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How to Create Colorful Flower Borders

By: Kristin Beane SullivanKristin Beane Sullivan
Learn how Heather Thomas of Cape Cottage Garden keeps her flower borders colorful from spring through fall!

Tour Heather Thomas’ colorful flower borders in New Jersey

A couple years after her family moved into their New Jersey home, Heather Thomas was anxious to get a garden started. She dreamed of transforming the sideyard previously dedicated to a kids’ play space into a garden destination where perennial borders remained colorful from spring through fall. Today that dream has become reality. Read about how she achieved the transformation of Cape Cottage Garden here and watch our interview with Heather in our Talk & Tour video above!

Getting the garden started

When they removed a tree growing too close to the house, this spot near the kitchen window was the perfect place for the future garden’s entrance. Heather installed an arbor and began digging up the Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) that had surrounded the tree. To ensure that the tenacious ground cover didn’t repopulate the garden later, Heather left the area fallow for a few weeks so she could easily catch new sprouts as they appeared. A month later she brought in the first plants: peonies (Paeonia lactiflora), daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids) and roses (Rosa hybrids).

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Heather Thomas Cottage Garden white garden arbor and pathway: Climbing roses and clematis make a perfect pairing on the entry arbor: When the clematis has finished blooming, the roses takes center stage.

The next phase

To prepare a backdrop hedge for the planned flower borders in the sideyard, Heather augmented the original three forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) shrubs with several more dug up from other spots on the property. Then she could get to the fun part: The curving perennial borders that she’d been dreaming about.

As you may know, designing a perennial garden that looks pretty for a short time is one thing, but keeping the color going for months is quite another challenge. Careful planning and observation has led Heather to a design philosophy that she calls “The 4 C’s. It helps her ensure that these borders remain colorful throughout the growing season. Keep reading to dig into it!

Heather Thomas Cape Cottage Garden in New Jersey: This white garden arbor makes a beautiful focal point along this color flower border in Heather Thomas' Cape Cottae Garden.

The 4 secrets to create colorful flower borders all season

As a professional communications consultant, Heather is adept at organizing and articulating ideas. After experimenting and observing different ways to combine plants, she developed the 4 C’s: cultivars, containers, companion plantings and carryover plants. These four considerations ensure that something is blooming from the very earliest bulbs in spring through the last garden mums of autumn.

Heather Thomas Garden Allium cultivars: ‘Mount Everest’ globe allium, whose green seedheads you can see above look great contrasted next to the purple globes of ‘Ambassador’ which ends the allium season after many weeks of color.

1. Grow a mix of Cultivars

Heather says, “When I first planted tulips (Tulipa spp. and hybrids), I only had flowers for about 10 days. So I began a quest to figure out how I could get more blooms.”

Now she grows about 30 varieties of early, midseason and late-blooming cultivars to keep the show going for 4 or 5 weeks. And the globe allium (Allium spp. and hybrids) season starts with ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Mount Everest’, whose green seedheads you can see above. Next, purple ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Globemaster’ bloom, and finally ‘Ambassador’ ends the allium season after many weeks of color. She also grows several cultivars of salvia (Salvia hybrid) and catmint (Nepeta spp. and hybrids) to create continuity in her borders. When you know that a plant thrives in your growing conditions, go all in!

Smart garden design tip

Use plants’ names to clue you in to their succession. For example, ‘Spring King’ salvia (Salvia nemorosa) is one of the earliest to bloom.

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Heather Thomas spring garden border with allium: For instant color, pop a container full of cheery calibrachoas in your garden border!

2. Utilize Containers in garden borders

If you need instant color in a border, slip in a container of showy annuals! For example, the pot full of calibrachoas (Calibrachoa hybrid) above is the center of attention until the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) behind it fills out. Moving big containers like this is made easier when you leave the pot empty and simply drop in preplanted nursery liners. You see an early summer combo here, but by fall, the vessel will likely be in another nearby spot in this border and filled with mums (Chrysanthemum hybrids). Placing a large overturned nursery pot inside the larger decorative one props up the changeable drop-ins.

