Landscaping & Yard CareOrnamental Plants

How to Plan Your Flower Beds

During the winter months I look forward to the first of the year. Not only because the sun sets a little later, and in the back of my mind I know that the days will get warmer and brighter. But I always anticipate checking my mail. It seems that each day my mailbox gets stuffed with seed and bulb catalogs at that time of year.

I just love to look through these brochures. And when I say “look,” I mean I lose myself in them. You cannot just flip through these pages. No, that’s not allowed. I must look at each page, page by page, many times over. Oh, if only I could just have them all! Every single exotic tropical I see, and every petunia, zinnia and sunflower. It doesn’t matter. They are all so beautiful. I will sit in my favorite chair sip my coffee and become immersed in a nature fantasy land. I want them all. But alas, it just cannot be. I don’t have the pocketbook for it, or the time and space.

So, I’ve taken my 18 flower catalogs and dissected them very carefully and methodically, this year. One of the most frustrating things about these catalogs is how they try to entice you into buying seeds. Yes, that is the nature of the business. However, over the years I have learned a thing or two about not going overboard when ordering seeds. And you absolutely must practice discrimination.

For example, many years ago I saw this beautiful flower in one of my favorite seed catalogs. I must have it, I thought. This packet was for Cimicifuga Racemosa, commonly known as black cohash, black bugbane and fairy candle. It was hardy in my zone (6), I couldn’t miss. Or so I thought. I ordered two seed packets. Well, when I received these in the mail several months later, I was disappointed. This is what I discovered: The instructions were so complex and high maintenance that I just couldn’t do it! I’m used to high maintenance. I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother. I work outside the home, inside the home. I tend my flower beds, vegetable gardens, and two greenhouses. I can multi-task. On the back of the packet were these instructions:

“Sow seed on the surface of lightly firmed, moist seed compost. Cover with a fine sprinkling of vermiculite. After sowing, seal container inside a bag and leave at 70 degrees for three months. Then take the container and place in the refrigerator for a further three months. Germanation can be slow…”

It continued by stating that if germination has not occurred by six months, to start the process all over again. Yeah right. Like that’s going to happen. I don’t even have enough room in my refrigerator to accommodate food, much less a tray of seeds. But the point is, none of this information was listed in the seed catalog by the picture of this beautiful flower. I want instant flowers. I don’t mind coaxing flowers to bloom, but I thought this was excessive.

Another time I ordered Helenium flower seeds. The picture of it looked amazing in that catalog. But what looked like huge flower blossoms turned out to be very, small insignificant flower heads and it ended up looking like a weed!

So, this is my advice when it comes to planning your garden. Enjoy the seed catalogs you get in the mail. They are a nice companion on a cold winter day. Dream a little. But be realistic. Take a survey of your yard. Reflect on what grew well the previous year, and what did not. Start a journal if you haven’t done so already and keep notes on your garden. Think about your time and how much you are planning to devote to your flowers, landscape, and gardens. Make no mistake. This is serious work, and it demands a commitment of time. If you love flowers but do not have the time for it, plan accordingly. There are many wonderful flowers out there that self seed, freeing up your time yet will still give you beautiful flowers every year.

Map it out. I highly recommend drawing your landscape on graph paper. You don’t have to be an artist; just jot it down. Put all your ideas on paper. Think about the sun and each season of the year. I live in zone 6 and cannot plant anything until almost May. You will need to know your zone and pay attention to any trees you have in your yard. I also take photographs of my yard from various angles every year in all seasons to know where shadows and sun fall. I want to have color from spring until the fall frost. Look for bare patches you need to fill in. Things change too. The city chopped down a huge old hackberry tree in the front of my yard last summer. Now everything that I had planted for shade will be in the sun this year. I have a lot of transplanting to do, and I will have to plant other flowers and shrubs in their place for what is now a sunny location.

Try to mix annuals with perennials. Perennials last much longer and will grow larger each year. If you have annuals that bloom in the heat of the summer, by planting early and mid spring bulbs like tulips, hyacinth or daffodils, you will be assured of constant blooms, of one kind or another in both spring and summer. Also consider the height of flowers. You will want to plant tall flowers like castor beans, cannas and vines at the back of your flower beds, and planting medium sized flowers in front of those, and still shorter in front of those. Think of stairs and you get the idea.

So, enjoy your catalogs, study your specific situation. When you find a flower that piques your interest, get out your flower books and hop online and research its germination requirements. And try not to get carried away!

Becky Miller has been a passionate gardener for over twenty-five years and has two greenhouses.  You can follow her adventures of incorporating edibles in her flowerbeds and creating an old-fashioned cottage garden at her historic home in Wichita, Kansas at

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