How to Plant (design) a garden. Mass versus Specimen planting.

] “When most people go and plant (design) a garden, they don't think much about mass versus specimen planting. I come from a long line of gardeners whose personal style of planting, I would call “fruit salad”. A lot of color, but no real defined flavor. To my family, gardening was getting a plant, kind of knowing how tall it would grow, and planting it in any empty spot in the garden, and then calling it a day.

I really had nothing to compare our gardening style with, until I started going on the Lenox Garden Club and Garden Conservancy Opening Day tours. The gardens on those tours, to me, were gardens professionally designed and maintained, the gardens of people who professionally planted and designed for a living, or gardens of people who read about gardening, went to lectures, took classes, and probably went on lots of tours, and knew the subject.

After going on a few of those tours, I started to think about what I was looking at. There was a similarity of how a professionally designed and planted garden was, and the design projects that I studied in art school. The rest is gardening history. So what I learned there, I am now going to teach you here!

Let’s start by looking at the phrases that I came up with to describe different patterns of planting.

The first is SPECIMEN. Specimen plants are most likely planted singly (one) versus many in a grouping. A specimen plant could have larger leaves than most other plants. It might have a color of foliage like Copper-Honey, that is not a common color in a garden. It could be a bush or small tree with an odd twisting, or weeping growth habit. A specimen could also be different kinds of evergreen mounds, spheres, pyramids or topiary, that along with annuals and herbaceous perennials make up a garden.

In my garden I have two Blue Angel hostas, that are specimen plants. They are not planted next to each other, but are sited at opposite ends of the garden. The Blue Angels grow three plus feet tall and are each six to eight feet across. Their sheer size makes them specimens. They also have enormous leaves!

MASS PLANTING is when you plant 2,3,4,5,6, etc. of the same plant in one area of the garden. The idea of mass planting is that the viewer looks at one big planting of this, and then looks at another big planting of that, as they walk along the garden. When you come upon a Specimen plant, in the mass planted garden, the specimen is kind of like a surprise, or special plant jewel for the person to discover. Specimen plants are placed carefully in the garden so you don’t come across them to quickly. In my garden most of my specimen plants are evergreens. They look great during the growing season, and are also my winter interest when the garden is done for the year.

I have come up with some easy descriptions of different planting patterns for MASS PLANTING..….

S= Specimen…One Special Plant.
1= Pair Pattern…Two of the same plant, planted next to each other.
2= Soldiers in a Row…3,4,5,6,etc of the same plant, planted in a straight line.
3= Zig Zag Pattern
4= Square Pattern…four of the same plant in an area.
5= Triangular Pattern…3 of the same plant.

Now look at the garden illustration. I put the corresponding number of the above descriptions with the planting pattern in the garden.

Next look at the circular center garden. I placed a (S) Specimen plant in the center. I also could have placed a bird bath, sculpture, statue, gazing ball on pedestal, or even large urn on stand in that area.

What I want you to notice about this area is that it has two plantings of two of the same plant in that area. Both of the two sets of plants are separated, and planted across from each other, so the eye moves from one side of that bed to the other, unifying the space. There are also two plantings that represent “annual six packs”. One is three plants, planted from a six-pack on one side of the garden, and the other three planted on the opposite side. The other is one six-pack planted on one side and another six-pack of the same plant, planted opposite it. Repetitive planting ties a space together!

The planting patterns that I drew out for you are just a starting point. The Zig Zag planting scheme can be expanded to multiple Zig Zag rows. The Triangular shaped plantings of 3 plants can be expanded to 6 or more. Square planting patterns of 4, can be made much bigger using 9 plants, or even turned into a rectangle. Your only real limitation might be how much space you have for gardening.

Now don’t look at planting, in different planting patterns as something to rigid or formal. With time all of the grouped plants will grow together and be surprisingly much more casual looking.

When designing your garden, leave empty spots where you can plant a six-pack, or two of annuals here and there in the garden. My garden is probably 95% herbaceous perennials, deciduous bushes and evergreens. I have spots, that I purposely have left empty for planting annuals, and I also plant elephant ears, dahlias and gladiolus that I “winter over” in the cellar and replant each spring.