Heather Thomas spring garden bed with peony, bearded iris and silene: In spring, peony, bearded iris and silene take center stage in this colorful flower border.

3. Design multiseason Companion plantings

It’s easy to get excited about everything that’s blooming at the garden center in May and pick up a bunch of favorites. But for every plant you choose that blooms in spring, leave space next to it for one that blooms in summer and another in fall. The bearded irises (Iris hybrid) and peonies above carry this border through spring. Then in summer, daylilies and garden phlox at below take over. In fall, turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) and bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis) close out the colorful garden year.

Heather Thomas's Cottage garden with garden arbor and colorful flowers: In summer, the daylilies and garden phlox show off. Photo courtesy of Heather Thomas.

4. Mix in some Carryover plants

Heather turns to a few long-blooming plants, such as the perennial silene (Silene hybrid), to carry the color through the slow times. Heather says, “‘Rolly’s Favorite’ silene takes me from the tulips all the way through spring to peonies and even roses.” She keeps her beloved pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) blooming even into midsummer with deadheading and fertilizing, and by shading them with floating row cover on hot, sunny days above 90 degrees F. This lightweight fabric happens to be one of her favorite garden tools, helping her protect hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) blooms from late frosts and cool-loving plants from heat.

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Smart garden solutions

These lush, relatively young plantings might lead you to believe that gardening here is easy, but every garden presents its challenges. And Heather takes care of it largely by herself, while running her own business full time. From clay soil to rabbit threats and weather stresses, she faces struggles familiar to most of us. Here are a few of her solutions. 

Heather Thomas's garden hidden garden workspace: This workspace is 
tucked behind the flower border.

Hide a garden workspace

Every garden needs a hard-working spot. You might never guess when looking at these borders that there is a work area hiding in plain sight between the hedge and the wooden privacy fence. The 9-foot-wide space you see here even leaves plenty of room to turn a wheelbarrow around. Here, Heather grows strawberries in pots with drip irrigation, starts dahlias (Dahlia hybrids) in grow bags to be tucked into the garden in late summer and takes care of newly purchased plants until she can find a spot for them.

Shop your own garden for plants!

Since she planted her first bed 8 years ago, Heather’s steadily expanded the garden. It just isn’t financially feasible to bring in truckloads of new plants for every border that she extends. She says, “I populate the spaces with seedlings, cuttings and divisions. In other words, I shop in my own garden.” Salvias, bearded irises and daylilies not only divide easily, but doing so rejuvenates the original plants, keeping them looking better too. And that original forsythia hedge is the source of many cuttings for other hedges around the property.

Smart Tip!

Heather saves 30 tender geraniums from year to year, many as houseplants in her office. She also lets some go dormant and hangs them bare root in a dark, cool spot until restarting them in spring.

'Pink Diamond' standard panicle hydrangea in a container in the border: Heather has planted five ‘Pink Diamond’ panicle hydrangea standards in large containers and arranged them on either side of her garden path.

Filter the sunlight

According to Heather, this pathway to the vegetable garden receives beautiful dappled light all morning, but by early afternoon, it’s in blazing sun. Part-shade-loving plants burn up in the afternoon. To help the astilbes (Astilbe chinensis), foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) and pansies that she wanted to grow here, Heather has planted five ‘Pink Diamond’ panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) standards in large containers and arranged them on either side of the path. As they reach their mature height they’ll help provide shade for nearby plants.

Dealing with Japanese beetles

Heather has noticed fewer Japanese beetles on her roses since she started spreading milky spore powder on her lawn in summer and fall every year. This biological control attacks them at the larval stage before they can pupate into beetles.

Learn more about Cape Cottage Garden!

Want to see more of Heather's Cape Cottage Garden?
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Or Visit her Website: Cape Cottage Garden website.

Product Recommendations

Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work in the garden. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

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