Planting for structure

The success of any garden design relies on the underlying structure. Kirsty McLean explains how to get the most from your space…

Structure is created by exploring and understanding function. By observing where the sun falls throughout the day, you can work out where to put your seating area. Practical elements, like a rotary dryer are best positioned near the kitchen or utility room door for ease of access, while you may want to tuck your shed in a shady corner at the bottom of the garden. The next design stage is to lay out paths so you can travel easily from one area to the next. This establishes the framework onto which you can hang vertical and
horizontal layers of texture and interest, especially through the planting. Well-considered planting can create enclosure, intrigue, focal points, atmosphere and all year-round interest.

Hedges are an excellent way to create enclosure, division or screening and a much more natural solution than a fence. Conifer hedging is popular because it grows quickly. This can also become a problem when they grow out of control. Yew is also evergreen but slow growing and very hardy. For winter interest, Cotoneaster (Simonsii/Franchetii or Lacteus) is evergreen and has wonderful red berries. Deciduous beech often hangs onto its russet leaves over winter and makes for an excellent hedge in most situations. All hedging is good for wildlife but if your aim is to attract as much biodiversity as possible then look at mixed hedges, grown using native species such as hawthorn, blackthorn, buckthorn, alder and beech.

Small hedges such as box hedging can be used to frame borders, making the border look neat and tidy all year round or for making patterns, dividing planting beds and creating shapes. Weeping or ornamental trees can be positioned to draw your eye, or symmetry planting either side of a set of steps can be used to create a focal point. Planting grasses in a striking planter on a plinth also creates interest. 

When choosing trees it is important to consider their growth habit (height, spread and root growth) and position. Don’t plant a large variety of willow next to the foundations of your house as it has invasive roots. The same tree would be perfect for weeping over a large pond out in the open. Similarly, the large surface roots of a flowering cherry means it works better in a border, rather than the middle of a lawn.

There are plenty of trees that work well in small to medium gardens. Rowans such as Sorbus Vilmorinii or Sorbus Cashmiriana look great. Prunus Serrula, (Tibetan Cherry) Laburnum Watereri, Crataegus – ‘Pauls Scarlet’ (Hawthorn), Malus ‘Sun rival’ or Acer Palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ are all stunning.  

For shape and evergreen interest, take a look at Golden Irish Yew, Abies Koreana or perhaps a dwarf cedar like Cedrus Deodara Feelin’ Blue. One of my favourite weeping trees is the small crab apple Malus Pendula ‘Royal Beauty’. It’s good for town gardens as it is pollution tolerant. The wine coloured blossom, purple-green foliage and tiny red crab apples provide interest from spring to autumn. If you want a weeping evergreen, then try Cotoneaster Hybridus Pendulus.  For larger gardens the list of trees available to you is endless!  

As tempting it is to pick up a single plant, shrub or tree from the garden centre because you fall in love with it and stick it in the garden without real knowledge of its final height and preferred position (shade, sun, wet dry conditions etc), the success of both garden and planting design is structure and that takes thought, planning and research – not to mention a good dose of passion for the subject!  

A great planting scheme not only looks at structure, heights, variety and colours but textures too and this can be created by using colours and shapes against each other. One of my favourite combinations from last season was Carex Testacea grasses with Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Tanna’ or Golden Bamboo (be careful which variety of bamboo you choose, some are incredibly vigorous and their roots will grow through paving stones!) with Phormium ‘Cream Delight’.

Show Comments ↓