Companion Posts
When Designing a Perennial Garden it’s ALL about the Shapes of Leaves 1-15-2011,
Colored Foliage adds that WOW FACTOR to a Garden 2-22-2011,
Stagger Plant heights when Planting (Designing) a Garden 2-23-2011,
Designing / Laying out Flower Beds 5-4-2013,
Plant a Garden Room on your Property 2-17-2013,
Plant (Start) a Flower Garden for Sun or Shade, Celebrate Spring 3-31-2012,
Designing a Rock Garden with Different Sizes of Stones 6-28-2012,
Some ideas about using Garden Ornaments, they add that Finishing touch to a Garden 6-29-2013,
Thirteen ideas for Decorating your Country Garden 7-20-2013,
When Designing a Shade Garden, think Focal Point, Plant Color and Shapes of Leaves 9-4-2011.


About fredgonsowskigardenhome

Your eyes deserve to view beauty. I hope Fred Gonsowski Garden Home helps to turn your vision, into a reality.
This entry was posted in Garden Design Principles, planting a SHADE GARDEN. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to How to Plant (design) a garden. Mass versus Specimen planting.

  1. Vera says:

    Thank you very much!

    • Vera, thank you for your comment. I am getting thousands of hits, visits, views, (what ever you want to call them) but hardly any comments. My readership is a quiet lot. Even a short comment, says you got something from my post.

  2. Sharon Caruso says:

    Fred, I recently purchased a generous bunch of “lavender” pussy willow while at the Philadelphia Flower Show. I have them rooting in water and need to know how to make the transition into the ground. Your instructions were exactly what I was looking for. I thought rooting the entire bunch would net me a couple of good candidates. Little did I know every single stem would do exactly what you said it would do. I dont need (or want) 15 pussy willow trees, so I will select 2 or 3, give some away to my gardening friends and try to dry the rest if it’s not too late….
    Love the pictures of your garden.
    Sharon Caruso
    North Brunswick, NJ

    • Hi Sharon, thank you for your lovely comments. My premise, here at Fred Gonsowski Garden Home is to give a person step by step instruction, the way I want to hear them myself, so a person can do the projects that I cover. Every topic that I put up on my site, I have lived through myself, recently or in the past, so I tell it as it has been for me. If a person follows my site, or looks at the old Archived posts (month by month), they are basically looking at what I am doing. The topics I cover are what I think should be addressed at that moment, if a person has my interests.
      Happy Spring to you Sharon;-}

  3. Kaite says:

    FINALLY you’ve explained what I simply cannot figure out about design! Thank you! I’m planning a garden at my daughter’s house, zone 8-9, and I’ve figured out the color scheme, many of the plants, and was so stumped about the how to put them all together. I’ll probably have to sleep on this and mull it over to make sense in my brain, but THANK YOU! I’m bookmarking your site for future reference.

    • Hi Kaite, I am now working on a post that will be about starting your first garden. It will be put up soon. Maybe that one will also help you. Did you read my 2-22-2011 article called Colored Foliage adds that WOW factor to a garden? It is in the Archive spot on the right side of the blog. Happy Spring to you;-}

      • Kaite says:

        Nice. Actually, I’m a Master Gardener in the central CA mountains and my own garden is pretty nice, but I hired someone to do the basics. The garden I’m about to do is smaller and in Fresno, where everything grows, so I’m looking forward to doing it. I study and study other’s designs, but you put it into numbers so it is easier to grasp the concepts. I have to fight the urge to get specimen plants, now almost always buy threes of everything. Odd numbers are supposed to be best. Your idea takes it further than that. I’d like to see more of your gardens.

