Create an Island Bed

Island beds can make a big impact in your landscape


Although there are no real rules to creating an island bed, there is a lot to consider in the planning.  We have all seen the little circle cut into a yard with some plants and a whirligig plunked into it.  With careful planning, you can create an island bed that adds interest to your landscape.

Strictly speaking, an island bed stands alone and is not connected to other elements of the landscape such as your home, driveway, or along a fence.  An island bed is constructed on the “flat of the land” using plants to add height.  They simply float in the lawn like an island.  (Although with the days of formal gardening gone, the once formal island might now be built up like a berm or adjoined to the drive or sidewalk.)  These are precisely the reasons we have seen such unattractive island beds.  They have no design support from adjoining features of your landscape, there is no hiding smack dab in the middle of the lawn, and no relief from view, as typically they are easily viewed from all sides.  So your really need to do it right.  A few guidelines will make it easy.

Size and Shape

An island be can be any shape you chose - round, square, octagon, crescent or kidney.  It can be a irregular flowing shape, perhaps mimicking other shapes in your landscape to unify it with existing elements.  To allow for easy mowing, create wide sweeping curves that are easy to navigate.

An island’s size should be scaled appropriately the viewing distance.  Since an island can typically be easily viewed from all sides, use the primary or most important vantage point.  In front of the home, that would usually be your front entry.  But if your island will be placed near the street on a large property, use the entrance to the property instead.  Then create an island width that is half the distance from the viewing place.  Remember that this is only a guideline.  For example, to create an island near the street that will screen out the street view from the home you might have a viewing distance of 30 or 40 feet from your home and a viewing distance of 5-10 feet from the street.  So do you construct your island 5 feet wide or 15 feet wide?  Form always follows function, so first remember the purpose of the island and create it the size it needs to be to perform the function.  Then consider the guideline, then go with your instincts and do what you like best.  If the island bed is strictly decorative, consider the space available and the scale of surrounding planting areas.

Plants and Design

An island bed should be designed for viewing all the way around.  Select plants with greater height for the center and low growing plants or groundcovers for the outer edge.  But don’t use plants so tall that you block desired view.  Remember your design principles for plant selection and placement.  Select plants with some similarity of color texture or form for unity.  Balance the overall design with size or “visual” weight.  Plants should be in proportion or scale to the size of the island and other elements of the landscape.  Create rhythm to lead the eye through and around the island by repeating a color, shape or texture.  And don’t forget to consider the visual interest of the changing seasons.  If you are using perennials consider the bloom periods and perhaps splash in some annuals.  Consider what might create interest in early spring, late fall and even winter.  But most important, as always, is creating a plant design that pleases you!


Some maintenance will of course be required, how much will depend on your plant selections and the size of the island you create.  If you don’t want to spend too much time with maintenance, create a smaller island and use primarily well healed shrubs and an ornamental tree.

Island beds are easily accessed for maintenance all the way around.  But if you create an unusually large island, be sure to allow walk space or add steeping stones into the center of the island.


Island beds are perfect for accents such as birdbaths, statues, urns or trees.  Garden structures, accents and accessories will also provide year round interest that is difficult to achieve with plants alone.  Be sure to see the pages about Using Accent Structures and Using Garden Accents for design help.

Sharon DwyerComment