The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Guide

How to Combine Shape, Color, and Texture to Create the Garden of Your Dreams


By Jenny Rose Carey

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“Full of practical insights, ideas, and inspiration to help you grow the flower-packed garden of your dreams.”—Greg Loades, author of The Modern Cottage Garden
The colors, shapes, and scents of flowers are as ravishing to the senses as to the soul. But it’s all too easy get things wrong: colors that clash, flowers that bloom at the wrong time, plants that fail to thrive. Enter The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Guide by expert gardener Jenny Rose Carey. She tells you exactly how to get started, how to combine plants for the most spectacular effects, and how to keep your garden going from year to year. Whether you’re interested in dramatic color combinations, how best to use a favorite flower, or how to create a garden for a specific purpose, such as nourishing pollinators, you’ll find the answers in this friendly, information-packed book. As Jenny herself says, “Don’t be afraid—just have a go!”


Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’

A trio of a white dahlia, white daffodil, and white holly.

Your Garden of Flowers

A Look at Shape, Role, Presence, and Color

Your flower garden is your creation. It should be packed with the flowers that you love to interact with, look after, cut for your house, and photograph. When we start gardening, we often assemble a random assortment of flowers that appeal to us. This unplanned collection of plants can be made into a beautiful-looking flower bed if you understand how to coordinate them. Though every flower is unique and the range of available flowering plants is incredibly diverse, they can all be divided into groups that share certain visual and functional characteristics. Once you recognize these groups, you can mix and match them to create a beautiful flower garden design. Flowering plants are the ingredients of your garden, and the way you combine them is your recipe. As in cooking, you can take the same ingredients in different quantities and assemble them in different ways to make distinct creations.

Your Flower Wish List

I love flowers. To keep track of the ones I might like to grow, I have a wish list on which I write down plants I see in books or magazines that I want to look up later. I add in flowers that catch my eye when I visit other gardens, and it’s no surprise that the wish list has become rather extensive!

We all have personal preferences, so your wish list will likely be different from mine. One gardener can’t live without their blowsy dahlias in pastel pink, but another wouldn’t grow them.

This semi-double pale pink peony is just my style.

However you record your flower wish list, make sure it is portable. You will want it with you as you visit gardens and plant nurseries. If you already have favorite flowers, they should be first on your list—they are the ones you would really miss if they were absent. Add other flowers that tug on your heartstrings because of good memories or other personal meaning. Continue to fill your list with plants that you have always wanted to grow. If you don’t already have strong favorites but you love flowers generally, keep exploring and you will find the ones that fill your soul with joy. Reflect on gardens from your childhood and gardeners who motivated you to begin growing flowers. This may bring up some important memory flowers that you might want to have in your garden. It might take a while to perfect your own style, and you may come up with some strange combinations along the way. Each change becomes part of your experimental approach to flower gardening.

I love to grow pot marigolds because they remind me of my earliest gardening experiences with my mother.

My wish list has a plethora of pink and purple flowers for every season, like those in this fall combination of border phlox, New England aster, tall verbena, and hybrid flowering tobacco.

Record anything about the flower that might be helpful later, including the date and place where you saw it, what it looked like, and why you were attracted to it. Other useful details are approximate plant height, the shape and color of the flower, anything about the leaves that you noticed, and what flowers were nearby. Take photos to remind yourself. Your flower wish list will likely continue to grow even after you start or expand your garden. It is a way to remember beautiful flowers you have seen and can help you learn plant names.

As you develop your flower garden, you will further refine this list and find out what plants you absolutely love and must have. Some of the plants you are excited to grow may turn out to be duds—you may end up not liking the way they look with other flowers in your garden, or they may look puny or just die. Not all plants are winners in every garden. You will improve your selection every year as your flower garden grows. Once you have a start on your flowery wish list, it is time to think about how you could grow them together in a garden.

Pink Macedonian scabious and lavender make a great summer combination for a dry area.

