Establishing perennial garden beds

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Feature Article - posted Wed., Oct. 5, 2011
- Contributed Photo

Autumn, with its cooling temperatures, is a perfect time to establish new perennial beds. Before picking up that shovel or dashing off to the garden center for fall sales, put some thought into the placement of a perennial garden, as well as existing site conditions.

Garden design and placement basically consists of four steps. First, decide the point from which your garden will most often be seen. Do you want to enhance the view from a deck or patio, dress up the front entryway, or enjoy an eyeful of color while preparing or eating dinner?

Second, consider the existing topography of your yard. Hilly, rocky or wooded terrain lends itself best to a more informal, natural interpretation. Formal designs are more easily achieved in fairly level areas.

Third, make a note of existing vegetation and permanent features. Some plants already on site may fit well into garden designs; others may need to be removed.

Lastly, decide if a border or a bed would be most appropriate for the area you plan to make into a garden. Borders generally have a backdrop such as a building, fence or walkway, and are predominantly viewed from one side. Beds are free-standing and usually meant to be viewed on all sides. They are more dynamic elements in the landscape, as paths are created around them.

Put your plans on paper. Include not only the garden you are designing, but the rest of the yard. Even if it is not exactly to scale, you’ll get a better feel for placement. To be successful, a bed or border should not appear at random but be connected in some way to the features that surround it.

With perennials in particular, soil preparation is the key to success. Before setting in that first plant, the soil should be free of weeds, loosened to a depth of 8 to 12 inches if compacted or a hardpan is present, enriched with organic matter, contain adequate nutrients and be adjusted to the proper pH level for the plants being grown. If this sounds like hard work, you’re right! It is! But, if you do it right the first time, your perennials will appreciate your efforts and reward you with strong, healthy plants and vibrant blooms.

Getting rid of existing weeds is generally an arduous task. I have been battling raspberries, wild grapes and poison ivy in a new area all summer. These shrubby species are best dug out individually. I am finding some wonderful rocks to line the bed, however.

Areas of existing sod are easier to convert to garden beds. You can cut them into squares and lift them out, shaking the soil from the roots. For large areas, consider renting a sod cutter. While a rototiller can sometimes be useful, avoid it in situations where weeds like quack grass and bindweed prevail. Any of those tiny, chopped-up pieces of root can resume growth, and probably will! Ideally, the soil should not be soggy when you are digging in it, as that will cause compaction and problems for root growth.

When selecting perennials for your garden, take into account the amount of sunlight the area receives and its drainage. Choosing plants suited to the site is a far better strategy than always coddling or replacing unhappy campers. If you want information about soil testing or plant suggestions, or if you have any other gardening question, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 877-486-6271, visit the website at or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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