The principles of planting design

img_9276A friend, who is both a designer and a plant expert, remarks that “a planting design should be done without reference to plant names”. Instead, “the designer should use sketches and cross sections” – and then think about what species could achieve the design effect.

Though I accept the point that planting design is very much to do with colour, texture, mass, etc, I do not agree with the point. Think about furniture design: you need to know whether the item is to be made with steel, plastic, cast iron, oak, ash, birch or whatever, BEFORE the design can be started.

So what are the principles of planting design? We published an eBook on the Principles of Garden Design in 2008 and, if time and inspiration permit, would like to follow it with an eBook on the Principles of Planting Design.

Though unsatisfactory, it it tempting to conceive the subject in terms of historic approaches to planting design. My friend’s approach, I think, relates to the Bauhaus belief that there are certain principles of abstract design which, presumably, apply to any project in any time in any place.  As Geoffrey Jellicoe wrote in 1925  ‘The bases of abstract design, running through history like a silver thread, are independent of race and age’.

Modern planting designs are treated as abstract compositions which need only please the eye. But there is more to planting design and abstract composition runs contrary to the idea that ‘form follows function’. If one wants to grow cabbages or apples, or to engage in permaculture, then one cannot think about ‘the design’ in isolation from its function.

The photograph illustrates the point that “Dierama pulcherrimum is an elegant plant which looks well with the softness of Stipa tennusima“. But could this plant combination have been achieved by doing the design BEFORE thinking about the species?  I asked the designer and learned that ‘ The Stipa was planted first and placed because I thought it was a place it would flourish. Then I walked round, some years later, with the Dierama in a pot – and thinking both where it would grow and what it would go with from a compositional point of view’. So species selection preceded aesthetics.

27 thoughts on “The principles of planting design

  1. stefan

    well, when i design furniture i always decide how i want it to look, choose the materials that will achieve the effect, then alter the design to take into account the materials properties (or to take into account the sage advice i get from my manufacturers!)

    i suspect a good planting scheme should work the same way. kathryn gustafsons work is a good case in point. she is someone who thinks in terms of mass, texture and changing colours, but its worth noting that she works hand in hand with a very skilled plantsmen like Piet Oudolf, who picks the plants for the way they work together

    (have you featured any of her work? if not, i might make a post about the lurie garden in chicago)

    a lot depends on the nature of the space of the well. if you are interested in growing apples, then its more important to achieve a good crop than answer to some aesthetic. fortunately, an orchard, or a cabbage patch for that matter, can be very attractive! more attracive than many so called planned schemes …

    i think the bottom line for many planting schemes (in the public realm) is that they have to be low maintenance, which is why landscape architects go for block planting. perhaps an ecological approach to planting in the future could provide us with schemes that are low maintenance and more visually interesting? in which case your right, species selection would take precedence

  2. Christine

    I would agree with Stefan to some extent. But this may have to do with the differences in our experiences as furniture designers. Someone who designs furniture as discrete repeatable pieces which will be manufactured in runs, has a very different approach from the custom furniture designer who designs furniture for a very specific one off context!

    Perhaps in the first instance the concept begins with an idea about the chair. Perhaps, exploring the potential of some material is important, perhaps it is not? In the second instance (in which I have almost always designed furniture) there is a broader concept within which the furniture is located. It is usually an idea about an interior; and maybe even an architectural space. The furniture I have designed has usually been part of a greater whole – and as such both its aesthetic and material has usually been derived from the need to make this greater whole.

    That is not to say that I haven’t considered that the furniture may at some future time continue beyond the context in which it is currently being designed for….

    I know a chair designer whose pieces are collected by museums. I have not designed furniture which has achieved either this level of refinement or innovation. [I would like to think I may in the future?]

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    There may be a chicken and egg dimension to this discussion of furniture design but I offer the following examples for consideration:
    Shaker furniture: surely the decision about materials was taken before the aesthetic decisions
    Robin Day’s polypropylene stacking chair (1963): surely the decision to experiment with the uses of polypropylene in furniture design was taken before the aesthetic idea evolved

    Then consider the difference between gardens in the hot-arid and hot-humid zones: if you think about aesthetics before thinking about other matters then you end up with the un-ecological tropical gardens of Las Vegas.