Plant Types for Your Flowery Garden

Flowers are grouped according to the length of their life. The longest-lived plants in a flower bed are perennials, some of which may live for decades, depending on the type of plant and how it is grown. Herbaceous perennials die down to the ground in winter and reemerge from their roots the following growing year. They are a long-term investment and the backbone of your flowery border. Perennials tend to bloom at a set time each year. The length of time they are in flower varies by species, and some may rebloom if cut back after their first flush. Many perennials get bigger and better year by year. Annual plants have colorful flowers that continue their show for a long period during one growing season and then die after setting seed. Biennials start to grow leaves in one gardening year and bloom in the next. Flowering bulbs and tender perennials add to the floral profusion.

To extend your flowering season, pack your beds with perennials, annuals, and bulbs like silver sage, love-in-a-mist, and allium.

It is possible to grow just one of these plant groups in a bed, but if your goal is a seriously flowery border that blooms for months, it is best to grow most or all of them. Perennials, biennials, bulbs, and annuals, when grown together in one garden space, are described as a mixed herbaceous planting. It is possible to add woody flowering shrubs and trees in or around your flower garden, but they are not necessary for a full flowery look. Be aware that woody plants have extensive root systems, and they may grow large and shade the area around them.

Flower and Inflorescence Shapes

One consideration as you ponder the design of your flower garden is the overall shape of flowers both up close and from a distance. Some solitary flowers are large enough and have enough presence to be seen from a few feet away, while others are too small to be differentiated from a distance. As you design your bed, pay attention to the shapes of individual blooms as well as the clustered flower heads called inflorescences.

The shape of an inflorescence is influenced by the form of the individual flowers it is made up of as well as the way they are held and arranged. Some inflorescences have an obvious overall shape, while others are indistinct and hazy. As you investigate the shapes of flowers, think about how they would look placed near to each other in your flower bed. Each flower and inflorescence shape adds something to the complete garden picture, bringing interest, movement, drama, and visual variety. When flowers are combined thoughtfully, they contribute to the beauty of your design.

Peeking into a Flower

The purpose of every bloom is to attract pollinators to take pollen from one flower to another, facilitating seed production for the plant. Flowers are beautiful assemblages of tiny parts, each with a specific role to play. Some protect the flower as it grows, and others attract the pollinator. Additional bits of the flower make the pollen and egg and safeguard the seed as it grows. One of the best ways to get to know a flower is to watch it open. Choose one plant to observe over the course of a few days, and tie a bit of string around a stem to remind you which one you are looking at.

Observing flowers up close provides unexpected surprises, like the purple and orange stamens of this nettle-leaved mullein.

Starting on the outside, the green sepals protect the flower when it is in bud, waiting for the right conditions and time of year to open up. As the flower bud opens, the sepals crack apart, then bend back or fall away to reveal the petals, usually the first thing we notice about a flower as well as the most attractive. The number, shape, size, texture, and color of petals are characteristic of each flower, and they are positioned in a circle within the sepals. Some flowers have modified or fused sepals or petals, so it may not be obvious which is which. Flowers are designed to be highly visible not to humans but to passing pollinators. They can attract attention by being large, bold, brightly colored, or held on tall, whippy stems that wiggle in the breeze like a waving flag. Their message to a passing pollinator is “Stop here, we are open for business.”

As you observe flowers, you will notice that each species has its own unique arrangement of floral parts. The stamens of this hibiscus surround its fuzzy five-parted stigma.

Large-scale blooms like this lily ‘Black Beauty’ provide easy viewing of the inner workings of flowers.

The ring of structures inside the petals are the pollen-containing stamens. At the top is an enlarged part called the anther, which holds the pollen. Each anther is on a filament, a flexible stalk holding the anther at the correct angle for pollen to attach to pollinators feeding from the flower. Anthers are colored by pollen, which is often orange, yellow, cream, or brown but may be white, magenta, pink, red, green, black, or occasionally blue. Some insects eat the pollen, which is rich in protein and fat, and others feed it to their young. Another food source for pollinators is the sugary nectar hidden within nectaries deep in the center of the flower. Elaborate mechanisms exist to prevent insects from robbing the plant of its nectar without taking pollen with them to the next flower, though some bees have worked out ways of boring through the outside of the petal to suck it out without entering the flower.

