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How Different Plant Shapes Create Excitement in Your Landscape Design

Sameness Equals Boring

vary plant shapes for exciting landscape design

Different plant shapes create excitement in your landscape design. Sameness equals boring, so mix up the plant shapes and textures. Ornamental plants come in all shapes. Thank goodness for that! You need the contrast of spikes with mounds and the juxtaposition of flat forms with pendulous cascades. Before you send out a finished landscape plan for bid, do a quick review of the plant material chosen to be sure you provide the right amount of contrasting shapes—not too busy, and not too plain.

A landscape is a lot like a giant, outdoor floral arrangement. Create some drama with different shapes. A formal, squared-off hedge looks better against a carefully-shaped evergreen mound at the end of the row. An amorphous tall shrub becomes a star growing above a mass of weeping facer plants falling over their shared planter. A sharply-spiked focal point is grounded with a low, flat ground cover.

Use the natural shapes of plant material to reinforce the structural design of the garden. Tall, columnar conifers can pierce the vertical space to indicate stopping points for circulation. Undulation of eye-level, layered masses can lead garden visitors along a path. Spreading limbs can soften the hard lines of pavement or walls.

Remember, plants in real life don’t look like the ones in kindergarten pictures—simple balls of green. The varieties of shape and form are plenty, and provide lots of choices for the accomplished landscape designer. 

Landscape Definition

There is No Design without It

define landscape forms with clear definition of edges and boundariesEstablish boundaries and the outline of your design by defining the edges of the elements with which it is composed. There is no place for wimpy gestures in professional landscape design!

Make a clean line on the ground plane using edging, different materials, or changes in height and color.

Create a silhouette on the horizon and frame important structural elements.

Control the eye by defining the path it should follow toward a dramatic focal point.

Landscape design should not only be deliberate (form follows function), it should appear very deliberate. Define the forms with strong visual edges and lines.

Designing the Landscape for a Large Industrial Site

Utility, Utility, Utility

designing the landscape for an industrial siteMy first years as a professional landscape designer came during a local boom in industrial growth. I took part in the design of over thirty manufacturing facility landscapes. My first irrigation system design was for a site of more than fifty acres. It can be intimidating, and mistakes can be on a huge scale, too! I learned through experience what was effective and what didn’t work, because I was fortunate enough to see my designs implemented and mature.

Go big or go home? Not necessarily. Designing a large industrial site is different from planning the landscape for a commercial property or college campus. It’s all about utility. The final design must meet several goals.

Design for public relations. An industrial site is typically established through political moves and local economic investment. It must convey stability without extravagance. Large masses of evergreen plant material is needed to hold the design together. Groves of trees and trees that outline drives should be placed in a manner that directs the visitor to the main entrance and reception area. Excessive use of seasonal flowers sends a message of wastefulness. Concentrate annual color within large entrance planters, and keep the rest of the open space plantings as woody ornamentals. Frugal elegance should be the theme.

Raking Fall Leaves

Garden Tools for Raking

raking fall leaves, garden toolsThe premiere tool for raking, of course, is the rake. Not the stiff garden rake, which is a tool used for smoothing soil, but the lawn rake, used for leaves. You want a flexible toothed fan, with enough structure to push a heavy load of leaves. You also want a light-weight tool, to prevent fatigue. The best rake that provides all that is a bamboo-head rake. If you find one for a good price, buy it. You will never regret it.

Rakes should be held and swished in a manner that avoids bending. Don’t lean out and pull and drag the leaves into a pile. Draw the rake toward you, and bring the leaves to you rather than reaching out to them. A bad back ache is a hard lesson to learn this. Use rakes in a manner that avoids injury. This should be the rule for all long-handled garden tools.

If your leaf-raking chores are bigger than what can be handled in a single hour or two, you can purchase a manual push rake. It is quite impressive how well these simple pieces of machinery handle dry leaves and pine needles! They do require frequent dumping, but are much faster than raking by hand. For even bigger chores, there are leaf-raking attachments for small tractors. These are super-handy and fast, especially if you choose to save the litter for use as mulch.