  4. Andrew Duff

    I guess the issue here is the sheer numbers of plants to choose from and certainly if you are new to planting design there is a standard trap to fall into – choose one plant then spend hours trying to find the next. It can be very frustrating if your plant knowledge isn’t great.

    Your friends comments are rather refreshing and its good to know that there are people thinking about plants as ‘design tools’ and not just as horticultural jigsaw pieces.

    When I teach students planting design I like to get them to design the whole planting plan based purely on colour, size, texture and form before choosing the plant species that way they know exactly which type of plant to look for rather than just searching randomly.

    Whether your garden is hot arid or hot humid this planting design concept still works – you simply tie in the climatic horticulture when you choose the species, again limiting the choice therefore making decision making easier?

  5. anna maria

    I am a plant expert and garden designer. I dissugree with the opinion in the article.
    I draw shapes and then look for the plants that fits the space
    I think that good design do not relay on plant they are only ‘the cherry on top of the cake’ in the garden. They are changing with time and need to be replaced with time too where design stays the same.
    Using plants in the garden is like wearing clothes for different seasons, they do not make the design look good if is bad one they make the garden on a design frame.

  6. stefan

    i guess your preferred approach will depend a lot on what skills you have. if you have horticultural skills then you are in an enviable position and should take full advantage of them.

    to extend the furniture metaphor a bit, one of the reasons me and my joiner like working together is because we approach design problems from different sides and meet in the middle. to and fro rather than chicken and egg.

    i don’t know if it matters which approach you start with – architectural, horticulural or ecological. but if you take care to bring the other matters into consideration, hopefully it leads to stronger overall design? theres a lot of room for consultation between the related disiplines.

  7. Siv Stagman

    This is my first blog comment ever. It is to be hoped that I don’t stray away from the discussions above.

    My basic view on planting design includes plant ecology. It is the foundation on which I as a gardener and garden designer stand. I believe that garden designers and landscape architects should pay more heed to this. We need to know in what habitats the plants will thrive, how they compete for space and light, water and nutrients, their ability to spread and compete with each other, their life span and so on. It is possible to combine aesthetically and ecologically compatible plants together into a sucessful and sustainable design easy to maintain. As a gardener I have often come across poorly designed plantings baring all the typical characteristics: incompatible species due to their habit, growth rate and requirements. This causes management problems and there is a great risk that the designer’s intentions will be lost. Garden design and landscape design are processes, since we are dealing with live plant materials that develop and interact with each other over time. It can never be an object with an end result. A garden is in constant progress and this needs to be include right in the beginning of the design process. An understanding of these matters will have a substantial impact on the appearance and management of plantings in the long-term. It is my firm belief that in order to create good planting designs you need a sound horticultural understanding.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    I remember an excellent lecture on planting from John Brookes (in 1969!). He used chalk to draw on a blackboard and explained that the design comes before the plant selection. But looking back on the lecture as a reference point in the long history of planting design, I see his approach as an instance of Abstract Design – comparable to Cubism, Stream of Consciousness Literature and Atonal Music. To my mind this heightens the quality of his work – but it also makes me think that there must be a Post-Modern approach to planting, as to so much else. One of the characteristics of Post-Modern design is that it has more deliberate MEANING than abstract design.
    Siv’s reference to plant ecology is very relevant. As he says ‘We need to know in what habitats the plants will thrive, how they compete for space and light, water and nutrients, their ability to spread and compete with each other, their life span and so on’. Thinking about my own knowledge of plants (easier than in 1969, because there is less of it!), much of this type of knowledge came from my experience of plant propagation, a practice which is far removed from Abstract Design.

  9. luise h.

    I believe good design gives pleasure for years to come.That can only be achieved if you know the requirements of the plants you choose.After all,if half of your plantings die (they are living things)because they are planted in the wrong soil,the wrong Light conditions etc.,I would consider that a failure.Knowledge of the Material must always come before designing with any Material.If you are not aware of Material specifics,how do you know if the Design will have durability?

  10. Christine

    What an interesting discussion! Stefan – my furniture isn’t that interesting that it deserves to be on the web! (It was good in its context. I hope some of it is kept as was the intention when it was designed. Otherwise it is unsustainably forgettable!)

