I have a confession most landscape designers should not fess up to. I was not a fan of creating planting plans early on in my career. While going to school for landscape architecture I gravitated toward designing a space emphasizing built components, such as walls, shade structures, water features, entertaining spaces and so on. I saw plants as something beautiful you used to fill the places in between the built objects. It’s not that I did not like plants, their ability to breathe life into a space is partly what enticed me toward landscape architecture, I just did not appreciate the structural integrity they contributed to a design. It came to me slowly, but project by project I began to appreciate the role plant material plays in reinforcing the structure of a design. Soon I started to bring the planting plan to the forefront of the design process instead of keeping it an afterthought.
Plants have structural characteristics. This is revealed through form and texture, then reinforced with color. Correctly designing a landscape with these attributes in mind will create year-round interest without being dependent on seasonal flowers. Form is the overall shape of a plant. Those that have the highest visual impact are vertical elements. These include Italian Cypress, Phormiums, trees and topiaries.
Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) add an element arrival and grandeur. Reaching over 50’ tall and 6’ wide these are frequently used to line entry ways or accentuate the entry of a building. For a scaled down version of the common Italian Cypress the ‘Tiny Tower’ variety only gets to 12’ tall by 2’ wide.
Medium form shrubs are the most common shape in plants. These include roses, viburnums, Arctostaphylos, and so on. Their round and vase shapes create continuity linking the landscape together. Although it is important to have focal points in the landscape, you need cohesion that gives the focal points the opportunity to stand out. Lastly there are plants with a horizontal form. These pull the eye across the landscape while still allowing further dimension in the background. Cotoneater, Baccharis ‘Twin Peaks’, and Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ offer this dimension without being intrusive.
Plant texture is highly important when trying to emphasize structure in the landscape. Divided into course, medium and fine texture, each juxtaposed onto each other adds dimension.
Course texture plays a dominant role visually and can be observed in foliage, flowers, blades and bark. Agave, Hesperaloe, and Holly command attention through their foliage. Manzanita, Ninebark, and Arbutus bring textural interest with their bark. Medium texture are most prominent in the plants pallet. These offer a connecting factor through the design. Plant material with a fine texture can add a delicate balance to the space. Grasses are frequently referenced for this design element. However, shrubs such as Baccharis, Boxwoods and Ceanothus technically fall into this category because of their small leaves, but do not offer the airiness desired because of their dense leaf formation along the stem. If situated near a broadleaf plant their delicate leaf size will be noticed. By strategically locating plants you can manipulate the texture of them as well as the perception of the space.
Colorful foliage should be used without caution, but with a plan. Silvers, purples, blues, reds, tans and shades of green create a dynamic environment seasonally ready all year long. Many drought tolerant plant easily lend themselves to this category for survival purposes. Silvery blue hues of Agave, Little Ollie Olives, and Sages brighten corners of the landscape. Purple/red leaves seen in Berberis, Phormiums, and Heuchera create a richness to the color pallet set off when placed near a chartreuse or silver tones. Tans are frequently found in grasses such as Muhly, Pennisetum and Bouteloua. Their earthy tons offer comfort and earthiness to a design.
Looking to form, texture and color as driving design topic creates cohesion and interest without relying on seasonal flowers. It is easy to fulfill these categories with drought tolerant plants. Walk through our California garden at our nursery and you will see many examples of low water plants that effortlessly have seasonal interest all year long.