Landscape Design Principles: Plant Placement, Proportions and Scale

Plant placement, proportions and scale – these three elements of a successful design are really straight forward, but often overlooked.  They hinge on a certain level of understanding regarding plant height and spread at maturity.  These design principles also require you to incorporate clusters, sweeps and groupings of plants that look natural together with a succession of bloom all through the year. 

Plant Placement

When I start a design, I think about where the bed is going to be viewed.  Is it from the street?  Is it from the living room?  Will I want to view it from different vantage points?  This helps me frame the landscape.  For instance, if you have a foundation planting, you would obviously put the taller plants in the back working down in layers to the smaller plants along the border/edge of the bed.  If you were designing an island planting that would be viewed from both sides, I would plant the taller plants in the center with shorter plants spaced around the central focal point.  It seems obvious, but we don’t always think about sight lines. 

Another element of effective plant placement is bloom time.  With native plants, you need to think about succession of bloom.  You want to have plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year.  Don’t plant two spring blooming plants next to each other, but rather plant a spring blooming wildflower next to a grass or later season blooming wildflower.  By incorporating plants that have color at varying times, you have something interesting happening year-round. 

Proportion and Scale

I don’t always observe or think about proportion and scale until it is too late.  The beds you design and the plants you include should look appropriate with the size of your home or the size of the flower bed.  As a general rule, I include plants that are no larger than half the bed width.  For instance, if your area is eight feet wide, try to find plants that are no taller than four feet.  Sometimes, smaller beds are all we have to work with, such as the small area between a sidewalk and your home.  Maybe it is only three feet wide.  Don’t try to put plants that are four to five feet all in that space.  It will flop onto the sidewalk and look out of place. 

Compass Plant is a beautiful wildflower that gets eight feet tall. It is out of scale in a smaller space. Give it room to grow.

If you are starting from scratch, lay out a garden hose away from your foundation.  Take note of the gentle curve around your home.  I like to have at least four to six feet of width to work with.  That gives you so many more plants to choose and include in your design.   On the corners, I like to give myself a little more room of maybe up to 10-12 feet.  This allows larger plants to be combined to soften the corner.  You probably have a picture in your mind of what you want to frame the views and keep it simple.  A garden that is too busy and out of proportion detracts from your home rather than complementing it. 

Again, it is important to know how tall and wide each of the plants will grow.  I like to include plants that will fill in the spaces available to them.  Really think about the plants you want to have near sidewalks, windows, patios, and porches.  You don’t want to be continually cutting them back when they have outgrown the space. 

It sounds so simple, but these are the design principles I struggle with the most.  There is so much to consider with each design, from site analysis, plant habit and bloom times, textural elements, and so much more.  We can’t have it all, but a basic understanding of scale, proportions and plant placement will help you create a successful design.  Now is the time to get started.  If you need help, we will be happy to work with you during our remaining Native Plant School classes or at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

Preparing for FloraKansas

The Arboretum greenhouse is warm and alive this time of year, beginning to fill up with stock for FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. FloraKansas is our largest fundraiser, and takes a lot of prep work. Luckily, I relish my time spent time in the greenhouse, so it is a welcome change of pace from the snow-shoveling and office work of winter. Here is a behind the scenes look at how it all comes together in just a few short months.

Each spring we receive about 15,000 plants. Many plants come to us as plugs — pre-grown plants that are transplanted into sale-size pots. This is an economical and user-friendly way for us to plant thousands of plants without the risk associated with caring for tiny seedlings. We order plugs from lots of native plant nurseries around the country and around the state to ensure a nice variety for our customers.

Plugs are small and have fragile foliage, but also have well formed root systems.
Photo of a small plant, a newly transplanted plug.
Plug plants arrive with very few leaves on. With a few days of sun and moisture, they begin to leaf out and grow quickly.

Sometimes we seed our own plants with seed we have collected or purchased from a trusted source. Though this is very tedious and time consuming, it is so rewarding to see those little sprouts poking through the soil! We then use a fork to tease apart the tiny roots and plant them into individual pots.

