Three Simple Tips for a Beautiful Ornamental Garden Bed

July 11th, 2009

My garden beds are looking wonderful right about now, and, not to toot my own horn, but nothing else in the neighborhood comes close. I was pondering my success today, and decided that there was probably just a few key principles I follow in the design process to achieve the looks I’ve gotten. I know there are a lot of homeowners out there who probably do not want to think about garden design as much as I do, so I thought I’d share these three simple tips that anyone can follow to create a bed that looks like it was professionally designed and is visually appealing.

1. Avoid Straight Lines and Even Numbers

Your garden bed should avoid any and all straight lines. If your bed is a foundation planting the back of the bed may be straight because it borders the house, but the front better have a curve to it. Pickpockets and magicians move their hands in arcs to distract us because our eyes cannot follow curved lines as well as straight lines. So when you use a curved line in your garden design you’re forcing the eye to slow down and follow along it rather than skip to the end, you’re telling eyes to stop and smell the roses so to speak. It makes the garden more interesting. Long sweeping curves look far better than straight lines, one of the most boring garden beds you’ll ever see is a flat straight 3 foot wide section along the foundation of a house. In a formal geometic garden straight lines can work, but such gardens also tend to require fulltime staffs of landscapers to maintain their precision pruning, they aren’t the style most of us want or can afford.

Even numbers, or planting things in matching pairs, should also be avoided, as they are easier for our brain to add up and categorize. Instead plant things in odd groups such as 3 or 7, it feels more natural and is more visually interesting.

2. Plant in Many Colors

Flowers are transient, foliage is forever. Every garden bed should have atleast one plant that has foliage that is red or purple, one that has golden or yellow foliage, and one that has silver or blue foliage. The more shades you can add the better, bonus points for black foliage.

In the red/purple foliage category there is barberry (in the pictures), purple smoke bush, ‘forest pansy’ redbud (a wonderful purple leaved tree seen in a picture here), various heuchera or heucherella (in one of the pictures), red maples (in one of the pictures), some ornamental cherries, some sedums, and some types of hardy hibiscus.

In the yellow/gold category there is golden privet (which smells wonderful and honey bees love, in a picture), eunonymous, lots of hostas, some heucheras or heucherellas, golden barberry, some arborvitae, some other evergreen hybrids, some sedums, and lysimachia.

In the blue/silver category is the well known blue spruce, but there are many varieties that are bluer than what the average person is familiar with, really striking. All types of juniper (my favorite are upright narrow varieties, in pictures, or groundcover varieties), some irises, artemisia, various other conifer cultivars, some hostas, and blue fescue.

In the black category there is “Black Lace” Sambucus, and black mondo grass, as well as a type of bamboo.

3. Plant atleast one of each of the follow…

  • A tall ornamental grass. For northern climates this generally means miscanthus, but in the south you have other species to choose from. Many people overlook grasses because they can be expensive and seem plain at the nursery, plus they think they have a lawn full of grass so why need one in a bed? But tall clumping ornamental grasses provide a feathery texture that creates interest with the wind like no other plant can. Only in a full shade bed, where most would not grow well, would I recommend not planting atleast one.
  • An evergreen. You’ll want interest in winter, and evergreens provide structure to a garden bed. Garden beds can’t be all flowers, then need structure and anchors, foundation, you get that with trees and shrubs, and let one of them be evergreen. I really like dwarf pines, but there are lots of options.
  • A tree or standard-form shrub with an exposed trunk. Foliage and flowers are not the only part of a plant worth showing, bark trunks provide interest all their own with interesting colors and textures. A standard-form shrub is a shrub that has been grafted on top of a trunk to resemble a tree, so you can plant one of those, or an actual tree (one that has an exposed trunk, ie not a spruce). It doesn’t have to be a large tree, but you need something that’ll have interesting bark one day.

Follow those simple guidelines and you will create more visually interesting garden beds. One final fourth rule, if you can afford it, is something inorganic. A large boulder can be invaluable to a garden bed, or use stone or brick as your edging material. A scultural item can work as well, be it made of wood such as driftwood (technically organic I guess), stone, ceramic, bronze, glass, concrete, whatever. A large container works here as well, a container a 5 year old could hide in, that big.

10 Responses to “Three Simple Tips for a Beautiful Ornamental Garden Bed”

  1. Mitch Hogg  Says:

    Would love it some of clients would read this. Will pass it on. Keep up the good information

  2. Gardenmom29  Says:

    Very interesting…I do curved garden beds…except in the vegetable gardens. I need more large things though, like shrubs. I do have a large ornamental grass. I thought your suggestions for plants were helpful.

  3. simone  Says:

    This is simply beautiful. I ‘d love to mimic this look. I have so far installed solar lights in my garden

  4. Audry  Says:

    Your garden is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen! I like how you categorized the different colors and provided different foliage and flowers for each :). It must take an extraordinary amount of work to keep it up. I want to share something with you for that reason. I was wondering if you had time to shop for and prepare healthy meals? For busy people on the go, a treat of delicious and fresh meals can be delivered to your door each day, with a balance of high protein and low carb foods. Check out Chefs Die and you could win a free month of nutritionally balanced meals at

  5. Gallery  Says:


  6. Version Control Geek  Says:

    wow Looks awesome!

  7. Daisy  Says:

    nice planting combination of berberis, but have you tried this one?

    I got one from this company last year (i’m in the UK) and it really is something special. x

  8. Dalton  Says:

    I love your ideas and comments. I always use odd numbers in my plantings. The comment about you get extra points for using black was really sharp and well thought out. I love adding some Blue like a Blue Spruce, I have been using from time to time Black Lace Elderberry also to add some purple. I saw a neat plant to add to any ones pallet and the name is Bamboo Muhley – wow add this near darker colors and watch people stop to see what it is. Is it Bamboo is it grass? Thanks for a great blog.

  9. Lisa Roberson  Says:

    I just found your blog, but already, just three or four posts in, I feel like I’ve learned so much. I really like your tips and information. The ‘no straight lines’ tip is genius. Simple, but genius. One of those things that makes you say, “Oh yeah, of course.” The standard form shrub sounds really interesting – I have to go look those up!

  10. Gary D  Says:

    the biggest breakthrough that I have had with setting out our small garden is learning from the experts. Trial and error with gardening just takes too long.


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