From the ground up

The works of a person who builds begin immediately to decay; while those of him who plants begin directly to improve. In this, planting promises a more lasting pleasure than building.

William Shenstone: 1764

After the shapes of the beds are defined, plants create the third dimension.
Here a conical evergreen contributes its unique shape to the overall composition

The starting point for creating a garden that will endure and ‘create a more lasting pleasure’ is the spatial design or map of your garden-to-be, that shows the shapes of different garden spaces, including the beds, lawn, hardscape, paths and naturalized areas, and how they fit together on the ground.





But we live in a three dimensional world!

And it is the plants that lift our gardens off the ground and form that all important third dimension. So, once you have defined the shapes of the beds, the next step is to decide how to populate them with an array of beautiful plants of all shapes, sizes, colors and textures.

Every garden an original

Nothing is proscribed in my garden

Your garden should be  your own unique creation that reflecting your personal desires.  It will also be a child of your land, shaped by the patterns of sun and shade, the slope of the land, or maybe a panorama to frame or a wall to hide.

So, rather than trying to copy the planting design of somebody famous or from a garden you saw in a magazine, it is better to start by considering the characteristics of the plants at your disposal and the features of your property, and strive to make a garden that is both true to yourself and true to your land.

A question of personality

Most gardens are composed of multiple beds, often with distinct styles and personalities. For instance:

A layered garden in a shady corner



Imagine a bed is shaded by a group of trees; the result will a layered garden with a leafy ceiling, perhaps some medium shrubs at eye level, and a low-growing green carpet on the floor.



A mixed border combines shrubs and perennials

Now think about a cheery mixed border in a sunny spot near the house with wide drifts of colorful perennials.  There is a backdrop with shrubs and the groups of perennials that gradually taper towards the front.




A meadow style planting with a matrix of grasses and perennials

Or, a bit further away, an informal meadow-inspired bed creates a gentle transition from the cultivated environment of the garden to the the natural world beyond. There is a repeating matrix of bold perennials interspersed between the dancing grasses.

Choosing the style for a particular bed is partially in response to the site (for instance: is this specific spot sunny, shady or somewhere in between?)  but it is also very much a matter of personal preference. And, for a particular bed, it is helpful to decide at the outset the personality you want it to have, as  this will help you choose the right plants and position them well.

Plants are your palette

Imagine you are painting a picture with your plants and, as the artist, you select the plants you like, and then manipulate them on your canvas to create a vibrant glorious whole.

Of course, as the weeks and months roll by, the picture is always changing. It really helps to review your digital pictures from prior years to jot down what is in bloom month by month and use this as you pair up plants.

Plant attributes

Each plant contributes its own essential qualities or ‘attributes’—especially shape, size, texture and color—to your composition.  And, combining plants that are diametrically opposites can lead to a sensational design. So let’s take a look at these four attributes and how make the most of them:


Think about the different shapes or outlines that larger plants, especially the trees and shrubs, contribute to your picture and which will be on display in every season.

The arching shape of a crab apple compared with a vertical shape of a clump of Miscanthus (still standing at the end of winter)

There is a world of difference between the conical form of dwarf spruce, the arching shape of a crab apple or the rounded shape of a group of spireas. Consider how the various woody plants, both within the bed and between beds, will look in total, so that the big picture is well balanced.

Some large perennials, especially the large clumping grasses, also contribute their own shapes to the design. Indeed I have used a large clump of Miscanthus  to as a visual counterweight for a small crab apple at the other end of the same bed.

A late flowering Cimicifuga punctuates the autumn grasses and seedheads

And, as we look closer, many perennials contribute their individual shapes to the nearby group.  I am thinking here about the distinctive exclamation points of spiky plants like Foxgloves, Cimicifuga, Monkshood, Delphinium and Liatris and Nepeta. Putting some spiky plants among an array of flat topped daisy-like flowers or even against a delicate grass like Panicum adds a sense of drama to the whole.



Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ contrasts with a dwarf fir for a season-long effect

Textures range from lacy plants like meadowsweet and grasses to the strong textures created by mammoth leaves or dense evergreens. Create excitement by pairing plants with opposing textures, such as:

Plants with wonderful leaves, such as Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’  Darmera, Rodgeresia or Astilboides,  coupled with delicate counterparts like Artemesia or Filipendula.

