Oh to many new gardeners want to plant (design) gardens as if plants were stair steps. In the back row they want to site a plant that grows, let’s say six-feet tall. In front of it they want to plant something that grows five-foot tall. In front of that they think a four-foot plant would look great. Then in front of the four-foot one, they place something that grows three-foot tall, and they continue stair stepping plants until they get down to ground cover.
In the world of magazines, where a “stager” can bring in extra plants to heighten a look, and with computer experts on hand to make magic, an over abundant stair step look can easily be had. But in the real world, it is a different story.
If a person tried stair stepping plants like I just mentioned, they would all be fighting for light to grow, and in no time, many of them would become quite weak and eventually die off. The majority of the casualties would have been planted toward the back of the garden, where those plants would have a real hard time collecting light.
Besides water and nutrition from the soil, plants need light collection through their foliage to live (photosynthesis).
New, and some seasoned gardeners need to develop more than just a love of the flowers that many plants produce. I think gardeners have to develop a love for the sculptural form of the plant itself. Too often you hear people say “I love its Big Beautiful (whatever) colored flowers”, and rarely, if ever, do you hear anything about its foliage or architectural shape.
So when you go and start planting (designing) a garden put the six-foot tall plant in the back of the garden, in front of it place a plant that grows 3 1/2 to 4 foot tall. In front of that plant, it is OK to plant something that grows two-foot tall, and in front of that, plant something that matures to about 12 inches high. Your objective is to have more foliage showing, so it can collect light, which feeds the plant.
Plants of all sizes also like to have air movement around them. So in the back row, plant a big boy or two. Next to a big boy, plant on its side something that grows a foot or two shorter. That way you are also giving the sides of the plant the ability to collect light. If you have a big deep garden, as I do, do the same in the middle , and even front of the bed.
Now to go against the “perfect” progression of the tall in the back to shorter in the front. Purposely in spots, close to the middle-front of the garden, plant some tallish plants that have a narrow growth habit. If plants like Oriental lilies or cleome grow in your area, they are both examples of plants that can grow tall, but are narrow of silhouette, and are single stemmed. Plant 3 or so, here and there, across your garden. They will be your element of surprise, and in a way stop you from seeing across the garden all at once. Siting some tall plants in front, also forces a viewer to look past them into the garden, adding a bit of mystery.
So now look at the illustration I made. Notice how I tried to show a lot of different kinds of plants, but none of them are really blocking each others ability to collect light and grow properly. I tried to show plants of different heights placed next to each other, to make an interesting picture. You might say, “You made a drawing”. But a garden is really a picture that you can walk around in. Your plants are like dabs of color on a piece of paper or canvas.
When Designing a Perennial Garden it’s all about the Shape of Leaves 1-15-2011,
Colored Foliage adds the WOW FACTOR to a Garden 2-22-2011,
Designing / Laying out Flower Beds 5-4-2013,
Plant (Start) a Flower Garden for Sun or Shade, Celebrate Spring 3-31-2012,
Plant a Garden Room on your Property 2-17-2013
When designing a Shade Garden, think Focal Point, Plant Color and Shapes of Leaves 9-4-2011