Safely tucked at the middle of the flower are the female parts. At the top is the stigma, where pollen from another flower gets caught. If the pollen is compatible, it fertilizes the female egg in the ovary, and a seed begins to form. The fertilized seed then grows, sheltered and protected in place. All the structures that were used to attract the pollinator are then useless to the flower, and the petals and anthers drop off or shrivel up. The energy from the plant is redirected from attracting pollinators to producing seed.

To see the smaller-scale parts of the flower, you can take close-up photographs or use a magnifying glass. If you have no flowers, try watching time-lapse videos of flowers opening. An easy way to look at flowers closely is to cut a flowering stem, put it in a vase, and study it with good light so that you can clearly see the specific flower parts. If you like, you can draw the bloom in detail. Start with a pencil and paper and draw the outlines of each flower section. Concentrate on the numbers and relative sizes of each. This comprehensive exploration can improve your observational abilities, and the sketch becomes a record of one of your garden flowers.

The Shape of Individual Flowers

As you inspect blooms up close, you can count the number of petals and also look at the shape of the flower as a whole. The petal numbers, sizes, and overall form affect how they look in the flower bed. The larger the flower, the more impact it has from a distance. Even small, distinctly shaped flowers can contribute to the appearance of the garden. There are so many individual flower shapes that they are hard to categorize. The following are some of the most commonly encountered fundamental shapes, which may appear on their own or as part of a flower head.

Bowls and Cups

These open-faced flowers are simple to see into and study. They share a basic shape of a bowl or cup: deepest in the middle with sides that slope up to the edges. The petals form the bowl and are often equally spaced and symmetrical when viewed from above. They are easy-access flowers that are available to lots of different pollinators. Large bowl- or cup-shaped flowers like tulips, poppies, or single peonies stand out in a garden bed, while smaller ones like crocus and hardy geranium mix well with others.

Some hardy geraniums have bowl-shaped flowers.

Single breadseed poppies hold their petals in the shape of a bowl.

Fritillaria acmopetala has a pronounced bell- shaped flower.

Campanula incurva lives up to its common name of bellflower.


A bell-shaped flower is cupped with a kick-out flare at the opening, resembling its namesake, and is a distinct, rather cute shape that is recognizable from a distance. Bells usually dangle down, though some angle off to the side or are upright. If the bell is hanging down, pollinators need to be able to cling to the flower surface and crawl in from the bottom. The pendulous shape is a benefit to the flower, as it keeps the floral parts dry in rain and snow. They may be clustered together along vertical stems or carried singly. Examples include bellflower (Campanula, Latin for “little bells”), fritillary, Sicilian honey garlic, and hyacinth.


These flowers have fused petals joined together in a tube that varies in diameter from plant to plant. Some tubes, like foxgloves, are wide enough to admit bumblebees. Others are narrow and elongated, with nectar hidden deep within the flower and only accessible by birds with long bills or by butterflies. Some tubular flowers, like flowering tobacco, have a flat face, while others may flare out or curve back on themselves. Check out the tubular flowers of red hot poker, beardtongue, obedient plant, and tuberose.

Flowering tobacco has dangling tube-shaped flowers.

Wide, tube-shaped flowers of common foxglove ‘Sutton’s Apricot’ are well suited to bumblebees.


Dramatically shaped trumpets are calling out for pollinators. A flared opening and a nice wide entrance to the flower indicates an easy place to land and an obvious nectar source. Some trumpet flowers have petals that are separate, and others are fused. The shape of the face can vary from a round or ruffled outline to a star shape, adding noticeably different forms to the flower bed. Trumpet-shaped flowers may be fragrant, like some lilies, so the pollinators come buzzing. The traditional yellow daffodil has a back ring of petals and then a trumpet in the front that protects the reproductive parts. Look for daylilies, crocosmias, petunias, and surprise lilies.

