Plant Information Is Step One

I can remember taking plant identification courses in school and being overwhelmed by how different each plant is.

Setting aside their cultural differences, like what type of soil and exposure they prefer, let’s just think about the differences in terms of shape and size.

How we design and arrange plantings is a huge topic and should begin with basic design principles.

However, without first knowing fundamental plant information your planting designs are built more on a “wing and a prayer” rather than strategic planning.

Yes, the planting should be attractive and show the traits of any good design such as balance, unity, etc., but let’s not forget that these plants are living things and will grow to their natural size and shape.

Plant Information Is Cheap To Come By And Yet Incredibly Valuable

When you speak to a knowledgeable plant person they always talk in terms of how a plant will ultimately grow (shape and size), and also what environmental conditions it grows best in.

This way of thinking helps to design landscapes where the plants flourish and not struggle.  It also allows for proper spacing so the landscape will last for years without overcrowding.

Experience is certainly a great teacher, but it all starts with readily available plant information from books and online.

I keep two books in my truck for quick reference: Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs by Michael Dirr, and The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.

Looking up a plant takes a few minutes, but those few minutes are probably the most valuable time you’ll spend in your planning.

Plus, you’ll find that after a while this information sticks in your mind and you’ll start always considering plants as to how they actually grow.  You’ll be on your way to being a “plant-person” and a much better designer.

Are You Sure You Want That Plant There?

In the foundation planting pictured above it’s obvious the designer has creative talent, but lacks plant knowledge.


In the picture above is a Hornbeam ‘Fastigiate’.  This tree will grow to 30 – 40′ high and 20′ wide.  This is the tree the designer has in front of the window next to the door.

No doubt the designer saw this tree at the nursery, admired its “columnar” shape and thought: “This baby will soften the view of the house and stay nice and narrow”.

If this designer had “looked-up” this plant, he or she would have realized “this baby” will grow out of this space in no time.


Beware Of The Term “Dwarf”

There are a number of plants out there that are sometimes referred to as “dwarf” varieties.

Realize that this is a relative term and when you compare the size of the standard specie to the cultivated variety, you may certainly refer to the smaller one as “dwarf”.

A ‘Montgomery’ Spruce (pic above) originates from the giant Colorado Spruce.  Yes, it does grow considerably smaller, but I’ve seen them 7′ high and 10′ wide on numerous occasions.

You see the little blue spruce in front of the Hornbeam in this foundation planting?… it’s a ‘Montgomery’.  I often hear this plant referred to as a dwarf spruce.  Real petite, right?

You see what’s happening here? (or going to happen?)

I hate to belabor this point, but here’s another misuse of plant in this foundation planting.  


In our “case study” picture (top of article), planted off the first left corner where the building juts back, there’s a Crytomeria.  This is another favorite plant of mine.

In fact, above is a Crytomeria I installed 25 years ago.  Although I knew the plant would get bigger, I was still naive in thinking it would stay within certain bounds.

Fortunately, the lower branches could be pruned to give this “monster” a raised canopy and allow it to work in this foundation space.

I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of plant knowledge in landscape design.

Experience, as was the case with the Cryptomeria, has taught me a great deal over the years.  But by referencing books and other sources I’ve learned a great deal and continue to discover new information.

A friend of mine in the business is now in his 80’s.  He’s been propagating and growing plants all his life.

I once complimented him on his knowledge and he said, “With all there is to learn, I’m just scratching the surface”.

  • James
    7:04 PM, 31 January 2012

    Can you label the plants in your first picture?

  • Henry
    1:36 PM, 16 April 2017

    Looking at the photo at the top of this post I realized we installed the hardscape for the builder back in ’08 when it was built. I guess you did the redesign for the buyers?

    • Roger
      7:06 AM, 17 April 2017

      If I remember correctly the house was for sale at the time. I thought the foundation planting would be a good example of plant selection and placement for an article.

      I’m not aware it was redesigned. I’ll have to take a look next time I’m in the area. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment.

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