5 steps to your perfect garden design – step 3c, a recipe for planting delights

Part C – Form

This is the third part of our 4 part trilogy (!) of blogs on creating your perfect planting scheme which in themselves are part of our “5 steps to Designing Your Own Garden” series. See the other parts on our news section here CGLA NEWS

The overall form of the planting is distinct from the individual plants (although clearly not unlinked) and understanding this has a significant impact on the overall feel of the scheme and therefore its success.

I have had people who tell me firmly they don’t want any flowers at all, then say they are happy to have a garden full of hydrangeas (only after we seem to have exhausted all other options on schemes) and plenty who think they don’t like flowers at all, who are persuadable once the planting is within a more ordered overall scheme. Often the amount of flowers is subliminally associated with how much work the client perceives the garden to be. The more flowers apparently the more work. Reminding people that this is not necessarily the case (particularly with block planting) is marginally helpful, but it is more powerful to show more ordered schemes that somehow feel less out of control and see if these will do the trick, before removing the flowers entirely.

What I mean by form here is largely about the overall feel of the planting on a “Lush and crowded” to “Dry and sparse” scale and builds on the previous article looking at the desired the amount of structure in the planting. There are infinite variances of course, and these ideas do overlap, but it can be a really useful distinction when creating the overall feel of the garden and again when starting to pull together planting lists.

What we see as lush typically features more jungly planting with a focus on larger, often shiny leaves and a mix of coarser textures. These larger leaved species often are grown for their leaves rather than flowers so the schemes feel less busy and colourful and work well in smaller spaces, making them feel enclosed and “other-worldly”.

Ferns, evergreen climbers and other good foliage plants are often the core of these schemes.

At the other end of the scale, dry and sparse schemes tend to feel less intimate, but these “full-on” dry schemes are relatively rare anyway.

In the style most commonly used for UK gardens, a more dry Mediterranean feel will include a mix of drier style planting and the shapes and forms associated with them. The leaves on drought tolerant plants tend be greyer, less waxy, and sometimes spiky. Lavender and Olives are good signature plant for these schemes as in this spectacular example designed by Tom Stuart-Smith and photographed by the wonderful Marianne Majerus

Although a more English feel and slightly richer colour palette is also achievable using the same themes..

Drought tolerant planting can still feel lush if sufficient bulk and planting density is achieved…

Often this “form” idea is what drives a perception of how “messy” a garden is. More lush forms tend to be perceived as neater, whereas the drier and spiky forms tend to be seen as more messy….I find this is a key feature of how clients describe their likes and dislikes and is an important one to understand. The example below features the hot colour palette and tall forms of the more arid gardens, and does feel messier to most people than the slightly bulkier planting and cooler palette of the second image.

2 wooden seats surrounded by tall colourful planted beds

This is also impacted by repetition -a small number of species repeated across a scheme feels neater than a larger mix.

And taking this one stage further into more clipped shapes again changes the feel into something more controlled, even though in this example the clipping is quite informal.

Using signature plants repeated either through the planting as in some of the grasses used above, or as informal hedging/edging is very effective- lavender is a well tried species for this..

Adding more shrub bulk works well for year round interest and textural variation, as well as keeping maintenance down and providing good bulk, screening and enclosure which are core elements of most schemes. In this nice example, there is a good mix of clipped structure, repeated upright perennials and bulbs, and some trees and larger shrubs and climbers for scale.

…and in this example a similar mix but with simpler colour palette and lusher planting style is used to very good effect…

Being able to highlight the planting themes in the terms used in these articles will really help you to refine what will work for you in a garden. The terms are not universal, but breaking it down this way will really get at what you want and allow you to generalise and refine your choices rather than having to start with an absolutely bewildering array of plant images. Armed with this, you may feel ready to move onto creating some planting lists for yourself, or a good designer will certainly be much better briefed to help you get the effect you will love!.

In the next article in this series I will move on to favourite plants, both mine and those of others in our design team, and this will provide some good examples of plants that will address structure, colour and form as highlighted here.

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