Tag Archives: planting design


Early in the planning of your garden you should determine how plants will fit in to the overall design. They can be used in a number of ways, for example for giving structure, adding height or even as a focal point in the garden to name but a few. Plants can also be used as barriers to define areas and create ‘rooms’ and you can highlight important points in the garden by using unique plants. Different sizes, textures, colours and contrasting shapes will help to capture your attention and direct it in a specific direction. All year round colour, structure and interest should be your aim and it will take thought, consideration and research to pull your plan together.

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So where do I start?

The place to start is with the ‘ backbone’ of the garden and by that I mean the structure. You need to get that in place before you get carried away with adding in the pretty flowers! It can be hard to be firm with yourself on this but it really will pay dividends in the end. I’d recommend starting with some evergreen shrubs and also any trees you may want. In my blog next week I’ll look at a selection of ornamental trees for your garden as ideally you should try to pick ones that will give you three seasons of interest.


Look for winter flowering evergreen shrubs or one that have leaves with interesting textures. If you’re wanting fairly quick coverage then check online the growth rates of various evergreens and choose the ones that say moderate to fast growth. Shrubs like Fatsia japonica, one of my personal favourites, is a quick growing shrub with tropical looking leaves and white flowers in September and October.

I usually add in some deciduous shrubs next and one I particularly like is Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Although it has leaves in the summer, its particular season of interest is the winter when beautiful pink/white flowers appear on its stems. Other great winter flowering evergreens are Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ with pink winter flowers, Mahonia japonica with bold foliage and scented early spring flowers and Choisya ternata with glossy foliage.

Frosted Hydrangea Leaves

Ornamental grasses

After that, I tend to look at any ornamental grasses I might want to use. Not all my clients like grasses and quite often they are banished from my planting plans, however personally I think they are a fantastic addition to most gardens for a number of reasons. They allow movement in a garden and are perfect to harness the wind we get in Edinburgh and many other areas of Scotland. We can’t change the windy conditions we have so let’s utilise it!

There are ornamental grasses available in many sizes and colours. The great thing about grasses are the sounds they create from rustling to swishing and they give structure for about 11 months of the year. Many grasses only need to be cut back in February with the exception of grasses like Phormiums which have much stiffer leaves. Some of my personal favourites are Stipa tenuissima, a fantastic and versatile grass that can be planted in amongst herbaceous perennials to great effect. When the wind catches them they swirl around and look fantastic. Some of my favourite coloured grasses are Festuca glauca which is blue, Imperata rubra ‘Red Baron’ and Panicum ‘Squaw’ which changes colour from green to pink to wine red from spring through to autumn.

There are lots to choose from often changing colour through the seasons which gives a lot of variety and interest throughout the year. Phormiums also come in a variety of colours and look great as a focal point in the garden with their stiff leaves adding great texture to the border.

Do check the height and spread of all the plants you are thinking of using and make sure that they are planted in a way that one is not obscuring another. People often forget to check the final height and spread of plants which often means that they buy far too many. The plants then just try to out compete each other with the end result being an overcrowded messy border! It is such a waste of money too so it really pays to do your research.



‘The Pretties’

Last but not least are the herbaceous perennials, the fun bit that we all want to start with first but mustn’t! Unless you have a very large garden I’d recommend you go for perennials with long periods of interest. Choosing too many short flowering perennials will result in lots of green leaves and not much colour in large swathes of your garden. Try your best to pick perennials that say they last for 3-4 months, there are many that do.

Some perennials are deciduous and others are evergreen. Some good evergreens to include in your plan are the winter flowering Hellebores. They give year round evergreen structure and the prettiest flowers from February to April when we all need to see some colour in the garden. Other useful evergreens are Liriope muscari which flowers a pretty blue from August to October and Bergenia which flowers In March and April in lovely pinks and whites. Some of the Bergenia have leaves that turn coppery in winter which adds a lovely touch of colour to the borders at that time of year.

When you are choosing your perennials look for deciduous ones that will give lovely seed heads in the winter if left to dry out and not cut down and cleared away. Achillea, Monarda, Sedum and Echinops are to name but a few. You’ll find ideas of what to plant to give this effect in many books and on the internet. Using a carefully chosen selection of evergreen perennials, ornamental grasses, winter flowering shrubs, and perennials that fade to lovely seed heads you will have the palette to create year round colour, structure and interest in your garden.



