Planting for Structure, Shape and Form

Plants for the garden tend to get chosen for the colour of their flowers, foliage or berries, but this is far from the only thing you might want to consider when it comes to the selection, particularly if you are looking to create a strong focus. Structure, shape and form can have a major impact on the overall design, particularly in small or unusually shaped spaces and especially if the plant is a large or striking one.

Adding Architectural Accents

When it comes to making a bold statement, plants with a dramatic overall shape or unusual foliage are hard to beat. Often called “architectural” or “accent” plants, they can be used to very good effect, either to pick up on a particular theme and set the key-note of the design, or to contrast quite deliberately with the overall form of the rest of the planting.

The graceful soft waves of a climber such as wisteria, for example can highlight the geometry of an otherwise more formal and ordered planting, or the spiky leaves of a large specimen Yucca used to emphasise the similar form of a group of cabbage palms (Cordyline).

The same idea also works very well for patios and terraces. Matching the shape of the container to the plant it holds – or contrasting it – gives the whole planting an entirely different feel and it can be worthwhile experimenting to see what effects you can create in this way.

Trees probably make the boldest statement in any garden, so if you are planning on using one for its architectural value, as well as knowing what its mature shape will be, it is particularly important to know how large it is going to grow – and how quickly. How it will fit in to the rest of the design and the shape of the plot itself also need to be taken into account.

Low spreading branches, for example, are ideal for smaller gardens as they draw the eye outwards – but may emphasise any lack of width, while tall conifer spires may direct the gaze upwards and out of the garden altogether. Success with all architectural plantings inevitably hinges on finding the right specimen for its intended setting.

Planning Year-Round Effect

Although a strong display of brightly-hued flowers or fruits makes a powerful contribution to the garden and justifies a plant’s place in any planting scheme, concentrating on this alone can tend to blind you to the fact that these features are relatively short-lived. For even the best and most colourful – where attractive flowers give way to bright autumn hues – colour itself will provide interest for little more than half the year.

By contrast, a plant chosen for its overall shape or form makes its presence felt throughout the seasons and while its own particular splash of colour may last only a few weeks, its real value lies in unifying the whole design and offering an enduring setting for the rest of the display.

Shrubs, such as Choisya ternate, which naturally grow in topiary-like shapes can, for example, be used to set off the autumn colours of other plants, while grasses such as the elegant Helictotrichon provide a backdrop of structure throughout the year. The foliage of evergreens and ferns too can help to give a garden form and interest, setting off the more colourful inhabitants of the flower bed, complementing but not competing with them.

Plants chosen for their mature shape or some aspect of their structure or form need to draw the whole design together, making a valuable contribution to the overall scheme and helping set off the remainder of the plants and features. Architectural plants and accent points typically form the focus of a particular planting – so getting it right really matters. If you take your time and pick wisely, however, the end result will be worth it for years to come.