Landscape Design Blog

Articles by John D. Longhill

Plants Have Personalities Too

What is the one thing we try to remember when we first meet someone? Their name, of course. That is the first piece of information we need to commit to memory before we start collecting information about that person. Once we remember their name, we can remember their face, and all the other things that characterize that person, their physical description, personality, behavioral traits etc.

In this respect, plants are no different. Once we have committed the name of a plant to memory, we have a place in our memory, to start cataloguing information about that plant. Plants are diverse, and vary not only because of species differentiation, but because of cultivar differences and environmental conditions. All plants are not the same, and their beauty is in their differences.

When designing a landscape, plants are the paints that produce a 3 dimensional work of art. An effective designer must have intimate knowledge of his/her materials to produce the most effective and pleasing design. I have listed below some general characteristics which encompass the most essential information necessary, to design a landscape effectively.

Leaf shape and size determines the character of a plant up close. The plant’s texture (coarse or fine) is determined by the size and spacing of the leaves. The leaf color can determine if the plant is appropriate as an accent, or one that should be used in the background.
Buds on some plants are very important, and on others, not that conspicuous. On a fern, the bud (fiddlehead), is the characteristic that adds striking interest to the plant, as opposed to Potentilla who’s buds are hardly noticeable.
Stems and Bark
Stems can be slender or thick, hairy (pubescent) or not (glabrous), smooth or coarse and can vary in color from brown to green and red to black. On some plants like Betula nigra (River Birch) or Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) the stems are one of the most noticeably attractive characteristics of the plant.
Fruit is one way a plant reproduces itself. As far as design is concerned, fruit usually adds interest through texture and color. Nandina domestica (Heavenly Bamboo), Mahonia aquifolium (Holly Grape) and many of the armed hollies produce conspicuous fruit that add interest and value in the landscape.
Size/Growth Rate
The size of the plant and its rate of growth, determines the space it can inhabit comfortably. If you do not enjoy manipulating your plants into artificial shapes and sizes, I urge you to respect the size a plant will grow to at maturity. Hedges and topiary increase maintenance, and does not provide a look that is in character with a native habitat, but these manipulated plants may be perfectly appropriate in the right setting. The most common mistake I see in most landscapes is the placement of plants in a space to small for the ultimate size of the plant.
The growth habit describes the plant shape, viewed from a distance. Does it have an erect, upright growth habit like Italian cypress or is it spreading and prostrate like some Cotoneasters’? The shape of a plant is the determining factor in how you space each plant in a group, because its growth habit will determine the look of the plant massing when it is mature. The growth habit also determines the use of a plant as a tree or a shrub, as an accent or massed plant, and also its use as under-story or high canopy.
The culture of a plant describes the medium (soil type) and drainage conditions a plant is most comfortable with and also describes how a plant is best cultivated and transplanted.
It is important to know what diseases/insects a plant is susceptible to, because that characteristic alone, may make it undesirable in a low maintenance, native environment. Cotoneaster, for example is highly prone to spider mites, leaf spots, canker, fire blight, lacebug, scale, webworms, borers and blister mites. Other plant cultivars may provide similar design results, with none of the pest problems.
If you enjoy propagating plants, it is important to know if the plant you want to grow is best grown from seed or cuttings. If the plant is a cultivar, cloned from tissue culture or grafted stock, it may not be reproducible from cuttings or seed. You may waste a lot of time trying to sprout infertile seed or trying to grow cuttings that will produce a completely different plant.
The hardiness of a plant determines the temperature zone it grows most effectively in. Many plants found in Denver will not survive some of the higher elevations in Summit County. To assure survivability in Summit County, a plant should be zone 3 or less. If you have a very protected location near your house or with a southern exposure, you might be able to use some zone 4 plants, and have them survive.
Native habitat
If you know the native habitat that your plants are from, these facts can give you a world of information about their appropriate use. Since nature has a way of selecting the best plants for a particular environment, it is prudent to look to nature as a guide for what works.
Landscape value
The landscape value of a plant is a subjective determination by the designer, based on all of the factors above. Sometimes the beauty and uniqueness of a plant outweighs the cost of maintaining it, or it may not. When you determine what works for you, you can assess a value to a particular plant.

Only by looking at all the general characteristics of a plant you are attracted to and learning as much as possible, can you make an informed decision about whether its’ “personality” will fit your garden or landscape. I urge you, not to invite plants into your landscape without knowing what you are committing to. The wrong plants can be a nuisance when used incorrectly and planted in places that they do not belong, and conversely, they can be incredible additions to your home and garden, bringing you years of joy and inspiration, if used effectively. The correct use is up to you or your landscape architect and can only come from getting to know your plants.


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By Design, Landscape Architecture, founded in 1999 by John Longhill.....