    I have been thinking alot about plant design since Tom first bought up the subject. It is not my area at all. My horticultural knowledge is 0.0000000001%! However, I have been thinking about how one would design a ‘Moon Garden’ within an urban context.

    The theme of these gardens are all white plants. The space would be occupied in the same way as an interior – in essence it would be a very commercial outdoor room. It would require some form of night lighting in keeping with the general intention to create the atmosphere of a Moon Garden. The space would also function during the day. It would be possible to change the mood of the garden and modify the idea of the garden by introducing potted colour which could be removed at night…

    There is much I don’t know about the space, ie dimensions…I am not sure if it is a tight or a generous space. I do know that it is enclosed on three sides by buildings. I imagine there is significant traffic noise. Maybe the walls can be softed by planting? Maybe the noise from the road can also be absorbed to some extent? [And also road dust/pollution which I expect will impact on maintaining the health of the plants?]

    Just some of the musings a design idea might generate re: plant selection!

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    I hope Christine gets an opportunity to design a Moon Garden! – and offer the following precedents for consideration: (1) the The Moonlight Garden (Mahtab Bagh) section of the Taj Mahal garden [] (2) the Mars Garden for which Sarah Eberle received the Best in Show Award at Chelsea in 2007 (3) the famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle Garden [ ]
    Associating a garden with the Moon and designing a garden for a specific use (moonnight parties in the case of the Mahtab Bagh) are Post-Modern Trends.

  12. Christine

    I was actually logging on to add a postscript…so I’ll deviate a little from the topic of Moon Gardens [for now.] I was wondering under what circumstances someone would consider removing the Great Beech Hedge at Miekleour? [This is the plant first approach.] Perhaps there is sometime when it will exceed its lifespan? Or it may become diseased? Or its growing conditions could be affected by global warming?

    Oh, and about the Moon Garden – I was also thinking about viable ecological uses. Would it be reasonable in a highly urbanised environment in a highly commerical space to hope for visitation by butterflies?

  13. stefan

    well, i hate to deviate from the idea of moon gardens, but

    stagman has some very interesting points. i agree that horticultural understanding is necessary for a good planting design. the problem for landscape architects is that they know there will be very little sort of a maintenance programme for many of their schemes, which is why they have had to deviate from traditional horticultural approaches to planting (also because of the harsher nature of the urban environments they design for) and become more ‘abstract’. this can often be dull, its true.

    i think the ecological approach you mention offers a lot of possibilities, allowing us to introduce diversity and change into a low maintenance environment.

    christine – although its been proved that plants to nothing practical to reduce noise levels, it seems they have a psychological effect, causing people to stop noticing the noise so much. perhaps white jasmine would be nice, and fragrant too! as for butterflies why not? heres a scheme i saw recently that hopes to attract birds and insects to the urban environent. and it touches on some of the issues raised above too.

  14. Tom Turner Post author

    Re Stefan’s comment on landscape architecture: it only applies if you think of landscape architecture as professional consultancy. If you think of it, primarily, as an Art then there is every reason for the landscape architect to have a continuing involvement with planting design. In Denmark, for example, many of the parks managers have a training in landscape architecture and therefore an ongoing involvement with the planting schemes they undertake. [I am planning future posts on the definition of landscape architecture – or, rather, on my definition of landscape architecture(!) – and also on Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s approach to planting design]

  15. stefan

    of course managing the maintenance of a park is a full time job in itself. i’m talking here about the everyday jobs like weeding, pruning and deadheading. are suggesting the landscape architect undertake one or two schemes then spend the rest of his career overseeing their maintenance?

    of course you’d expect a park to have a decent maintenance programme, but their are other types of schemes where you can guarantee the budget for their upkeep will be virtually nil, or the first thing to be cut in a squeeze

  16. Tom La Dell

    Well, I must confess to being Tom’s friend with the opinions about planting design. The approach arose from years of frustration with landscape students and graduates who thought that planting design was done by selecting plants from the picture of a leaf or flower in a plant book for gardeners and whether ‘I like the plant’ or ‘I don’t like that one’.