      • Hi there Kaite from California, Here at FGGH i am trying to explain, excite, inspire, and hopefully get my readers going on gardening and decorating projects. I try to write the articles for regular / everyday people (like myself), NOT designers, or specialists in an area. I write them the way I want to have information told to me, or the way I would tell a family member, neighbor, or friend, who knows NOTHING about the subject, but wants to do the project. Did you look at the article I wrote called When Designing a Perennial Garden it’s all about the Shapes of Leaves 1-15-2011, or Stagger Plant Heights when Planting (designing) a garden 2-23-2011? You probably know about the subject, but anyone who reads this, I hope looks at those topics also.

        Good luck with the new project, it is nice when a Master Gardener gives me a thumbs up ;-}

      • Kaite says:

        We learned a lot about how to grow things in MG classes, but not how to design a garden. That is perhaps the most elusive part of gardening successfully, at least to me. I did read the other articles you mentioned, and they are quite readable and understandable too. Fundamental concepts are important to understand before tackling design. The other part that makes it so confusing is that there are so many different types of garden designs…eeek! My own is layered, terraced with boulders, and the basic design started with foundation plants in 1’s 3’s(mostly) and 5’s scattered throughout to anchor the basic design, I guess, and then colorful perennials added wherever they fit. We started with three main colors(yellow, pink and purple) but different areas have their own little color thing going on. I have pretty much every color except red(unless the golden delicious pineapple sage comes back…has lovely red blooms and a scent to die for!, plus the chartreuse foliage is stunning. The garden goes from shade to am sun to shade/pm sun. ALL in clay. Lovely clay. Looking forward to digging in the sandy loam at the daughter’s! I’ll send some pics if you like.

      • Kaite, when I read the description of your garden, I think, if I had land like that, I would want a lot of plants that have weeping habits. I would counterbalance the weepers, here and there, with upright thrusting plants growing up to the sky. Think of the your hill as a waterfall made up of all kinds of plants that are falling / moving down hill probably toward your house. Don’t try to go against the natural movement of your land.
        Just something my mind’s eye envisions for your place, if it is at all true or not. ;-}

      • Kaite says:

        Actually, we built on top of the hill(this time!). I was just thinking that today…I have lots of mounding stuff, need more upward stuff. I’m really trying to “get” the different leaf shapes design ideas too.

  4. Lori Escudero says:

    first off, I love your blog ! 🙂
    My husband and I have recently moved into a ” fixer upper ” ranch style home built in 1978 , in west central Florida .
    There were 30 yr old shrubs in the front of the house that we just took out, ( half were dead )
    I now have a space 6×37 that is empty.
    I read your design column and I get the groupings and balance, but do I start in the middle and work out ? Or can I have a few different areas altogether ?

    • Hi Lori, I would say start with the foundation plants that would grow to be the biggest first, and then add the middle sized second, and the little things last. Think of the big pieces as the specimen or anchor plants. I don’t know what kind of plants you would plant in Florida for foundation plants but read my 1-15-2011 post called When designing a perennial garden it’s all about the shapes of leaves, and my 2-22-2011 post called Colored foliage adds the WOW factor to your garden. Also read my 2-23-2011 post called Stagger Plant heights when planting (designing) a garden. l would also say repeat the plants across the front and or sides of your house for continuity. I think if there are fewer plants repeating across the front of a property the look is calmer, than a lot of single plants that make too much visual movement. Thank you for loving the blog;-]

  5. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for the help. I’m thinking about my backyard area. I think this will help me decide on additional plants. I could actually get good at this.

    • Hi there Charlotte, If you have a moment look at the gardening principles under categories on the right side of the screen; all the garden design related topics are there.

      Thanks for the comment, and I hope to hear that all your slips took and you have many new rose bushes, and other things to give as gifts, or put in your own garden. My Grandmother, Aunts, and Mother, if they say something they liked, would ask to take a slip, so they could have one of their own at home. I have even heard that people would go to old grave yards, and look for now forgotten types of roses, and take slips, so as to keep the now forgotten variety of rose alive.

