For this gardener, happiness is rooted in soil and nourished by the successes of seasons past as well as the promise of the future.
Secrets to a Great Border
Credit: Tina Cornett

When Elissa Steeves first walked around the Blacksburg, Virginia, house that her husband, Harrison, had purchased, it already had a functional landscape. The yard had long since healed from the construction of the 1950s home. The lawn was established, and the trees offered some shade. It had matured into the kind of yard that has moments of beauty but does not require much beyond regular maintenance.

However, Elissa's creative spark, energetic spirit, and horticultural expertise would have no outlet unless she could redesign her yard. So during the past 20 years, change has become the norm, and the landscape has become a garden.

Starting Over
Work began in earnest when a tree-smashing ice storm took out many of the old plants. What would have been a tragedy for many, Elissa saw as a blessing. "I can grow things now that I couldn't have originally because it was so shady," she explains. Always brimming with enthusiasm, Elissa beams, saying, "Losing everything was great because then I was able to start over." The garden today has both sun and shade, vistas and intimate nooks. Most of the plants are perennials. Elissa is constantly making improvements in the form of a new plant, a new combination, or a better design.

Creating a Border
The word "border" is defined as the ornamental edge of something, such as an embroidered tablecloth or a papered wall. In garden design, a classic border is a long planting of perennials (and sometimes trees and shrubs) backed by a wall or hedge, usually at the boundary of the property. If the lot is a large one, the border forms the edge of the garden.

However, in contemporary use, a border has come to mean any bed of carefully composed plantings. It can be narrow or wide, straight or meandering, as it is in this case. Elissa has taken her paths into the depths of her border to, in effect, form island beds that can be appreciated from all sides. While this was an even greater challenge for her to create, it has been an enjoyable project. Read the box at right to learn Elissa's tips for designing a gorgeous border.

Tips For Creating a Gorgeous Border

  • While many gardeners strive to arrange the plants in their borders like a choir, with tall ones in back and short ones in front, Elissa had the benefit of a gentle slope. "I'm blessed with elevation," she says. "Most gardeners make people look down. I want them to look up and across."
  • Elissa practices a "no-bare-earth policy." She says, "If you've got room for weeds, you've got room for perennials." Properly spaced plants will shade the soil below without competing with each other for light. (When they reach full size, their leaves should just touch.)
  • Instead of planting one of this and one of that, Elissa masses her perennials to create sweeps of a single color.
  • Perennials, such as balloon flowers ( Platycodon grandiflorus), shown at right, are the mainstays of Elissa's plantings, but there will always be room for annuals. They bloom longer, and those that reseed fill any gaps. Elissa particularly likes growing annual poppies, calendulas, bachelor's buttons, and cleomes. Because mulch eliminates reseeding annuals, she recommends pulling back mulch in the fall to reveal bare soil in areas where you want seeds to sprout. Any extra or stray seedlings can easily be removed in spring to be replanted or shared with friends.
  • When planning her border, Elissa thinks of her plantings as having "layers in time," she says. "Anyone can have a good bed in May; the challenge is having one year-round." She relies on bulbs such as autumn crocus, cyclamen, and sternbergia for blooms in fall. Interesting bark is important, particularly in winter. Lenten roses begin to bloom in January. One layer rises up to supplant the previous one throughout the year, so the season continually unfolds.
  • Leaves are even more important than blooms. "Flowers are fluff--here today and gone tomorrow," Elissa says. She relies on foliage to bring the season-long interest of color, form, and texture to her plantings. Examples include the myriad shades of hostas; the fingerlike leaves of Lenten roses; and the bold, swordlike foliage of crocosmias, shown at right.
  • Although it seems like an oxymoron, Elissa plans surprises. She likes contrasts and loud colors combined in nontraditional ways, such as yellow with pink, orange with red, and pink with orange. For example, in her garden, yellow 'Zagreb' threadleaf coreopsis blooms beside pink spires of blazing star. She likes to mix the different selections of bee balm together, mingling the pink, red, and burgundy blooms.

'Komachi' balloon flowers can be purchased from Park Seed Company, 1-800-213-0076 or Sternbergia is available from Brent & Becky's Bulbs, (804) 693-3966 or

This article is from the March 2005 issue of Southern Living.