    My own approach suffered from knowing far too many plants and their ecology (as a botanist) and even starting a nursery to introduce a wider range of plants for landscape planting.

    I have asked the question as to whether landscape architects are the only designers who do not understand the materials that they design with. Is this part of a ‘god’ syndrome that ‘this plant will grow to be the form and size that I want because I have put it on my drawing’?

    Starting with a design concept is a good solution whichever end of the plant spectrum that you start from. It is only a tool to make sure that the ecological, emotional, cultural or just plain wacky intentions work, so that they can be enjoyed for a long time instead of being grubbed out.

    In most landscape plantings you do not get a chance to influence much after the planting let alone add the landscape equivalent of Dierama. You can though, for example, have fun and add scents to the most ordinary schemes so that people can trace it back to Phiadelphus Belle Etoile or a Sarcococca.

    Ecological planting has its own dynamic and it is interesting to see it as based on a landscape aesthetic of woodland or heathland or prairie or……………….

    Not so different to adding a bit of form and function to all the other elements of plant selection.

  17. Christine

    Do you remember the criticisms of Modernist social housing? These architects unfortuneately also confronted the difficulty of next to no budget or thought being given to ongoing maintenance of their projects. Hence they too often, to the overall detriment of the built environment took the low maintenance materials approach. I think you have to be a particularly brilliant designer to get away with it!

    This approach is unfortuneately still part of the philosophy of public design.

    Thanks Stefan for making it clear just how much BOTH architects and landscape architects have to struggle against inadequately conceived public projects and management regimes!

    Here is an article on sound absorption by plants written in 1981. I suppose more recent studies you are aware of may contradict these findings. [] The information is not exactly in a form you could design to in terms of dB reductions, but it does give the designer some confidence (if current) that planting will assist in noise attenuation. Maybe there is an acoustic engineer cum landscape architect who could comment?

    Similarly the use of running water within a space will have a masking effect on traffic noise.
    [] Not sure if this water curtain would do anything for sound masking. But it is an interesting design development which perhaps could be used intermittently with more tradition devices.

    It seems that the horticulture industry could have some interesting contributions to future design directions also! []

  18. Christine

    ps. The Vertical Garden project looks interesting. At least they work as sculptures. It would be good to see what they look like vegetated!

    The book ‘The Moonlight Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal’ by Elisabeth Moynihan looks like interesting reading. I also found the following article on Ethel Anderson which may be useful to understanding Moon Garden design. []

  19. Christine

    Thanks Tom. [It seems as if selection of appropriate plants occurs at all stages of the project and is iterative and CONSULTATIVE.]

    In the instance of the Moon Garden other than saying the garden cum wine bar is located in London and intended to operate both day (as a lunchtime venue)and night – its natural ecology could only be best described as urban! It would be interesting to have a detailed landscape planting map of the surrounding area…..

    Perhaps then it might be possible to have such goals as providing a continuity of habitat via a habitat corridor, or looking for cross-pollination opportunities etc.

    I am supposing at this stage that if there were to be birds (because of the function of the venue) they would be caged breed-in-captivity songbirds. [But do I believe in birds in cages?]

    If staff at the venue can set-up the space (including setting tables, lighting candles or similar)it is also reasonable that they might set up and care for coloured potted plants and birds during the day & remove them at night as an operational strategy. [Interior designers are more demanding and take more liberties with the occupants of their spaces than landscape/architects!!]

  20. Chlorophyll

    Both Garden and Planting Design are deviant behaviors without (eco)system comprehension and integration. The dream of a moon garden,for example, can be designed, specified, even planted.
    But ensuring conditions, ie the “system” which welcome and eventually support the living entity of a garden is first & foremost to its survival and ultimate success. It’s a simple premise, but overlooked with sad results. More than a set of conditions, a garden’s system must be considered, preserved, stewarded. Think of gardens as music we compose within pre-existing symphonics, then design and plant to your hearts’ content. Furniture choice & placement have lower morbidity rates, but don’t sing..

