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Growing Together: Simple tips can help make planting a perennial bed a success

Perennial flowers create attractive public displays, like these at the Cass County Courthouse in Fargo. Nick Wagner / The Forum

I’ve got a great new use for drone technology: peeking into people’s backyards so we can enjoy each other’s hidden plantings. Some of the most creative and jaw-dropping perennial flower beds are unfortunately tucked away from public view.

I’m sure backyard private paradises are thoroughly enjoyed by their owners, but sharing is nice. Secret backyard gardens are a gift to yourself, but flower gardens in full view are a gift to the whole community.

People might be reluctant to develop visible flowerbeds, especially perennials, for fear they might not do it “right,” as though gardeners need the proper credentials. But Mother Nature grants a gardening license to anyone having the desire. And success usually follows.

I’ve never seen a “bad” flowerbed. Well, I take that back. I once saw a huge planting of bright pink phlox in front of an orange house with black trim. But that was the house’s problem. The flowers were totally innocent.

To begin a brand new perennial bed, or restructure an existing one, a few design tips can increase satisfaction.

1. Plan the size and shape. Although a perennial bed can be any width from 12 inches upward, we often make them too small, necessitating a redo in the near future. A minimum 3 feet or more, front to back, will allow several rows of varying plant types and height. Length is limited only by size of the lot. Even if we start small, it’s wise to mentally develop a long-range plan to which we can easily add without uprooting the existing.

2. Choose the style. Informal is easiest, with plants arranged in an organized randomness. It creates a natural look and is easily changed and increased. Curving edges are restful. A garden hose makes a flexible tool to plan bed edges and sizes.

Formal styles can be challenging, but lend elegant beauty to symmetrical homes, Victorian structures and Buckingham Palace. Achieve formality with strict lines, either curved or straight, and repetition of plants.

3. To convert lawn to flowerbeds, sod can be stripped with a rented sod cutter. Or you can spray grass with Roundup, wait 7 to 10 days for browning, then roto-till.

4. Perennial weeds are a major problem in flowerbeds. If quack grass or thistles are present in the proposed new bed, it’s best to patiently deal with the problem in advance. Herbicides like Roundup and 2,4-D can kill these weeds, but often a few sprigs remain in the soil to persist, rebound and spread. It is much easier to deal with these before plants become established.

5. Raise the bed. Unless you desire cattails and water lilies, almost all perennials enjoy well-drained soil. Use edging blocks, or mound the soil upward. Even a few inches reduces ponding.

6. Amend the soil. Peat moss, compost or manure can be added to the entire bed and tilled in, improving the root-zone region. Incorporating a three-inch layer of organics is not excessive.

7. View the area morning, afternoon, and evening to decide if the perennial bed is shaded, sunny or in-between, to determine suitable plants.

8. Now the fun part: choosing plants. Browsing local garden centers gives an overview of available kinds. Besides personal preference, decisions are based on height, sun or shade, and season of bloom. Plant tags contain most information.

9. Perennials bloom over a specific limited number of weeks in early, mid or late summer. Combining an assortment gives season-long color and allows perennial beds to change interestingly monthly.

10. Perennial beds are more interesting if you partly ignore conventional height wisdom. Rather than placing all low-growing material in front, medium in middle and tall in back, shaking heights up will add pizzazz.

Locating heights in organized randomness creates a natural up-and-down movement. Tall and medium plants can be brought to the forefront in a few spots as long as small plants don’t disappear completely.

11. Space plants at distances recommended on the label to avoid crowding. Perennial beds might seem sparse for a season or two until clumps increase in diameter. Use annual flowers for temporary fillers.

12. Speaking of annuals, the most eye-catching flower beds are often combinations. Perennials form a backbone, and space is left throughout for patches of annuals, which give color all season and bridge perennial non-bloom time.

13. Impact can increase by planting 3 or 5 of individual kinds, rather than using singles.

14. Apply weed preventers like Preen to reduce, but not eliminate, hand weeding.

15. Soil can be cultivated, or mulched with shredded bark.

Now it’s time to put my money where my monarda is. My wife Mary has been gently suggesting that we develop front-yard perennial beds. Don’t spoil the secret, but that sounds like something nice I could do for our recent 30th wedding anniversary.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Tune in to his weekly radio show from 10 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays on WDAY Radio 970. Readers can reach him at