The Principles of Planting

Whatever the size of a landscaping job – from simply redeveloping an uninspiring or under-used corner to planning a whole new garden from scratch – once you have decided on the general features and layout, it’s time to think about picking your plants. For most gardeners this is probably top of the list of most enjoyable tasks, but however experienced you may be, it is always worth taking a good deal of care over your choice.

The plants you select play an important part in setting the character and general “feel” of their surroundings and the impact they can have is enormous – rather like the way that changing the soft furnishings can alter the whole appearance of a room.

So, with plant choice a real “make-or-break” aspect in the overall landscape design, how can you make sure that you get it right – and what are the principles of successful planting?

The When, Where and How of Planting

Much of the answer comes down to knowing what type of landscape you are trying to create, when and how you intend to use it. If the area is only likely to be used during the summer, for instance, you can quite legitimately arrange your planting scheme to include the varieties which will be at their best then.

On the other hand, if the object of renovating a patch of garden is to provide a point of interest to be enjoyed all-year-round, then, obviously, the approach to planting shifts accordingly. This can be particularly important when you need to plant close to the house; providing some kind of interest throughout the changing seasons is a sure-fire way to make the home look cared for and welcoming.

For the winter-interest garden, selecting the right plants can become quite challenging and inevitably sometimes compromises will have to be made. Even so, though you may be a little short on actual blooms in December, careful choice of plants for texture, stature and leaf colour can allow quite extraordinary gardens to be created.

Planting for Success

Although five minutes in the average garden centre – or spent flicking through a gardening encyclopaedia – is probably enough to convince just about anyone of the bewildering array of plants available, it is worth remembering that not all will be suitable. The style of garden – formal, informal, cottage, Japanese and so on – will make some kinds definite candidates, while ruling others out.

In the same way, the ground conditions, soil, geography and climate can also make some plants, however tempting, quite unsuitable for your setting. Remember too to find out how big – and how fast – a particular plant grows before you make the final decision. A dwarf conifer will never screen next door’s garage, while Russian Vine will soon swamp a small space; it certainly pays to do your research! It is also worth finding out how invasive a plant is; depending on where you intend to put it, this may not rule it out, but it is better to know what you’re letting yourself in for ahead of time.

Avoiding Planting Pitfalls

One of the most common faults is to behave a bit like the proverbial kid in a sweet-shop, selecting as many different kinds of plants as you can possibly lay your hands on. While this sort of an approach undoubtedly does create lots of variety, in the long run it can weaken the over all design, making it look indecisive and lacking in theme. Concentrating on a few repeated elements – whether that is colours, shapes or textures – and using selected plants to give a little contrast when it is needed will help to tie the whole landscape design together.

Another common mistake is to cram everywhere with plants, forgetting that almost all spaces benefit from some low-key areas, both to inject a spot of calm into the overall design and provide a little contrast to show off the rest of the planting scheme to its best effect. Tempting though it can be, there are times when the old maxim that “less is more” holds very true.

When it comes to finalising the scheme, always start with the “key” plants – the ones which frame views, lend height or depth to the garden or give the design structure – but at the same time, avoid over-planning. We instinctively know when things are too perfect and the garden will look artificial and predictable – so allow a few design surprises into your planting to inject a little spontaneity for effect.

The key to turning what you had in mind when you first started the project into reality is to chose the right plants and then show them off to their best – so take your time with your planting scheme; it really is worth it.