  21. Christine

    I am wondering about what you mean when you speak of(eco)system comprehension and integration?
    An ecosystem as a natural entity can be comprehended over time with study. There are sets of fundamental principles which underlie the operation of ecosystems. []

    In the urban realm?? There is no natural, functional model that can be said to be the ecosystem/biome? [Although undoubtably under a strict definiton ‘the concrete juggle’is still an ecosystem/biome – but is it a healthy or sustainable one?] I don’t think it is helpful to demand sustainability (in any strict sense) from gardens which have been designed prior to the twentyfirst century.

    There are examples of gardens which are more or less successful (and more or less sustainable). These can be studied. There are examples of urban design which are more or less successful (and more or less sustainable). These can be studied. These studies would tell you more or less what makes a garden or urban design scheme succesful and sustainable.

    But none of these studies would tell you particularly how to design a successful or sustainable garden or urban design. However, each would consist of numerous lessons which could be abstracted in the art of garden or urban design.

    I think the difficulty comes from the idea that for a garden to be sustainable it must ‘look like nature’? This is a proposition which probably deserves further discussion.

    Back to the Moon Garden. The performative aspect of ‘singing’ is in the emotive interpretation of the lyrics and score. At this stage in the process of developing the idea of the Moon Garden it seem necessary to 1) consider the site as a garden which can accommodate the function of a wine bar….Then it will be necessary to 2) consider the site as a wine bar which is set within a garden.

    These are actually two different design problems. I am sure Stefan would be more confident with the idea of designing the garden. While an interior designer would be more confident with the idea of designing a wine bar.

    The next problem which would arise is how the two are melded into one. Is there a comprehensive overall organising idea. That is the Moon Garden.

  22. stefan

    for a wine bar to work outdoors i suspect you’ll need some sort of canopy, one that can ‘rolled out’ as necessary .. hmmm canopy, canopy of stars …when i say the word Moon Garden i also think of reflective surfaces. plantwise, i’d be tempted to use lots of green foliage against a pale background (concrete?) to strongly accentuate the white flowers.

    now of course the idea is rolling around my head. curses!

  23. Christine

    Yes. Mine too! I would love to talk materials with you and how the plants might be offset by different textures and shades.

    But I don’t have a plan of the area so I cannot scale and place things – even conceptually!

    But I have been thinking about the climate aspect. And how to approach the design of the Moon Garden seasonally. I rather like the idea of people sitting out or at the bar in coats – much like they do at ice bars…(Or bars at ski resorts)….so a sort of winter garden space during the coldest months. {Perhaps some aspect for shelter may even be a Wintergarden.) I have wonderful memories of Kew as a winter wonderland with snow/frost on the ground. I love trees when they are bare and sculptural over the winter…

    So summer – green and white (as you suggest); autumn – ?; winter – white white white (touches of black/or other hue from bark); spring -…perhaps touches of blue or with irises…or white daffodils []or crocuses.

    Or can I use the white white ones like these from Ohio? Do you know what the ecological consequences might be (ie.climate, soil conditions, insects)?

    These examples of gardens are all from Scotland & I expect in more exposed locations…but it will give you an idea of how I am visualising the different seasons as moods (excluding summer)!

    VICTORIA PARK – [,_crocuses.jpg]
    HAZELWOOD – []

  24. stefan

    do you have a specific site in mind, or is the idea strictly theoretical at the moment? be nice to know what the surroundings were like before considering materials, but at the moment i imagine concrete mixed up with different size aggregates to give it texture or dashes of colour.

    i like the idea of different seasons having different moods. bleak and spectral in winter turning to something fresh and gleaming in the spring?

    viburnums would be the ideal winter plant, white flowers and subtly shaded bark. perhaps white dogwoods too?

    i dont know what species those daffs from ohio are but there are plenty white species that will grow here. as far as planting goes, a lot will depend on site conditions, whether its north or south facing especially.

    if you have a site in mind, we can always get a rough plan off google maps. pics would help too.

  25. Christine

    Yes I do have a site in mind. [Tom set the challenge earlier on in the blog!] It would be excellent if you could get a rough plan off google maps. I have prepared a post on the site with some ideas roughly traced in collage form and with the design elements numbered. If you are happy to go from there, we could start with what I have already done…or we could begin again with a blank visual slate.

    Thankyou for the planting suggestions…lets see how everything works within the space and the design!!

    I am thinking of the exercise as a little like experimental theatre SO maybe it is called experimental design!


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