This section is from the book "Flower Gardening", by H. S. Adams. Also available from Amazon: Flower gardening.
Flower beds, that exhaust the possibilities of geometrical design and then wander off into all manner of devious paths, are well enough in their place. They are necessary, within decent bounds, to the rigid formality of the partere. And there is a theory, which may or may not be tenable, on the part of park superintendents that such plantings, even when turned into living signs and like freaks, are one of a municipality's horticultural duties to the public.
Unless there is a parterre grouping, the home is better off without flower beds in the accepted sense. Stuck—there is no other word that fits—in the lawn they are always out of place and very frequently are nothing short of atrocious. Then, in their set gaudiness, they remind one of what Bacon said of lawn designs of colored earth: "You may see as good Sights, many times, in Tarts".
Flowers for the edge of the lawn, but the stretch of sward itself unbroken save by suitable planting of trees or shrubbery, or both, is a good rule that does not have to be qualified other than to admit the inevitable exceptions that make the rule. There are instances, as in Hyde Park, London, of beds in the simplest geometrical forms being placed in the lawn near the edge of it with an effect really beautiful and not out of keeping with the general scheme; but all this is on a large scale. Again, islands of shrubbery, that are virtually converted into flower beds by a liberal planting of perennials or bedding plants, are to be seen.
For the small home grounds, above all, the border, or series of borders, is infinitely to be preferred in any but very exceptional circumstances. Borders adjust themselves to every line of a place, no matter with what irregularity it is marked; beds rarely do.
Then, too, borders are very much easier in the making, while in the upkeep the labor does not begin to be so much as with a bed that offers anything more serious than a right angle. The thought of laboriously cutting a crescent in the lawn, and then planting it, trimming it again and again and keeping the grass edge just right, that always there may be exact symmetry, is enough to drive such an idea out of one's head.
A border is technically a narrow flower bed— that is to say, one that is narrow in proportion to its width. Less precisely, but within proper usage, it is any bordering bed. Though usually much elongated, it would not be out of place to call a large square bed a border if it had a path on one or two sides of it. The simplest and commonest form is a long strip of even width, straight or curved, with either square or rounded corners. Very frequently the border is a triangle, generally obtuse-angled. Then there are various forms with all the edges irregular and others where one side is broken very much as a coast line is.
"Then there is the border that defines one or two edges of the lawn on the sides that are not adjacent to the house or street".
The more closely the border sticks to straight lines, the less work in the beginning and from that time on. The guiding idea, however, should be fitness ; what is best for one place may be worst for another. As a rule the line of border along a path, road or boundary has at least the nearer line parallel to the latter; this is not necessarily automatic, as often there is the permissible very narrow strip of turf between. But the border may be parallel only a certain distance and then veer off at an angle at a point where a break in the lawn gives it an excuse for so doing, or where it is desirable to create a low screen.
Irregular borders would better have their edges broken by graceful curves when they come close to a path; they look better and the bit of intervening turf is more easily cared for. As to care, the same is true of shrubbery islands in a lawn scheme. If a border is to be cut up into capes and bays let it be a long one on the farther side of a lawn, where not so much the irregular edge as the admirable effect produced by it comes into the picture.
Width and length are governed by circumstances; some borders are from twelve to twenty feet wide and others are hundreds of feet long.
One of the most frequent errors is to make them too narrow—two feet or so in width. This does not seem narrow when the ground is prepared; but it is. Aside from the impossibility of obtaining scarcely more than a ribbon effect, there is scant room for the spread of the plants—which must be kept clear of the grass or walk, though some may hang over the latter if there is room enough. Four feet will be found a convenient minimum where there is access to the border from only a single side.
This for small plants, either in rows or massed in sections of broad and drift forms. Many of the large plants, as well as dwarf shrubs, can be massed in clumps in a four-foot border; or they can be placed in three rows if the plants in the center one are set opposite the space in the other two.
borders on a small place, as may be observed by a study of cottage gardens, are exceedingly attractive when run along the foundation wall of the house, or the edge of the piazza. If the border turns a corner it will be all the more satisfying to the eye. Choose the south and east walls wherever possible, for the sun. If the shade is there, or only the west or north wall is available, you can always get around the difficulty by using shade-loving plants. Borders such as these need not come down to, or even near, a path if the latter is some distance from the wall. Lay out the border with reference to the line of the wall and let the outer edge of it be parallel or not, as circumstances warrant.
A border, preferably a double one along the path leading up to the entrance to the house, is another good leaf from the book of cottage gardens. This may be of equal width the entire distance, or agreeably varied by a distinct broadening at one or both ends—at the house end only if it does not extend to the gate, or sidewalk line. Again it may be varied by being made L—shaped on one or both sides, the arm being an extension along the house wall; widen the elbow a little to reduce the angularity at that point.