Tiny seedlings are so sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, so I try not to seed more than I can take care of! In previous years, Scott and Brad seeded much more of the nursery stock than we do today.

We heat the greenhouse with industrial heaters during the cold nights of February and March and vent with large fans during the day. Keeping plants at optimal growing temperature helps them green up in time for the sale. Surprisingly, during a sunny day in spring, temperatures in the greenhouse can reach 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit quickly, even though it is cold outside!

Our director, Scott, waters mature shade plants in our greenhouse. Too much water can mean mold and rot for our plants, but too little can also be deadly!
Photo of greenhouse in bloom, mature plants after many weeks of growing and care.
After many weeks of care and worry, my little plant babies are all grown up!

FloraKansas would not be possible without volunteers. They transplant, water, sweep greenhouse isles, load and unload trucks, and so much more. I couldn’t possibly do all of those tasks by myself! And that doesn’t even include the many volunteers who help us on the days of the event, cashiering and helping customers to their cars. FloraKansas is a great time to be an Arboretum employee — surrounded by enthusiastic volunteers who support our mission, it makes the job easy. If you would like to volunteer at FloraKansas or otherwise, click here for more information.

I hope to see lots of our blog readers at the spring sale! It is a wonderful time to talk face to face with our members and supporters. Come see us soon, and pick up a few native plants while you are at it.

Landscape Design Principle: Lines

A native plant design is a highly subjective project.  The plants you like may not be the ones I would choose and vice versa.  Your garden area is unique to you.  Sun, soil, moisture conditions can vary as well.  The canvas you are painting on will look distinctly different than my artistic design.  As we strive to create a sense of place in our landscapes, our medium is the land.  Even though each garden is one-of-a-kind, there are a few design principles that we all should follow.  Over the coming weeks, we will discuss some of these design principles.

Today, we will be tackle lines within the garden. 

Lines should be used to draw people in and through the garden.  They appeal to the senses.  They lead you through the garden and help frame views we see or don’t want seen.

Straight lines

Long, straight rows of plants can be rather formal.  They are structural, often symmetrical and lead the eye directly to the focal point like the front door.  Straight lines can be boring if you don’t cluster plants and repeat patterns.  The strong straight line of a fence can be softened with a sweeping curved edge or accentuated with parallel plantings that run the length of the fence.

Vertical lines

These lines move you up and down in the landscape.  Taller trees, larger structural features such as an arbor should make your eyes go upward.  They make the space feel larger and help enclose the space. 

Horizontal lines

Just like vertical lines lead your eye skyward, horizontal lines lead your eye along the ground plane.  These low lines help define the space and work to tie everything together.  Rock walls, edging with plants or stone, hedges, or a clean line between turf and plants are examples that create these intentional low lines.

Curved lines

Curved lines look intentional and informal.  Gently bending lines can be used to lead people slowly around a corner to an architectural feature or element such as a bench, garden shed, arbor or vegetable garden, which adds mystery and intrigue to your garden space.  Curved lines can help dissolve rigid straight lines of a walkway, fence, house or other structural feature.  Curved lines fit better in a natural asymmetrical design using native plants.  I like to place a garden hose on the ground to help me visualize these meandering lines.  As you step back to look, you are able to move the hose to create the effect that is most appealing before you break ground on your new garden. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Be intentional in grouping plants.

No matter the lines you use in your landscape, plants obviously play a key role.  Formal and informal looks can be achieved with the use of certain plants grouped together or spread apart.  Cluster plants together for more visual appeal.  Repeat structural plants like native grasses and incorporate filler plants throughout the design that bloom at different times during the year to draw you into the garden and through the garden.  Plants that spill over onto the straight lines of a walkway soften the edge. The possibilities are endless because there are so many plants to choose.  How you use lines will distinguish your design from others.  Really think about this important design principle and what lines you want to use.        

Next time, we will talk about plant placement, proportions and scale.