Great Gifts for New Gardeners

Tools of the Trade

gift ideas for gardenersGarden tools make great gifts for people who love flowers and plants. As you start your new landscape, you will also be starting a new collection of garden maintenance tools. The serious gardener needs serious tools—tools that work. Pick the best available. The good news is the best is not always the most expensive. Forget about big box home improvement and discount stores for tools. You’ll be tossing your money away. Shop wholesale nursery and florist suppliers as well as botanical garden gift shops. That’s where you can find tools that get the job done and can handle the work load.

I like A.M. Leonard for garden hoes, spades, and weeders.  A stirrup loop push hoe and Cape Cod weeder are helpful for cultivating and clean up. A drain spade and nursery spade can open up the ground for transplants and slice a clean edge around plant beds. Everybody who works around thorny shrubs could use a pair of protective leather and suede gloves.

Forestry Suppliers, Inc.  has nice hand pruners and loppers, essential for thinning and shaping shrubs. They have the best prices for seedling protectors and bamboo staking equipment, as well as a large assortment of backpack sprayers.

If your gardening friends love flowers, do a search for wholesale florist suppliers in the nearest large city. I love Halls in Atlanta. They carry floral design supplies and offer a floral design school, but you must provide certain documents to establish an account with them. These are vendors you must visit and shop face-to-face.

It’s okay to shop the local big box or discount stores for potting soils, chemicals, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers, or you can call a local landscape maintenance and work out a deal for large quantities of mulch or topsoil.

Here are the items that every genuine gardener needs—a gardener’s gift list. All you need beyond that are the bows.

Errors and Omissions of the Diminutive Kind

Nooks and Crannies

landscape design mistakes, errors and omissions

Use paving in beds that become narrow slivers as a result of the landscape design of hardscape elements. Avoid nooks and crannies— errors and omissions of the diminutive kind. Details are important, and taking the time to eliminate weird little slivers of left over, open dirt areas should be done by any good landscape designer. Knowing how many people are involved in creating public spaces like this, it is surprising the design error was taken all the way to construction and installation. Why would visitors want separation between their river walk path and the river, when a single step (through the vegetation) would take them to the handrail? A little extra paving to close the narrow gaps is all that is needed

It is unrealistic to expect plant material of any kind to live in awkward little splinters of dirt and paving. The reflected heat from the ground surface and the potential for pedestrians to trample the plants dooms any potentially viable growth. Besides, the contrast of paving and dirt detracts from the design.

What can be done now? Maybe decorative metal grate material could be used to fill the void between the concrete and paving stones, or new paving stones could be brought in to fill the gap. It is important for professional landscape designers to realize replacing the plant material is not an option for these types of splintered, left-overs in public spaces. Pedestrian traffic will trample the area again and again.

The small, isolated element in the multi-million dollar project shown in the image above is telling visitors to the site that the design process lacked an essential step—design review for planting pits large enough for viable plant material. This type of fail is not the result of poor maintenance. It is the result of an error in design. During the early design phase, a quality-control reviewer should have caught this. Your design firm should have a formal process for quality control. Many times requests for qualifications will require bidders to provide a copy your firm’s written quality control policy. 

Don't Cut Back Ornamental Grasses

Fall is No Time for a Haircut

ornamental grasses, landscape maintenanceJust about the time the leaves start falling, professional landscape maintenance crews move out to ready ornamental plant beds for the winter, and many of them make a huge mistake. They cut back ornamental grass clumps close to the ground. It shows a lack of understanding for the plant material.

Ornamental grasses look fine during the growing season, but they shine brightest during the winter, providing burnt gold and orange waves of graceful skirts of foliage. It is a wonderful way to provide color and winter interest. The fruiting plumes often persist until early spring. These are visual characteristics meant to be highlighted during the dormant season, when all the other plants are either evergreen or denuded sticks. Ornamental grasses provide great architectural drama to a landscape.

Wait until early February to cut back tufts of ornamental grasses, a few weeks before they begin sprouting fresh blades. If you wait too late, you’ll damage the new growth, so take care to avoid this when chopping back the old! Typically, it is best to clean out garden debris before cold weather sets in to avoid pests and disease, but the aesthetic contribution made by ornamental grasses all winter makes the waiting a worthwhile tradeoff.