Pink versus white, strong versus lacy:
Hydrangea ‘Pinky Winky’ and a group of Echinacea ‘Magnus’ are backed by the lacy Artemesia lactiflora

Intermingle some  diaphanous  Artemesia lactiflora or some grasses like Deschampsia and Panicum with the daisy-like flowers of Rudbeckia or Echinacea. The result is stunning when the plants are in flower,  it continues on late into the fall as the seedheads of both the grass and daisies mature.


It goes without saying that the heights of our garden plants run the gamut, from a ground-hugging mound of blue fescue to a crab apple that tops twenty feet.

The old adage for designing a ‘mixed border’ was always to put the tallest plants at the back of the bed, medium height ones in the middle and the shortest at the front. Certainly the viewer can take in the whole bed at a single glance.

Feather reed grass at the outer corner of the bed make a small statement

But rules are made to be broken and the results may well be more interesting!  Experiment with putting a few bold tall perennials towards the front of the bed; they will break up the mundane and add some excitement to the whole composition.

As a case in point, I used a few of the ramrod straight Feather Reed grass, Clamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ to draw attention to the outside of this bed. I then discovered, in addition,  what a great texture contrast they make with the nearby Falsecypress,  Chamaecyparis  ‘Boulevard’.


Deep red Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ weaves among some magenta Phlox maculata ‘Rosalinde’. At first I thought it would be an unlikely pairing but now I love it!

Maybe I saved the best to last. But color is the essence of the summer garden. Try converting some of your garden pictures to black and white, and you will see what I mean.

Spiky blue monkshood contrasts with yellow Helianthus and white shast daisies

Whole books have been written on how to use color in the garden which make for wonderful reading. But even if you don’t want to delve too deeply, experiment by combining plants with boldly contrasting colors that are in bloom at the same time. Yellow and blue, pink, white and blue, red and gold all work beautifully.

Or, for a quick experiment to see what color combinations please you, next summer take a few flower cuttings from one plant and place them beside other flowers in bloom elsewhere in the garden. You will soon see what works, and next fall you can make some judicious rearrangements.


Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ with a deep pink daylily’

And finally, remember that LEAVES come in colors other than green!

Incorporate a few plants with bronze or purple leaves, such as Sambucus ‘Black lace’ (which is really a deep bronze color), Physocarpus ‘Diablo’,  Cotinus ‘Grace’ or Weigelia ‘Wine and Roses’, or a few plants with variegated foliage like the Cornus ‘Ivory Halo’, and they will give you color accents all season long.

Cotinus ‘Grace’ with the fall flowering Japanese anemones

Then pair them with perennials of contrasting colors, anything from yellow daylilies to pink Japanese anemones, for a seasonal highlight.









Draw a planting plan

As you survey an array  of young plants in plastic nursery pots set out on a new bed, it is surprisingly hard to picture how everything will look after ten years. But a planting plan will help you visualize how your plants will look in the years ahead.

First draw the outline of your new bed on squared paper, using a scale of 1/8” = 1 foot or, if you need more detail, 1/4’ = 1 foot. Now, with a piece of trace paper over the squared paper, experiment with your ideas by drawing circles to represent the MATURE size of the plants you are contemplating.  You can even explore several designs and compare them side-by-side to see which one works the best.

Start with the woodies

As a general rule I like to position trees and shrubs in a garden bed so that, once they are fully grown, their branches will just slightly overlap. That way they will not require an annual pruning just to prevent them engulfing their neighbors.

So, for each tree or shrub you are considering, draw a circle on your plan that shows how big it will eventually grow, positioning your circles so that they just overlap. You will soon see how to group the various plants to create a pleasing whole.

Now add lots of perennials

Perennials fill out the bed, covering the ground with a tapestry of contrasting texture and colors.

Perennials are also invaluable to fill the spaces between the woody plants in a young garden.Since it is relatively easy to lift and divide perennials after a few years you can move them outwards as the shrubs expand.

For the same reason we are less concerned with positioning perennials for their ultimate size. Most perennials can initially be spaced between 18 and 24 inches apart. (Read the label however: brawny plants like Miscanthus which should be planted 36 to 42 inches apart).


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