The Making of a Planting Bed: The Backyard Side Bed

June 29, 2011 — 1 Comment

A couple of weeks ago, with the lilies in full bloom. The empty spot in the distance is meant for veggies.

I think it is so easy to look at a “finished” flower bed in someone’s yards or in a magazine and lust after it. Most people don’t see the work and patience that goes into creating a lush planting bed. I thought it would be useful to give you a detailed breakdown of creating a landscape. And also help dispel the myth that they are finished right away (although I suppose if you have a professional gardener you could put everything in at once).

I pulled out some old photos of the side bed in the backyard. We originally started the planting area back in 2007 to give us some privacy from our nosy old neighbor lady (anyone else have one of these?). Since then it has been enlarged and tweaked quite a bit. I took some photos yesterday and realized that it needs some work.

Here is the rundown:

The Background:

We had the 4′ high fence installed in 2006 (even though our neighbor refused to let us take out her 40+ year old chicken wire fence which sits 6″ from ours). However the fence wasn’t giving us the privacy that we were looking for. We are not allowed to have 6′ fences here in town.

Early Spring 2008: Mulched planting bed ready for planting. I know not very exciting.

The Beginning:

In Fall of 2007 we decided to put in a planting bed to offer some additional screening between our house and our neighbors.We also wanted to block the view of the compost pile behind the garage from the side gate (where this picture is taken). We placed newspaper (about 6 layers) in the location of the future planting bed. Then we wet them down to keep them in place. Then we covered it with about 2-3″ of mulch. Then we let the grass and weeds die underneath the newspaper over the winter.

Spring 2008: River Birches just planted. And yes those are plastic cows next store (Maisie is a big fan).

The Trees:

In the Spring of 2008 we started planting. We decided to go with River Birch as the main “structure” of the bed. River Birch are native, quick growing and have beautiful bark and lovely small leaves that provide dappled shade. They are also not fussy about moisture (which is good with clay soil and wet springs and hot and dry summers).

In a bigger planting bed I would recommend some shrubs and evergreens as well to create more structure. Our bed is quite narrow at 5′ so we don’t have quite enough depth.


Spring 2010: River Birch have grown and a number of the perennials are coming up. This is shortly before we moved the shed.

The Perennials:

In 2009 I started with some easy to grow perennials and bulbs is this planting bed including: Daylilies, Irises, Daffodils, and Snowdrops.  For taller perennials I added: Ironweed (grows to 10′ high), Joe Pye Weed and Hardy Hibiscus. It was starting to fill in but certainly was not very exciting. Most of the leaves were the same shape and green. In 2010 I worked on filling in with different leave types, textures and colors. I added some salvia (both purple and white may night and purple rain), yarrow (I love the feathery leaves), peonies, poppies (didn’t come back this year), autumn joy sedum, Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, coreopsis, virginia bluebells, plumbago and amsonia (a beautiful feathery native plant).

Later Spring 2010 (just after the shed was moved) and I was finalizing the shape of the planting bed.

The Shape of the Bed:

The shape of the planting beds in the backyard were originally determined by the location of the trees in the backyard, which lead to the location of the shed (in between the dogwood and the European birch tree). This lead to an awkward space between the shed and the garage and limited the size of the side bed. Well in the giant early spring snow storm of 2010 we lost about 1/3 of our old pine tree (a whole other story). This lead to a weird empty spot next to the pine tree. So we decided to move the shed over there to free up the middle of the yard and allow for a clear view of the garage (which we had so carefully designed). The dogwood tree in front of the shed was on its last leg and we had already planned on removing it, so when we had the pine tree trimmed we had them take out the dogwood. It was amazing! The yard felt so much bigger and we now had a nice big space in the middle for playing ball and running around with the kids. It also meant that we could extend the planting bed all the way back to the planting bed adjacent to the garage. That spring I spent a huge amount of time moving plants from under the dogwood and around the shed, and then replanting everything in the new bed shapes. It also meant we had enough space to add 2 more river birches in between the 2 previously planted ones and the old European birch next to the garage.  It also meant I could pull out the planting bed a couple more feet to give it some more breathing room.

Spring 2011 (Mr S is working on the divets from the crane here). This shot gives you the best view of the shape of the bed.

Straight view of the side bed taken yesterday. The birches and iron weed are doing a nice job of filtering the view of the neighbors.

View from the deck yesterday. The birch trees need a good trimming.

Next Steps:

Now that the bed has a good shape it is time to step back and see what is and isn’t working. Looking at the photos today it dawned on me that the river birch need a good trim on the lower branches. They are providing too much shade underneath and the leaves are blocking the view of the beautiful bark and some of the perennials. I also am thinking that I need to add some small evergreens to add some structure to the bed (particularly in the winter). I also need some more plants with interesting foliage. I find it is a lot easier to find shade plants with good foliage. hmmm… So far on the list is some more lambs ear (I should be able to divide some of the plants that I already have elsewhere), artemesia (for its silvery leaves), allium purple sensation for some spring height, oriental poppies (I keep trying to grow these because I think they are stunning), and some sun friendly coral bells.

Any other suggestions?

1 Comment

One response to The Making of a Planting Bed: The Backyard Side Bed

  1. As I work on installing a new garden I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by the work and underwhelmed by the results of my efforts. This puts that all back in perspective; I’m just on a journey toward something as beautiful as your yard. Thank you for this post!

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