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Short plants best for garden border

Garden design is an art, not any kind of exact science. The “best” design is the one that satisfies you. But there are certain guidelines that have been proven over the years to be more or less universal when it comes to creating pleasing gardens.

One of the most common is short plants, from low ground covers to about 18 inches tall down in front, midsized plants to 3 feet tall in the middle and large plants taller than 3 feet in the back.

I know it sounds pretty rigid, but by placing plants in this configuration you’ll be able to see all of them and, over the course of the season, get to know which ones shoot up and bloom first or longest, which ones are light and airy, which ones flower longest and which end up blocking their neighbors. Once you understand your garden’s personality, it will be easier to break the rules and create the look you want.

Pay special attention to the front-of-the-border plants. Their job is to anchor the bed to the surrounding area, smoothing the change and keeping it from being too abrupt. They have to look good all season long, too, despite hot weather, insect damage or pets.

Make the transition from yard or walkway to garden-bed gradual. Use plants that are about 12 inches tall at the most, and have interesting details or textures. Unless you’re creating the most geometrically formal of gardens, plant your edges in a visual smorgasbord with drifts of different species. A broad mix is more interesting, and also ensures season-long color.

Don’t forget to include some small deciduous and evergreen shrubs for interesting textures and color across the seasons. The front border is also the place to show off bulbs. Plant them in the fall, then overplant with colorful annuals. After the bulbs have bloomed, the annuals will hide the bulbs’ dying foliage.

If the front-edge plants are all very small, they’ll be out of scale with the larger perennials in the back.

Use trailing perennials that will flow over and soften hard edges like paths and walls.

Include some with mounding habits to hide the “bare ankles” of the taller perennials behind them.

Joe Lamp’l, host of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS, is a master gardener and author.