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How to choose all-star plants: Connecting the design dots from troublesome seducer to all-star solution

by Timber Press on January 8, 2013

in Design, Gardening

Too hot or dry for hydrangeas? Why not try ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ or ‘Bluebird’?

The following is excerpted from Andrew Keys’ Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants

The plant kingdom is a living lineup of sensuous charac­ters. Plants enrich and inform our most treasured outdoor spaces—and many indoors too—with scent, sound, touch, and taste, and most importantly, with sight. Visually beautiful plants first beguiled their way into vogue in ancient times, and if there’s a plant diva you wish you could grow, it’s probably turned heads now for centuries.

But why is it you wish you could grow that plant? Odds are you’re seduced by one of a few simple aesthetic quali­ties. We’ll call these qualities elements of design.

Take a good look at that problem plant, batting its eyes across the nursery yard, and consider the following characteristics. Think of them like bits of personal ads for plants! Breaking down the pieces of what attracts us to plants will help us pick better plants to replace problems.


First, there’s color, the most straightforward ele­ment of design. It’s fair to say we grow most plants (or wish we could) specifically for color, often flower color. But say a plant blooms in superfabu­lous hues seven days a year—what does it do for you the other fifty-one weeks? Is it fabulous in other ways, or is it a pouty, leafy lump that you stare at the rest of the year, all the while pining for that one week of bloom? If it’s the latter, is that plant really worth your while? In choosing a better plant, color shouldn’t come but once a year, and if possible, it shouldn’t come only in flower. Look for those superstar plants that twirl the color wheel again and again across the calendar year (even year-round!), and in foliage, fruit, bark, and any other way you can think of.

Don’t have the perfect spot for a Japanese maple? You might try paperback or vine maple.


In a nutshell, shape is how a plant works the room. Seldom is shape the deciding factor in picking a plant, but the smart gardener knows shape is a major player in the big picture of any garden. How does that plant fill space through the year? A plant may not always be in leaf, and it may not always be blooming, but during the growing season and, for many, year-round, a plant’s shape is what sells it.

Shape is that sneaky element of design that draws in so many gardeners without their realizing it, because it has the power to seduce on a more unconscious, sentimental level. Think about it: are you in love with a plant with big palm-shaped leaves? Could it be because its shapely sil­houette conjures up images of that tropical vacation you took, even though that plant grows in your own untropi­cal backyard?


At its most basic, tex­ture is the way you think a plant might feel if you touched it, based on how it looks. Texture is responsible for a plant’s shimmer and sheen. Think of texture as plant jewelry. Though we seldom grow plants specifi­cally for it, texture is a double-edged sword of seduction, because it speaks both to sight and to touch.

Step back and look at how your plant’s surfaces—leaves, flowers, and all—play with light together. This speaks to its overall visual texture, and here’s where design elements dovetail, because the gestalt of a plant’s texture depends on the size and shape of all its pieces. An enormous tree with thousands of tiny leaves has a fine texture. Likewise, the texture of one with big, bodacious leaves is bold. Trees (and other plants) in the middle are, simply, medium.


Size is another somewhat obvious element of design, but don’t let its factual nature fool you into thinking it’s any less sexy. Untold numbers of plants rise to popularity simply because they’re particu­larly titanic or particularly tiny. The most important thing to realize about size is how it relates to your space. Whether you measure your garden in square feet or acres, a plant won’t reach its full potential unless it has room to grow and thrive both in general and relative to the rest of the garden. Some plant prima donnas falter with too little space, and some pernicious plants over­take their neighbors. Neither will make you happy in the end.


Character is the final element of design to consider when selecting a plant for your garden. Character takes into account the plant in all its qualities—color, shape, texture, size—along with other, harder-to-define aspects, and answers the basic “why” in growing this particular plant. What will this plant will do for us? What role would we typically look to this plant to play in our gardens? Is it meant to be a big tree with great fall color, or a midsized perennial with flowers that smell great?


Andrew Keys is a writer, designer, consultant, and lifelong gardener. The host and producer of Fine Gardening‘s Garden Confidential podcast, his writing has appeared in Fine Gardening and other magazines, as well as on his blog, Garden Smackdown.

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