Q: I cleared an 80 by 10 feet strip along the side of my yard for my longtime dream — a large perennial border. While I was full of optimism digging up the grass and amending the soil, I’m now overwhelmed by the process of designing the border. I have a good idea of what plants I want, but how do I incorporate them effectively on such a large scale? — Clay Hunn, Round Rock, Texas
A: The best way to tackle any large project — whether writing a book or planting a border — is to break it up into parts and weave an overall theme through them. Like a book divided into chapters, a border can be broken down into smaller blocks. So divide your 80 feet into 10-foot-square sections as a more manageable way to get into plant placement. These planning blocks help you come up with good plant combinations — a border’s lifeblood. To get started, make a list of your favorite perennials, arranging them by color and bloom time. Then assign a color scheme to each block. Select combinations that please your color sense and bloom at about the same time. It’s much more exciting to plant fall-blooming purple aster, crimson salvia, and silver artemisia together, rather than separate them at far ends of the border. You can use the blocks to organize a progression of hues along the length of the border.
For the classic, highly dramatic effect of bright colors fading into ethereal pastels at the far end, start with hot reds, oranges, and yellows. Choose one dominant color for each block and one to three others to complement it. One of my favorite hot combinations is orange lilies with deep-purple salvia and chartreuse lady’s mantle. Work through successive, softer-hued blocks, from blue and purple to pink and white, repeating accent colors throughout to give the whole planting unity. You can also create a pleasing rhythm by repeating plants and colors from block to block. When it’s time to plant, break the boxy look by overlapping plant groupings into adjacent blocks, blurring the boundaries for a less formal look.