THE SKINNY GARDEN

Broad thoughts on narrow beds

By Margeaux Emery

Are you considering adding a narrow bed to your landscape or renovating one already in place? If so, congratulations – you’re about to open a treasure box of creative gardening choices and opportunities. Whether the bed is a foundation planting or intended to enliven a shady patio, a narrow shape invites gardeners to think broadly about landscaping and horticultural possibilities. 

The challenges of a bed that is in both full shade and partial shade are effectively addressed by this side garden. Plants include hummingbird fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica), Abelia, Hosta, Gardenia, boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and coral bells (Heuchera spp.). Photo by Sue Hamilton.

The first step is to determine your goals for the area. What will be the purpose of the bed? Perhaps to feature prostrate or low-growing plants to accent a driveway, or perhaps a row of Hosta along a sun-dappled walkway. Narrow beds can also serve as green privacy screens. By thoughtfully analyzing your wants and needs, you can install beds that achieve them and have a lot of fun along the way.

Formal beds edged with dwarf boxwood (Buxus spp., cvs.), some featuring pineapple lily (Eucomis) and others with citrus trees, move the eye along this walkway. Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) offers soft contrast behind. Photo by Margeaux Emery.

Just as important, or even more important, as the purpose is to know the growing conditions of your site. How many hours of sunlight does the area receive and during what parts of the day? What type of soil is there: heavy, clumping clay; fine, sandy loam; rich topsoil; or something else entirely? Matching plant requirements to site conditions is fundamental to ensuring plants’ success. Your soil’s pH level is also critical to know and easy to find out. Ask your local extension office about soil testing. (Find your extension agent here.) Knowing your bed’s specific qualities enables to choose plants best suited for the area. Keep in mind your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. (Find your zone here.) You want plants whose heat and cold tolerance are suitable for your zone. 

Visit locally owned garden centers and nurseries and ask what plants they carry that will thrive in your landscape and meet your objectives. Here you will find healthy plants adapted to local conditions. You can also research online. Explore websites of plant breeders, plant catalogs, and online nurseries and use their filters and options to find even more options. 

If you enjoy a challenge, you may want to purchase discounted end-of-season plants. Sale plants mean savings, and the plants you find will then become the challenge. With the right care and bit of TLC, these plants just might turn out as standouts of the landscape.

This formal bed features the repetition of boxwood (Buxus spp., cvs.) with Liriope tucked below. At left foreground, tricolor Ajuga echoes the lines of the narrow beds. The walkway of natural stone with its mixed color adds texture to the garden and offers a delightful contrast to the statuary. Photo by Sue Hamilton.

Be sure to visit Pinterest (pinterest.com). The beauty of this resource is how you may enter multiple keywords describing the bed you’re planning and, like magic, you’ll find literally hundreds of images to inspire you. Visit your local library and check out books about garden design and all kinds of plants. Using these resources and doing your research, you can develop a garden plan that fulfills all your needs and desires. 

Plantings in narrow beds can be quite intricate or very simple, such as the formal look of perfectly lined up evergreen shrubs trimmed to identical height and shape. Resist thinking small. ‘Monumentale’ sugar maple (Acer saccharum ‘Monumentale’, syn. ‘Temple’s Upright’) is a large shade tree with a narrow, upright habit and excellent fall color. It matures to 20-30 feet tall and is very narrow – one specimen at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum is 50 feet tall and only 3 feet wide, making for a vertical pole of color in the fall. On the opposite end of the spectrum, butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.) can be massive, but now you can find one that grows to only 3 feet by 3 feet: Lo & Behold ‘Blue Chip Jr.’ Thanks to the work of hybridizers and plant breeders, there are myriad dwarf cultivars in nearly every genus. A note of warning: Terms such as dwarf can mean quite various sizes. If your bed is 1 foot wide, do you really want a plant that matures to 12 inches wide? You want the plant to fit the scale and be in proportion to the size of the bed.

One (some may say outdated, or just plain wrong) rule of thumb regarding foundation beds is to plant 50 percent evergreen plants or conifers, 25 percent deciduous plants and flowering shrubs, and 25 percent perennials. In hotter zones, however, a gardener might use fewer, if any, conifers and opt for such delights as the evergreen yellow-blooming tropical bush allamanda (Allamanda schottii, Zones 10-11) or birdnest anthurium (A. salvinii). Play with bed shapes, as well. 

Among the plants in these narrow beds are Astilbe and Hosta. On the porch, large hanging Boston ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata) bring the theme of living green to the home itself. Photo by Sue Hamilton.

Other considerations include plant habit, such as columnar or fastigiate, conical, pyramidal, pendulous, prostrate, and others. Contrasting textures can create a lovely effect, as will matching flower color to a color in foliage. If a bed offers sufficient room, ideally you want a strong base color to put all the shades and hues together and then add seasonal pops of color, such as with spring bulbs. If your bed is along a fence or wall, remember that gardens can grow up, too, attached brackets or lattices or even the use of window boxes to feature colorful, spilling blooms. There’s so much to play with!

Keeping these points in mind will help you make the best decisions about design and plant selections for your narrow bed.

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