Landscape Design Ideas - Planting Levels


Landscape design is accomplished and structured on three planes:

  1. The canopy which is from 15’ and above.
  2. The understory which is from 6’ to 15’
  3. The ground plane which is 6’ and below.

Most thoughtful and successful landscape designs are functioning at all three levels.

The canopy is comprised of shade trees such as oak, elm and maple.   Just as they make up the canopy in our woodlands they also are the aerial components of residential landscape design.

In addition to providing shade, large trees can also be positioned to create depth of field or perspective.

The understory is comprised of ornamental trees such as crabapple, serviceberry and magnolia.  Normally, we think of ornamental trees as spring flowering landscape elements.  And for the most part they are.    Based on scale they are usually more intimate features than shade trees.   Positioning understory trees create visual pauses and are traditionally used near patios, and near the corners of homes (not too close!!) or within large beds along property lines.

The ground plane is the most active space of the three because it is the space we occupy.  In routine residential landscape situations the variation in plant sizes, shapes and color keep our eyes busy.   While form, size and color are important in the canopy and understory they are critical issues at the ground plane because we see them all at once.

Plants in the ground plane should be an assortment of heights, shapes and color though there are certainly design justifications to the contrary.   Understanding how plants interact at the ground plane is vital to how we view and interact in the space.

Remembering to work at all three planes helps ensure balanced and harmonious landscape design.