Planting Design - 5 Tricks Landscape Professionals Use

Subtropical garden planting design with bromeliads and palm trees seen either side of a concrete paver path.

Read any garden design blog (except this one) and it’ll bang on a lot about choosing the right plant for the conditions and space. That’s great advice, but well covered, so let’s assume you’ve done your research in that space, dig a little deeper and talk about some simple planting design techniques landscape professionals use when they are putting together a planting design. 

1. Don’t ignore the plant wish list!

Let’s face it, it’s your garden, and the final ‘appropriate’ plant palette should also include plants you either love, want to grow or that you think look good and are going to give your garden the wow factor it needs. Otherwise, at some point you're likely to squeeze them in anyway which can lead to a cluttered and unconsidered outcome. 

So, first up, write them down. All of them! This doesn’t mean you’ll use them all but making a plant wish list provides a great starting point for your plant selection. With list in hand you can begin to consider suitable spots for these plants in your garden, be that still in the planning stages or already constructed and awaiting planting. Then, if you find you don't already have suitable spaces, you can either modify the garden conditions to accommodate your preferred plants or do some research to find substitute plants with similar attributes that will work in your localised conditions.

The other reason making a wish list is such a good tip, is that your initial wish list can be developed into a basic plant schedule (with quantities) that you can use as a shopping list when you head to he nursery. This will help keep you on track if you make on the spot substitutions, so you won't buy too many plants and blow the budget.

2. Consider ‘why’ before ‘what’

Visually, plants are like the icing on a cake, often considered the ‘finishing touch’ to a garden. However, lightbulb moment, garden designers consider the plants first! Well not the actual plants, but the function the plants are going to serve within the finished landscape.

Doing this means that if, for example, you need a three-metre-high, evergreen hedge along the boundary to screen out the nosy neighbours, you can plan an adequately wide space for it at the outset then consider your actual hedge species later (if there’s nothing suitable already on your wish list). Ignore plant function until the hardscaping or new lawn is in-situ, and your options around plant species shrink to what will grow in the space you have ‘left’. 

3. Layer it, choose your tallest plants first.

The taller plants in your garden, such as trees and screening hedges, typically have the largest root systems and will require the most space. The ultimate size of these 'canopy' plants affects the growing conditions of all the other plants in your garden.

 Therefore, a good way to start a successful planting design is by choosing these first, and then working your way down through the ‘layers’ of smaller plants. You can use that wish list again here!

'Under-storey' plants are selected after the canopy plants. This consists of a range of other 'plant layers'.

  • First, choose plants for the ‘shrub’ layer, this often contains a mix of smaller hedges and shrubs and both feature and filler plants. 
  • As the flashy feature plants in the shrub layer have more visual importance, select these before the filler plants.
  • Filler plants, chosen next, provide more of a support role. Ie, the ferns you suddenly see and enjoy when those gorgeous hydrangea go dormant over winter. 
  •  Finally, choose your groundcovers. These are lowest plants in the scheme and often used in massed or group plantings for both impact and weed suppression. 

Whether you are planning plants for the garden in its entirety, or tackling one garden bed at a time,  when you design using this layering technique, you can ensure there’s enough space for the larger plants you want or need, such as a leafy shade tree at the patio edge, while still having good growing conditions for any plants on your wish list, because you won’t want that tree canopy to ultimately spread over the area where you plan to place your sun loving roses!

4. The ‘One-Two’ planting trick

Less is more, and when chosen well, you really don’t need many plants to make a big impact. This  is why planting is often considered the biggest bang for your landscape buck. I'm not talking about just a few sparsely scattered plants though. I'm talking about one of the easiest and most successful methods of planting design which is super simple, and its low maintenance! It’s a successful planting design trick known as the ‘One-Two’.

This is a two layered, two plant species scheme which is successful because it offers great visual contrast. It can be used in a small garden area or on a much larger scale if you have more ground to cover. Here’s what you do:

Choose your taller feature plant such as a tree, palm or large shapely shrub. This is your ‘one’ and it will give your planting scheme height and drama.  Then, simply underplant this with a mass of one other, much lower-growing plant species. This is your ‘two’.  It’s that simple! In a subtropical garden you could use Cycus revoluta underplanted with massed Gardenia radicans or for a New Zealand native theme Nikau palm underplanted with massed Coprosma repens ’Poor Knights’. A favourite one-two combo of mine is a white trunked birch trees with soft carex grasses massed  below. 

5. Play on Scale

A simple but effective planting design trick that you can use if your plant knowledge is limited is to combine a few plant species with similar foliage forms and play on scale for impact. Let’s use strappy plants as an example. 

Using the layering selection technique choose your tallest plant first. Let’s say a broad leaf cabbage tree suits your planting theme and growing conditions. Next, consider a feature plant for the understorey that has a similar, smaller form, such as a nice flax. If you wanted a bit of flowering interest, you might add dietes or a similar strappy, flowering plant from your wish list. Finally, add a groundcover of a suitable height, such as some fine grasses. 

This scheme will be visually successful because all the plants have a similar form and there’s also impact created by the contrast of scale in both the height of the plants and the variance in foliage size, and because there is cohesion in the foliage form, the scheme doesn’t look messy or cluttered. This idea also works with the one-two trick, you’d just limit it to two plants.

Final words - It’s never ‘done’ and it should be fun.

Plants, and by extension gardens, are living things and when you’re ‘done’ planting, in all honesty your garden is really just getting growing. It's going to change and evolve as the plants mature. That makes planting design one of the trickiest aspects of landscaping to get right. If you're not finding it fun, call in the professionals. 

DIY Designs are specialists in planting design and can help. View our services


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