      Happy Gardening and Summer!!! If I can get away from my garden, maybe I will be able to write a new post or two for this blog. BUT, the garden at this point, getting it all weeded and planted is my number one priority. Being over four thousand square feet, it is a bit of a chore, but I love it ;-}

  6. jamey says:

    woah, i am a newbie to planting, and i am kind of just buying random pernnials right now and planting them according to what their tag says. lol i know that is probably not the best way to go about it. I LOVE the layered look of different plants, but also i am on a budget. We bought a house last year that had sat empty for a while and i guess people came and dug up everything that was in the yard. I have last fall planted 5 peonies, and a hydrangda, 2 mumsand this year got 7 climbing roses plants, another hydranga, about 10 hostas, bleeding heart, one azalea, and a roddie bush, and a couple odds and ends. I have just kind of been sticking them at random places where i think they will get the right sun and hoping for the best. So since i have already got some up and going, what is the best way to be able to create something that looks layered and nice?? i read the tags and try to guesstimate the heights they will be but i am not sure as to what im doing or a method to my maddness. Any thoughts or advice would be great!!
    And thank you for taking the time to put all this info out here. i just found it tonight and have been reading quite a lot about different things. Would love to see some pictures of your flowers and layouts/

    • Hi there Jamey, I think you are doing great for just starting out. I would say, this year, buy some annuals to put in-between the perennials so you have some constant color. Buy a six pack of zinnia (like state fair or cut and come again), a six pack of marigolds, salvia, etc. Try different annuals and see what grows best for you and what you like. To make a garden look coordinated, try to plant plants that have a like color story. An example would be having things in white, then pink, after that pink and white, burgundy, and burgundy and white, etc. A planting of all sun-fire colors would also look nice. Think about red, orange and yellow tones. I was on a garden tour yesterday that had white tulips blooming along with hosta that were green and white. The white of the tulips really looked nice against the emerging hostas. Also think about repeating plants through out your garden. Plant six zinnia here, and then down further in your garden plant six more zinnia. That is how plants and colors are moved along.

      To have something constantly blooming in a garden, especially perennials, you have to have things that bloom at all different times of the growing season. If you can, go to your local garden center every week or two and see what is blooming at that moment. If you buy something at that time, you will know it will bloom next year around the same period. But be careful, some garden centers, especially in big box stores sell perennials that have been forced into bloom early so when you thing they will come up again and bloom next year will be different from now.

      Did you read my post How to design a perennial garden, It’s all about the shapes of leaves? That will get you thinking.

      My cousin started a garden with a shoe string budget. She constantly goes to different garden centers and places like Lowe’s and goes through all the clearance / half dead plants that they are selling for no money. A lot of the things she picked up live, and have grown bigger and she divides them. Also ask friends and relatives for divisions of plants.

      Gardening is an evolution, look at these picture of my garden, way back in time, and something closer to now. Here is another. Now that I have a new camera, and can get pictures up on my site quicker, stay tuned as I will be posting picture of my garden this summer. Good luck with your project, I know you will do just fine ;-}

  7. Dominique says:

    Hi! I just stumbled across your site and have been reading your articles. I am looking to do the front of my small house with different plants that shows a variety of heights, textures and colors in zone 7. I have limited garden knowledge but your explanations give me hope that I can put something together that I can be proud of. Thank you

  8. Tricia says:

    Thank you! Thank You! You are an excellent teacher. Garden design has mystified me for years. This article has given me the tools I need to confidently re-plant my garden.

  9. Joy von Glueck says:

    Fantastic articles that will help me as I move outside to tackle the summertime adventures! Thank you once again for all your knowledge! You keep things so direct and simple–easy to understand!

  10. Andrea Klassen says:

    Hi Fred,
    A large yellow peony I have, only had one bloom since I planted it 3 summers ago. ( We have many options here in the Fraser Valley of B.C., Canada with a lovely growing zone, so the foliage is large and lush – but no flowers on this one! ) I googled why this may be, and found your blog and post about peonies. I have several others that have beautiful blooms so I suspect I may have planted this one too deep; I shall find this out later this morning when I have a peek.
    I am now following your blog as I thoroughly enjoyed other posts .. thanks for your advice and some enjoyable reading with my morning coffee : )

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