I think it’s fair to say that designing your planting scheme is a tricky process as it involves lots of inter-connected considerations and processes. This can make it a difficult task for an untrained amateur gardener. It was definitely the part of my diploma, which I had to work the hardest to refine, but now it’s one of my favourite tasks.

I am going to have a go at trying to simplify the key considerations, to hopefully guide you through the process more easily. Here are the key elements to consider when designing your planting scheme, which I will address one by one: 

  • Planting Styles
  • Scheme Design 
  • Colour Theory
  • Visual height
  • Practical Considerations

What’s Your Style?

This may seem a difficult question, however, start by considering what interior style you are drawn to and you’ll be half way there. I’d then go on Pinterest and search planting styles based on this to confirm your style choice.

Wild & Maximalist – If you like maximalism; patterned wallpaper, lots of decorative items and bold colours then you would probably love maximalist planting styles, have a look at images of Great Dixter Gardens or Gravetye Manor online. 

Image: Great Dixter, Sussex
Image: Great Dixter, Sussex

Minimalist – You might not think of yourself as a minimalist, however if you like manicured gardens with neatly pruned shrubs and a limited colour palette, then you most likely are. If your home has clean lines, no clutter and monochrome schemes, you’ll probably like a well-structured design with a lot of evergreen shrubs and monochrome palette.  

Image: Broadwoodside, East Lothian

Urban – Do you love bold and dramatic statement pieces of lighting and furniture or attention-grabbing architectural features? Well then this is probably the look for you. Focusing on statement planting, normally large specimen plants with a verdant colour palette centered around foliage. It’s a style often used in coastal gardens.

Country cottage – This one’s easy right? Classic country house fabrics, lots of decorative objects, with a mix and match of eclectic very English furniture. Then country cottage borders or perennials and roses trailed on walls and arbors.

Image: Hever Castle, Kent

Naturalistic – This type of design has grown in popularity in recent years. Inspired by the natural environment. The layout tries to mimic nature by appearing as if the plants have self-seeding and spontaneously spread. Often trying to replicate meadows or woodland. 

Have a look at Sussex Prairie Gardens or Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden for inspiration when designing your planting scheme

.

The trick is getting this carefully planned planting palette to look like it has occurred naturally, but the style can be combined with many other garden ideas in traditional or modern gardens.

Design Your Planting Scheme

Now you’ve decided on your style you can start to plan out your planting scheme:

1 – Pick a palate of plants, a google search around your chosen style will help, and there are a few great books you can reference too. And the RHS is an invaluable reference source.

2 – Draw out the rough shape of your borders to scale, you don’t have to be too exact as the plants can be rejigged a bit when you plant. Buy a circle template and a scale rule. I normally use a 1:50 scale but it doesn’t really matter. 

Think about the maximum size of the plant and select the appropriate circle size for its maximum size. This way your garden doesn’t become overgrown in a few quick years. Plus, it can save you money as well as time. However, if you like the maximalist look then you can be a bit more relaxed about this element.

3 – Next consider structure, create a backbone using evergreen structural planting that will represent visual punctuation points throughout the year. I do this before considering colour, texture and form as it’s so important to create seasonal interest.

4 – Then I think about leaf colour and shape as they are most present through the seasons, whilst flowers come and go. Also add light and contrast with variegated or glossy leaves and play with scale, big leaves and big plants next to smaller ones. Next comes planning out your flower colour combinations, more on that later…

It’s good practice to think about flower shapes and seedheads when designing your planting scheme.  

Dots – are forms like daisy shaped flowers in the example below, Peonies and their fluffy pom pom seedheads also achieve this, other seed heads with similar forms are Phlomis and Rubeckia.

Clusters – in this image below it’s the roses, usually the plant will have many small flowers on stems like Achillea, Sedum (Hylotelephium), Monarda and Verbena fall into this category, in mind anyway. 

Spikes – Lupins make perfect spikes along with Foxgloves, Knofolia, Agapathus, some Salvias as well as some grasses.  

5 – Consider Texture next which will create a more visual drama to catch the eye. – add layers of gauze–like soft focus layers and a glitter layer with small points of colour from small flowers. Include plants with movement, such as grasses and bamboo. Grass seedheads whilst giving texture will also add seasonal interest, they can be particularly beautiful covered in winter frost.

Contrast and texture beautifully showcased in Cambo Gardens, Fife

Colour Theory 

The colour wheel is a useful tool in interior design which can also be applied when designing your planting scheme to help develop a pleasing garden palette. Developed in the 17th Century by a Frenchmen is based on the three primary colours, red, yellow, and blue. A full colour wheel resembles a rainbow, with red and orange next to yellow, followed by green, blue, purple, and violet. Generally speaking warm colours are red through chartreuse while cool colours are green through violet. 

One way to combine colours in the garden is to choose complementary colours. That means selecting plants in colours that are across from one another on the colour wheel. For example, red is across from green, orange is across from blue, and, as in this bright array, yellow is across from purple.  

Image: Cambo Gardens, Fife

Keep it simple, otherwise your scheme will look chaotic and unplanned. Aim to create a sense of harmony and unity by choosing a color palette. Repetition is the easiest way to unify your planting scheme. It’s also the one thing that marks out a ‘designed’ border, from one that happens by accident. Whilst harmony is important, so is diversity, use a variety of plants to create contrast. 

However, in the case of the image above they let some local school children design the planting and let the whole paint box explode! Which is most definitely from the maximalist school of garden design.

Visual Height

One of the most common mistakes in garden Design is the lack of visual height, often the only thing at eye level are the tops of the fences and a ruddy trampoline! And if that’s the case then that will be what your eye is drawn to no matter how beautiful your planting is.

You can solve this issue in your planting design, a well-placed small tree can be your answer. You want a tree that won’t grow much above 3-5m high, otherwise it will quickly have a canopy above your sightline.

It’s often worth obtaining a multi-stem version so all the growing goes into each stem further limiting the growth. I’m fond of Amelanchier Lamarkii, Prunus Serrula, Cercis canadensis or Euonymus Europeans. Plants with distinctive colors and dramatic shapes, such as spiky palms and pencil junipers, make great focal points.

In this Project we used a pergola trained Wisteria and a Prunus Serrula to draw the eye upward.

Image: Project in Keston, Kent

Practical Consideration

Work with your garden’s natural layout and aspect, choosing the right plant for the right place. Also consider carefully how long you want to spend in your garden on maintenance.

When choosing plants for your garden, you can’t go far wrong if you choose varieties that suit the growing conditions. When it comes to combining different varieties, make sure they are all happy with the same conditions. For example, grow shade-loving varieties together in shady spaces, and sun-loving varieties in sunny spots. 

Image: Delos ‘Mediterranean Garden’, Sissinghurst Kent

If you have particularly extreme conditions, such as a sun-soaked dry border, an exposed garden or damp, shady or boggy garden, always choose plants that will tolerate those conditions well. It’s probably worth buying a book or two on those types of conditions.

Personal taste and how you plan to use the garden have an influence when designing your planting scheme, but the space itself can offer clues as to what works best. For example, a sunny free-draining slope is perfect for an informal Mediterranean-inspired gravel garden. Visually, it won’t look out of place either.

So, there you have it. Yes, there is a lot to consider in designing your planting scheme, however I hope this blog has made the process more transparent and you are now ready to have a go!