Some lilies, like Lilium formosanum, have a classic trumpet shape.

Petunias have flared trumpet-shaped flowers.

Iris dardanus has a perfect iris-shaped form, with three upright petals called standards and three downward sloping ones called falls.

Viewed from above, the three-parted symmetry of an iris flower becomes obvious. This is ‘Banbury Beauty’, a Pacific Coast Hybrid.


Irises have a shape that is easy to distinguish, as they are unlike any other in the garden. Everything in the flower is in threes, including three petals that hang down and three that stand up. The iris shape is so distinctive that it has been used for emblems and heraldry for hundreds of years. Think of French fleur-de-lis in tapestries and other decorative arts. Irises are useful in the garden because their recognizable shape contrasts well with other flowers, and you can have them in bloom for many months of the year. Try rock garden iris for early spring, followed by Dutch iris, bearded iris, and Japanese water iris.

Bilaterally Symmetrical

If you could fold this flower form in half from top to bottom, every part would line up with its opposite. These flowers have two equal halves across a vertical axis and are described as bilaterally symmetrical. Pea-shaped flowers like blue false indigo and many herbal flowers, such as mint, sage, rosemary, and basil, fall into this category. They are fabulous flowers for pollinators because they are easy to land on. Other bilaterally symmetrical flowers like snapdragons require a large bee to spring open the closed mouth of the flower by landing on the bottom lip and wriggling its way inside.

The unusual flowers of bleeding hearts are bilaterally symmetrical.

Larkspur is another example of a bilaterally symmetrical flower.

Pink evening primrose, Oenothera speciosa, have obvious four-petaled flowers.

Honesty and closely related flowers are all four-petaled.


This floral shape consists of four petals arranged at right angles to each other like a cross. They are often petite flowers that are grouped in a cluster. Most of them bloom in the springtime and are often fragrant. You could grow basket-of-gold, wallflower, sea kale, candytuft, or sweet alyssum. Look for this shape if you let your broccoli or cabbage go to flower.

Snow-in- summer is a wonderful tiny, five-petaled flower.

Poached-egg flowers consist of five petals.


These simple flowers have five obvious petals that make a pentagon or star-like shape. The petals may be pointed, toothed, or rounded and tend to be on a small scale. Examples include campion, catchfly, pinks, flax, and Egyptian starcluster.

Double versions of some flowers, like this white double daffodil, make them hard to recognize.

This double-flowered poppy has so many petals it is difficult to see into the center.

Double Flowers

As you look at possible flowers to grow, you will see that some have extra rings of petals. These are called double flowers. They are exciting to look at in the garden, as they have a full and blowsy appearance. The flowers may be semi-double, with only one extra ring of petals, or fully double, with a center that is congested with petals. Some double flowers don’t make pollen or set seed, so they are especially long blooming in the garden. A side effect of this is that they may not be useful pollinator plants. Many flower shapes have been bred to produce double-flowered cultivars: double iris, hyacinth, pinks, or peony, for example.

The Shape of Flower Inflorescences

As you approach a bed from a distance, the first thing you see are the shapes of the biggest, boldest flowers and strongly geometric inflorescences like vertical flower spikes, flat-topped horizontal flower heads, and ball shapes. Other less prominent shapes become obvious as you step nearer to the bed and peruse the flowers more closely. A garden that contains predominantly one floral shape can lack interest, so check your wish list and look at the flower shapes of the prospective plants. Including diverse shapes makes your composition exciting and dynamic, while repetition of some shapes brings the bed together as a whole.

Vertical: Spikes and Spires

Like mini Eiffel Towers, upright flower stalks, known as spikes or spires, pierce through the general mounded look of the border. They are a real dramatic asset in the flower garden. They grab the attention of flying pollinators because their flowers are held up in the air and easily accessible.

