.
There are many more options for flower beds than there are any other type of garden bed. This is helpful for soil preparation, because you can find flowers to fit almost any soil type, so you don’t have to force the soil to conform to a few select species.
However, basic soil preparation should include:
- Remove rocks
- Loosen soil (or add soil to containers/raised beds)
- Do a soil test
Do as much soil preparation as you can the fall before you want to plant your first flower bed. This will give the soil time to settle, and it will leave you more time to plant your flower bed in the spring, because you won’t be rushing to finish building beds before Mother’s Day.
Take a list of your soil mix ingredients or soil test results to the greenhouse when you are ready to pick your flowers. You should also make a note of the lighting and how wet or dry the area gets from sprinkler systems or when it rains. This information will help greenhouse employees choose the right plants for your garden beds.
Designing a Landscape
The goal of a flower garden is to enhance the look of your landscape. If landscape beds are well-designed, they provide interest during each season:
- Established plants may bloom during the spring, providing pops of color
- Many established plants bloom during the spring and summer, providing full oceans of color
- Annuals and perennials bloom during summer and fall
- Plants with variegated foliage provide a more dynamic backdrop for flowers
- Tall, flowy grasses or full, bushy shrubs provide a balanced overall look
- Seed pods, colorful bark, grass seed heads, and evergreens provide winter interest
You can provide visual interest during each season by using a variety of each of the three basic kinds of landscape plants:
- Annuals: These are plants that you plant in the spring and they die in late fall. Annuals provide the most colorful flowers and most interesting foliage variegations. Annuals will need to be replanted each year.
- Herbaceous Perennials: These are plants that die each fall and come back each spring, like hostas, daylilies, daisies, echinacea, and asters. Herbaceous perennials provide colorful, reliable backdrops for annual beds.
- Woody Perennials: These are shrubs or ornamental trees that are either deciduous or evergreen. Woody perennials provide the overall structure and depth to a landscape bed. Although they may bloom, they are not considered part of a flower bed.
So, a flower bed will use annuals and herbaceous perennials, which will provide visual interest for mid spring through mid fall. Both annuals and herbaceous perennials will die back during the fall and winter, so flower beds should be accompanied by a variety of woody perennials to maintain off-season visual appeal.
Design your flower bed as part of an overall landscape. Most annuals are a maximum of 2-3’ tall, and herbaceous perennials rarely reach over 5’ tall, so try to incorporate a few taller woody perennials near the back and sides of the landscape beds to create depth.
Designing a Flower Bed
Flower beds are usually part of a larger whole. However, you can separate individual flower beds away from established landscape beds, or create small flower beds along sidewalks and bordering patios.
First, decide on a color scheme. This can be as formal or as casual as you like, but it does help to narrow down your choices at the greenhouse.
- Cool themes could have a range of blues and purples with pops of whites.
- Warm themes could be a rainbow of yellows, oranges, pinks, and reds.
- Monochromatic themes work well to create uniformity and give a more formal, structured look.
- Contrasting themes like yellow and purple create more depth in a landscape.
Of course, you could choose to use all of the colors and plant a rainbow, but it helps to have a color scheme in mind before you visit the greenhouse so you can tell the employees what types of plants you’re looking for.
Once you choose your colors, it’s time to choose your plants!
Your final plant choice will depend on the types of plants carried by your local greenhouses.
Plants at local greenhouses are much healthier than plants carried by large department stores.
Department stores ship plants in from all over the country, which can give them a better selection, but it also means their plants may have been grown in climates very different than yours, and they look nice because they just got off the truck a few days ago.
Local greenhouses generally grow their own plants from plugs, or order from growers who are closer to your growing climate. The plants may not look as full or colorful, but this is generally because they use more natural fertilizers.
Greenhouses that force blooms on their annuals may look better, but the plants are weaker and more stressed. Greenhouses that pluck off the flower buds to keep them from flowering are promoting healthy root growth and have more resilient plants, but the tables of annuals aren’t as colorful.
Use root color as a gauge of health when you’re shopping for flowers. White, thick roots with crumbly soil that is evenly moist is a sign of a healthy plant, especially if it isn’t in full bloom. Yellow, stunted roots and soil that is moist only in the top inch or two of the pot is a sign of a plant that is blooming from fertilizer use and not because it is healthy. These are the types of plants that will wilt and suffer as soon as you transplant them.
Local greenhouses also have more experienced employees, so they can give you more educated advice on which flowers you should choose for your flower bed. They may also have the option to order special plants in for your landscape.
Planting a Flower Garden
Once you’ve prepared your flower bed and chosen your plants, it’s time to plant your flowers!
Plant the flowers the same day you buy them, if possible. If you must choose, plant annuals first and put the perennials on a protected patio or in a sunny area of the garage to plant another day.
Plant flowers even with the soil in the pot. Gently break up the soil on the bottom of the plant to loosen the roots before planting. Mulch with cedar mulch. Never use cypress! It attracts pests.
Water immediately, and water consistently for the next few days. The plants will wilt and may even fall over for the first few days after transplanting. Keep watering and eventually, they should perk up.
Read about a super-easy and inexpensive way to automate watering.
Ask the greenhouse where you bought your flowers what kind of fertilizer they used. If they tell you (some like to keep that secret), try to use the same fertilizer or one they recommend to keep your flowers blooming all year long.
Flowers are more needy than most other plants, so you may have to water more frequently and fertilize consistently to maintain a full, colorful flower bed.
There are so many options for flower plants depending on your climate, soil conditions, lighting, moisture, budget, and local selection that it is impossible to recommend specific plants for a flower bed.
Find a reliable, local greenhouse and ask to speak with a master gardener to get information specific to your area.
Expand your landscape into a food forest! Read Thriving Yard’s article 11 Essential Tips for Creating a Backyard Food Forest.