Post-retirement Landscapes

The Mature Gardener

the mature gardener, post-retirement landscapes

There are ways to enjoy stepping outside to experience the outdoors each season, even when you’ve lost the motivation to dig and lift and haul and saw. You could move into a residential development that provides landscape maintenance for you, or you could modify your existing landscape to fit a less physically-intensive lifestyle. Indoor home modification for seniors is a big thing right now. Why not do the same for your home landscape?

There are several things you can do to improve your comfort, convenience, self-reliance, and safety for the landscape if you are an older person who prefers to age in place. Make changes to meet your landscape needs later in life while in your fifties and sixties, at a gradual pace so you can enjoy the process.

Professional Landscaping



professional landscaping, Paris

This is a picture of an inventive landscape design, created to provide beauty for a construction scaffold adjacent to a Paris restaurant—a site only fifty square feet! What an expressive example of professional landscape design. Great ornamental landscapes, no matter what size, no matter how transient, delight people and elevate the environment.

My goal has always been to help create memorable outdoor spaces, spaces beyond the ordinary. When you first graduate from Landscape Architecture school, you realize the market demands something less. Only those landscape architects who persevere can push through to extraordinary achievements. Most design collaborative groups would be happy with a row of tree stamps on a plan.

I received a six-year professional degree in Landscape Architecture with a minor in Horticulture—a mix of poetry, design, environment, agriculture, and engineering. This book is my way of mentoring new designers, sharing what I learned from my educational background and experience.

My initial internship was covered up with industrial irrigation plans and demands to execute design plan sheets for multi-acre commercial sites in just a few hours. There was a lot of time spent walking in freezing mud on construction sites and little time for the study of the interplay of flowers and trees. I found nothing uplifting about calculating material take-offs, but it helped me to know plant species, especially after specifying several hundred of them on a single site! If you make a mistake in your plant choices on large industrial projects, it shows in a big way!

I learned a lot about landscape maintenance—so important for a beautiful, professional landscape! I also learned important lessons in pragmatism. There are a lot of empty words used to sell mediocre landscape design or impractical visualizations. Experience helps to discern what sounds good but will fail, from what truly works and is self-sustaining.

I spent over a decade in design/build before taking a job at a state Department of Transportation. My role there was to review landscape plans, provide technical advice for anything related to landscapes, write contract specifications for planting and grassing, write maintenance specifications and work plans, and create statewide policies for roadside projects and permits. I also helped create a statewide landscape grant program and vegetation management permit policy which provided ongoing funding for the grant program there.

The reward of reviewing over 300 landscape designs a year was an education in public roadside enhancement practicality. Any landscape proposals on the 18,000 plus miles of rights-of-way in the state moved across my desk for design review. It was very interesting to see the varied plan graphics of so many designers. With time, I could quickly determine if the landscape plan was created by an architect, a civil engineer, a landscape architect, or an ecologist. There were distinctive strong and weak points for each professional discipline. Architects drew geometric landscapes. Civil engineers drew plans with the limited plants with which they were familiar. Landscape architects drew beautiful plans, but often missed permit requirements. Ecologists specified plant material that wasn’t readily available in the trade. Each discipline had both strong and weak qualities in their designs. That’s why you see such a mix of good and bad landscapes, and why so few outdoor sites have long-term success and significance.

What do I want to tell you about professional landscape design?

• It takes experience to create a wonderful landscape design, and you can learn a lot from the right mentor.

• It is easy to put together a landscape plan on paper, but it takes real skill to design something that delivers lasting value. •

• There are simple things you can learn about professional landscaping that can make your design sing, even if you are working with only the space within a small scaffold in Paris.

The devil is in the details, though!

I want to share as much as I can with you about what I’ve learned over the years, but you can find detailed information in my Advanced Guide to Landscapes eBook, coming soon. Until then, keep reading articles on the website, and join our email list for updates. I would love to hear your comments and about your landscape design stories and experiences, too.

Advanced Guide to Landscape Design


You might also enjoy the Advanced Guide to Landscape Grants eBook, full of practical tips for applying for funding and making your beautification project a success.

Advanced Guide to Landscape Grants