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Planting Design Principles – How to choose plant material for your landscape designs

This article was written by DynaScape Design products manager Len Hordyk. Len has over 20 years of experience in the landscape industry.

Abstract: This article is intended to address the struggles designers have with choosing plant materials for their designs. The principles outlined here can easily be applied to any scenario you may come across, regardless of the region of the country you are working in.

The problem: Most of us in this industry like taking the opportunity to review and critique landscape projects that were built by our competitors. We’re usually able to pick out something we might change, or we have a different vision for the property, but once in while you see a yard that simply works. We can’t always pinpoint why it works, but there’s something about the property that’s elegant, and creative. Over the years I’ve learned that one of the important elements that contribute to a great design is, planting design. Plants aren’t the only part of every design but they play a very important role and, if not done well, they can actually hinder a great hardscape design.

The problem that many of us face is the struggle we have with trying to choose plants that work well to create that perfect composition. Most know a lot about individual plants but it gets more complex and difficult when we put them altogether. We try to apply the design principles we know (scale, balance, repetition etc.) but there seems to be more to planting design, and there is. Once you’ve learned some of the basic principals that I’ll write about today, you’ll find it’s easier than you might have thought.

The solution: When it comes to planting design it comes down to a few simple rules that, once understood, will make creating that masterpiece a little easier. First choose your focal points and then add the rest of the plants to complement your focal points. Let’s take a closer look:

Choose Focal Points First: No matter what type of garden you are designing you must have pieces that make your eye pause and look. These pieces need to stand out from the rest of the items in the garden by its features – size, shape or color. When referring to plants, these are usually called ‘specimens’. Focal points can also be rocks, a sculpture, an arbor etc.

The number of focal points needed depends on the size of the space you are working in. If you use too many in one area it will begin to look busy and random. For a typical average front yard planting you only really need one larger specimen plant as your primary focal point and maybe one smaller one as a secondary focal point, to go along with a few accents like boulders or ornamental grasses.

Add Complimentary Plants: Once your focal points have been established you can begin filling in the rest of the plantings. The actual plants you choose now are critical because they need to complement these focal points. Here are a few tips that will help you decide what to choose:

  • Don’t crowd your specimen plants with large shrubs or perennials – instead, plant low growing evergreens, shrubs or groundcovers around them.  This way, if your specimen has an interesting trunk form, you are not hiding that characteristic.
  • Complement focal points with appropriate sized boulders – unless the boulder is the focal point, don’t make it too big.  On the other hand, small rocks can look more like a homeowner do-it-yourself project.
  • Plant groupings of plants instead of singles– leave the singles to the specimen plants.  Too many varieties will also look busy and random.
  • Think of using contrast for plant combinations– use contrasting textures (bold vs. fine), contrasting form (upright vs. spreading) and contrasting color (dark green vs. yellow).  Too much of the same thing will look bland. Varying the height and the form gives the best combination.
  • Don’t put too much emphasis on flower color – if the plants you use only flower for a short time, don’t be too concerned about flower color – look at the form and texture of the plant first, since that is what you will see most of the time.
  • Think of foliage colors that work with the house exterior – think of contrast here too.  For example, don’t put a burgundy/red specimen in front of an orange/red brick house.

Conclusion:  Try using these simple principles the next time you need to create a planting design.  You will begin to understand why some projects you see really work well and be able to apply it to your own.  Choose your focal points wisely and complement them with contrasting, un-crowded plant groupings.