Consider Plant Shapes in Design

Boxwood plants grow naturally into an upright oval, but if it’s trimmed it usually ends up as a vertical rectangle. 


For the past three and a half decades, my designs have progressed into a formula. All of them are originals, but they also all have a commonality. The basics apply to all good designs. 

Planting beds, grass areas and even hardscapes are based on shapes when viewed from above. The shapes include circles, rectangles and squares for more formal designs, yet natural designs lean toward modifications of kidney shapes and flowing curves. That takes care of two dimensions, however it doesn’t address the “frontal elevation” or third dimension that you see from the patio. 

This third dimension also has several shapes that are determined by the plant’s structure. For example, boxwood grows naturally into an upright oval, but if it’s trimmed it usually ends up as a vertical rectangle. Single-trunk trees are more like a lollipop and multi-stem plants like crape myrtle look like a multi-trunk lollipop. Dwarf Indian hawthorns and rosemary grow naturally into a hemispherical dome. Groundcovers are viewed as a low rectangle.

How does this help the designer? Certain shapes look more formal and some shapes look more natural. Many plants take the natural shape of a hot air balloon with little foliage at the bottom, but this doesn’t always look great because of the bare bottom. Shapes that are wide at the bottom look natural but full, and they can be used to cover up the base of plants that are lacking foliage. If you put a rosemary, dwarf Indian hawthorn, crimson pygmy barberry, catmint or any other low-growing dome-shaped perennial or shrub in front of a tall shrub that looks sparse at the bottom, you have solved that problem. 

Dome-shaped plants in front of hot air balloon shapes are what we are doing. Ground covers in front of domes look great, and that group in front of lollipops and multi-stem lollipops form very appealing plant groups. 

These kinds of groups can be repeated throughout the landscape in focal points, substituting different plants with the same shapes for variety.

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