The proverbial “big picture” may include an outdoor kitchen, a fire pit, seat walls and even a pergola.  But when the landscape design is complete there is probably thoughtful planting design in there somewhere.

What makes for effective planting design as part of the landscape design process?  Planting design that provides a wow factor comes from years of experience (experience=failure) trying assorted plant combinations in a multitude of settings.   There is a right/wrong and a good/bad but no formula to ensure success.

There are a wide range of factors that come together to make good planting design in the landscape.  But if you remember the four criteria below it will help lead to a more meaningful and effective softscape.

Function:  Normally the #1 reason for selecting a specific plant.  Maybe the plant is used because it’s edible. Maybe it’s picked for great fall color or for fragrance.   At the end of the day the plant(s) should function as intended individually and as part of the entire landscape design.

Texture:  If you select plants with similar textures the planting will be more subdued and quieter to the eye.  If you select plants with both coarse and fine textures the planting will be more lively to look at.

Scale:  Always plan for the long term.   In most circumstances plants should occupy the canopy (shade trees), the understory (ornamental trees/large shrubs) and the ground plane (smaller shrubs/perennials and ground cover).   Varying heights and shapes will move the eye around and balance each other out.

Color:  Plants can be selected to contrast or blend with each other.   And color does not have to be limited to flowers.  Color selection can be made based on foliage color as well.   Like selecting for texture, you can create more subdued plantings with similar colors and more lively designs with contrasting colors.  The simple task of referencing a color wheel is a good helper when selecting plants for the landscape.

When mentoring or teaching landscape design I frequently reference “companion plants” as being important.   Those are plants that coalesce with those around them based on some contrasting features or similar features.    Either way they are good community selections that work effectively in the residential landscape.

Mathew Frederick said it best in 101 Things I Learned In Architecture School, “It’s the dialogue of the pieces, not the pieces themselves, that creates aesthetic success.”