Last but not least….

Remember that spring bulbs can fill in areas of the garden where you may be short of colour at the start of the year, until things get going in March/April time. I have previously blogged on bulbs so have a look at that and those spring bulbs that need to be planted between October and December will be all you need to finish off your planting design!

Planning and Designing a Small Garden

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I spent a lovely afternoon in July at Cambo Estate Gardens in Fife listening to the advice and wise words of Elliott Forsyth the Head Gardener. There is always so much to learn and a practical afternoon looking mainly at planting design is a great way to get hints and tips on what to do and why, whatever level of gardener you may been.  I enjoyed it so much that I decided to blog about it and share the tips that Elliot gave us all. I should hasten to add that most of the group were novice gardeners so these guidelines are to help and inspire gardening enthusiasts of all levels!

Elliott’s advice and my comments:
Rule 1:  Good design understands both your needs and the conditions in the garden & fits them both.

Consulting the Conditions

• Man made permanent features – things you can’t change
• Climatic & soil conditions in your garden – frost pockets, boggy ground

Considering your needs

• Use & function of the area – how would you like to use your garden
• Maintenance – how much time you have to do this
• Financial constraints – your budget

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Rule 2:  Effective theming is key to creating coherent design.

Aesthetic Criteria – The Look

These are the cornerstones:

• The habitat e.g. themes such as dry grassland planting or cut flower garden
• Colour choices
• Form – the shapes of plants and their leaves
• Timing – when and for how long do they provide interest for
• Naturalistic gradient – how relaxed and informal the planting is or isn’t

Rule 3:  The smaller the garden the more rigorous the plant selection needs to be.

• Ecological fit e.g. all woodland plants or  bog planting
• The 3 stages of a plant :

1. Pre-flowering
2. Flowering
3. Post flowering

Ask yourself what each plant looks like in each of these states and choose ones that look good at all 3 stages. That includes looking at the leaf shape and form of the plant.

• Look at the maintenance requirements of the plants
• Make a wish list border by border of the different themes (habitats) you’d like to create     e.g. woodland.

Rule 4: Less is more with hard landscaping – it must be elegant, simple and functional.

Hard landscaping design

• Opening & blocking views & areas
• Inward & outward looking spaces – low garden wall which requires consideration of the view beyond or walled garden with no real view
• Selecting materials appropriate to the theme and site
• Use of space
• Access & flow
• Viewing angles
• Ease of maintenance

Rule 5:  Any planting area should only be expected to flower for a maximum of 4 months.

Rule 6:  In the small garden form is more important than colour.

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Planting design

• Put in key players first – evergreen plants and winter interest
• Support them with secondary plants –  herbaceous perennials and deciduous shrubs
• Create links by echo and contrasting form and colour
• Consider rhythm and unity
• Always look up plant spacing and measure. Try to group perennials in groups of odd   numbers e.g.  3, 5, 7, 9  to give impact
• Give shrubs & trees a 10 year spacing and infill with perennials
• Avoid putting shrubs too close to paths
• Don’t be overwhelmed and trust your innate sense of taste!

Rule 7:  Don’t rush in but take time to do some research and think things through.

Rule 8:  Look at examples of successful design.

Rule 9: Be very clear on your intention before you begin.

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Making a plan


– 20-30m tape measure x 2
– Square edge for example a biscuit tin lid
– Circle template & compass
– Scale rule
– Calculator
– Clip board
– Range of drawing pens and pencils
– Putty rubber
– Flexi edge


– Scale: 1:20 or 1:50 depending on the size of garden

Rule 10:  Creativity is dealing with a number of problems and trying to find the best response in the face of millions of option. You will feel unsure, which is normal. Just try to make your best effort in the midst of doubt and enjoy the process. You can always make adjustments later.

Elliot’s courses are always great, very informal and relaxed with the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and take great photos. If you’re looking for a practical and fun way to learn more about planting design for your garden keep an eye out on the Cambo Estate Gardens or the RHS websites for details of these days which are fun and extremely good value for money!