Spikes and spires have individual flowers attached to the upright stem. The flowers may be tubular or cup shaped, depending on the species. The inflorescences are often slender and take up a small horizontal footprint. These can be grown near the front or middle of the bed because you can see past them to the flowers behind. Carefully placed groups or single vertical flowers can act like punctuation marks in the garden. Using too many in your composition lessens their impact, so place them strategically. Some of the best small-scale vertical accents for early and mid-spring are grape hyacinths and hyacinths. Later there are the joys of foxgloves, lupines, mulleins, and salvias, followed by red hot pokers, perennial lobelia, and blazing stars.

The vertical flower spikes of this bicolor lupine stand out in the flower bed.

The large-scale spiked inflorescences of blazing star have more of a vertical impact than the smaller-scale anise hyssop behind it.

Some flower spikes open from the bottom to the top and keep on growing. Others open in sequence going down the stem. It doesn’t affect their presence in the garden, but it is another fascinating thing to notice. One category of vertically held inflorescences are tiered whorls where flowers encircle upright stems, with gaps in between. An example is Jerusalem sage, which adds a fun shape when planted in an otherwise low flower bed. Another group of vertical plants has wider inflorescences that resemble plumes. Their fuzzy, flame-shaped appearance is less sleek than other vertical flowers. Some of these plume-shaped plants, like celosia, amaranth, and goldenrod, have multiple side shoots that add to their sturdy presence in the garden.


  • “A thorough approach to landscaping. A wrap-up section showcases inspirational layouts and provides practical suggestions for starting…A detailed and handy reference.” —Booklist
    “Expertise and artistry are in full bloom in this outstanding floral masterclass from historian Carey…Encyclopedic knowledge and a fantastic eye for detail make this a must-read for gardeners of all levels.” —Publishers Weekly

    “Full of practical insights, ideas, and inspiration to help you grow the flower-packed garden of your dreams.” —Greg Loades, author of The Modern Cottage Garden
    “The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Guide is a master class on flower gardening. It is like my favorite cookbooks: chatty, inspiring, informative, and packed with luscious, mouth-watering photographs. A must for every flower gardener.”—Marta McDowell, author of Unearthing the Secret Garden
    “Jenny’s infectious love of flowers radiates out from this beautiful how-to guide to turning your flower garden dream into reality. Whatever your skill level, this book offers new learning and delight.” —Matt Rader, President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
    “Whether your garden is sunny or shady, wet or dry, The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Guide will inspire you to get planting.” —R William Thomas, Executive Director of Chanticleer Garden

    “All the information you will need to prepare, plan, finally plant, and maintain the plants in your garden.”—Commonweeder

    “Carey’s writing style is wonderful, and the pictures are good enough that this would be a coffee table book…in short, get this book.”—The Washington Gardner

    “From bloom shape to colour and more, this book gives you the knowledge to design your flower borders for maximum effect.” —The Garden, RHS

    "Amazingly helpful for every gardener…[it] gives you all the information you will need to prepare, plan, finally plant, and maintain the plants in your garden.”—Commonweeder 

On Sale
Jul 5, 2022
Page Count
364 pages
Timber Press

Jenny Rose Carey

Jenny Rose Carey

About the Author

Jenny Rose Carey is a renowned gardener, educator, historian, and author, and the former senior director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm in Jenkintown. She previously worked at Temple University for over a decade, first as an adjunct professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture and then as director of the Ambler Arboretum. Jenny Rose has been lecturing nationally and internationally for many years. She is an avid hands-on gardener who has gardened in both England and the United States. Her Victorian property, Northview, contains diverse garden spaces, including a cutting garden, an herb garden, a dry garden, and various mixed flower beds. Jenny Rose and her gardens have been featured on the PBS series The Victory Garden, in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Grow magazine, and The Pennsylvania Gardener.

Learn more about this author