Planting Perennial Borders: Tips and Ideas

Herbaceous borders can work very well as part of a relatively low maintenance, eco-friendly garden design.

English country garden in August
Herbaceous perennials and shrubs in a cottage garden. Flowers include pink Phlox and red Helenium.

R A Kearton / Getty Images

A well-planned and well-planted herbaceous border is a planting scheme that can really bring a lot of benefits to your garden. A herbaceous border is simply a collection of non-woody flowering or ornamental plants which create a lush and full-looking border for a garden.

A herbaceous border filled with a wide range of flowering perennials can be great for bees, other pollinators, and a wide range of other beneficial wildlife. Perennials will remain in place year after year. Many of those perennial plants can also bring benefits to us, as edible or medicinal plants, or in a range of other ways.

What Are Herbaceous Plants?

Herbaceous plants are plants that do not have persistent woody stems above the ground. They are classified according to their life-cycle as annuals, biennials, or perennials.

While some work will be required every few years to divide perennials, reduce congestion and clean up the space, generally speaking, herbaceous borders can work very well as part of a relatively low maintenance, but eco-friendly garden design.

In this article, I will share a few tips and ideas to help you create your own perfect herbaceous border.

Size, Shape, and Positioning

English Walled Garden
oversnap / Getty Images

One common mistake which people make when planning herbaceous borders is thinking that borders need to be restricted to the very edge of the space. Planting straight-edged borders on the edges of a garden can sometimes be the right option, and can deliver a clean, modern design. But don't make these too narrow, or they can look a little meager. Make sure herbaceous borders are at least 4 to 5 feet deep for the most effective and impressive results.

And remember – herbaceous borders do not need to be strips on the sides of a garden. They can also look far better if you have them in more sinuous and naturalistic forms, or even bring them right out into the center of the garden. Herbaceous borders don't just work well against a wall or fence line. They can also be used between garden rooms to softly partition the space, for example.

Herbaceous borders are great because, depending on the plants included in them, they can work well almost anywhere. There are plants that will work well in full sun or in partial or even deeper shade. No matter what conditions you experience, and what type of soil you have where you live, you are sure to be able to find a combination of herbaceous perennial plants which works well for you.

Plant Layout in a Herbaceous Border

Ornamental garden with mixed borders
Ornamental garden, with grasses and perennial flowers in mixed borders and beds. Designed in such a way to provide natural color patterns, and a sense of naturalistic landscape.

Frédéric Collin / Getty Images

Some people will tell you that when planning a herbaceous border, there will be tall perennials that work well at the back, mid-height plants for the middle, and low growing and ground cover plants for the front. And in more formal and regimented schemes, this type of layout can work well.

However, for a more natural and beautiful look, it can sometimes be best to mix things up a little. Don't be afraid to play with height and balance things out in a more playful way. Break the rules and place some taller, lacy, or wispy plants to the front of the border, so you can look through these to the plants behind. Punctuate a soft and rounded border with some bolder, more architectural, or dramatic plants. Mix textures and forms in more playful and interesting ways to make a perennial garden border that is entirely your own.

Remember, most herbaceous perennials will die back over the winter months. But often, they will retain structure and attractive seed heads, which still have ornamental interest. And leaving these alone over the winter is great for the wildlife in your garden.

But when planning a plant layout for a herbaceous border, you might like to think about adding a few shrubs to the rear, or some ornamental grasses for autumn/winter interest, which, while it might break the "rules" of a herbaceous border, can keep the area looking wonderful all year long.

Choosing the Plants

Drought tolerant garden
A drought-tolerant border in California with native species. David Madison / Getty Images

The most important thing when creating a herbaceous border is, of course, the plants themselves. Choosing the right plants for the right places is crucial. Here are a few tips to help you choose the right plants for your herbaceous border:

  • Make sure your plants are suited to your climate, immediate conditions, and soil type.
  • Consider native perennial plants which can often be particularly beneficial for native wildlife and should thrive where you live.
  • Choose plants that bloom and provide visual appeal over as much of the year as possible. Be sure to include spring flowering, summer flowering, and fall flowering perennials, and perhaps even some which bloom or provide visual appeal over the winter months.
  • Don't get carried away. Aim for biodiversity, but don't choose too many different plants as this can create a bitty effect and can spoil the overall look. Plant in ribbons, drifts, or clumps, rather than as a wide range of single plants of different types.
  • Usually, it is best to restrict yourself to a color palette with no more than three or so different hues. There are no hard and fast rules, but often, design-wise, sticking with a more limited color palette can achieve more pleasing results and stop a herbaceous border from looking too busy.

Remember, as well as adding ornamental flowering perennials to your herbaceous border, you can also consider a range of edible perennials too – that way, your herbaceous border can be useful as well as beautiful.