Dig This! 7 Secrets to Great Planting Design

Dig This! 7 Secrets to Great Planting Design
Planting design and photo by  Mary-Liz Campbell Landscape Design

Planting design and photo by Mary-Liz Campbell Landscape Design

More than inspiration, strategy is what it takes to create a fabulous garden.

Here, professional landscape designers share their tips for creating plantings that really pop.  


text by wendy kagan


The more passionate you are about plants, the harder it can be to design great plantings. That’s how it was for landscape designer Mary-Liz Campbell before she went pro, back in the 1990s. At nurseries in her Rye neighborhood, she would find herself unable to resist the blossoming temptations in every di- rection. “I loved plants so much that I was buying this and that, and nothing made sense after a while,” says Campbell. “When I finally learned to design with plants, I didn’t do that anymore.”


Campbell still loves plants, but now she knows how to put them together in a way that works. It may seem like a secret skill available only to a select few, but great garden design can be accessible to all, even the backyard dabbler. If you, too, have ever found yourself driving home from the nursery with a trunk bursting with flora, but no game plan, take heart. The following pro tips can help you create plantings that feel as cohesive as they are eye-catching. 


Think Like a Minimalist

Planting design and photo by   Mary-Liz Campbell Landscape Design

Planting design and photo by Mary-Liz Campbell Landscape Design

For Brian Higley, a landscape designer based in Beacon, NY, less is more. “It’s all about editing,” says Higley. “A lot of people use way too many varieties of plants. Or they have a lot of ideas, but they’re not all going to work together.” For starters, Higley sug- gests that we look at plants more for what they do than for what they are. Particular plants might provide a pathway or screening; Higley likes tall shrubs like multi-stemmed Juneberry and grasses like Calamagrostis (feather reed grass) to define a space. “Typically,” he says, “the less I do, the better it turns out.”


Lay Out Your Plants

Even if you restrain yourself at the nursery, you still might end up with a good haul of plants. What now? “Instead of planting them right away, lay them out in their containers,” suggests Tom Francello of Augustine Nursery in Kingston, NY. “Give that a day or two so you can digest where they are and what you want them to do. Then, if you decide to shift things, you can do it without disturbing the plants and the ground.” When you do plant, just make sure you don’t plant too low. “You want to plant where the stock and the root meet,” advises Francello. 

Design & build by  The Laurel Rock Company , photo by Larry Merz. 

Design & build by The Laurel Rock Company, photo by Larry Merz. 

Use Odd Numbers

“I always plant in groups of three, five, or seven,” says Campbell. Why odd numbers? “It has to do with your eye visually, things hold together better. If you see two together, your eyes will of- ten look for the third. And two plants can look like goal posts.” Campbell will use one plant at times for deliberate effect, such as a tall ornamental grass that serves as an exclamation point. But for the bigger picture, she prefers odd-numbered clusters. “It helps things to be more coherent and creates a more flowing design.”


Plant from Low to High

“For a garden border against the house, you want to lead the eye from the ground up,” says Francello. “If you were working with evergreens, you might start with a Juniper in the front, then jump up to a Holly, and behind that, maybe a Rhododendron.” Spacing is key: Remember to plant far enough away from the house so that if you have problems with your siding or need to paint, you’ll have access. “Most people plant right up against the house, which isn’t a good idea,” cautions Francello. 


Photo provided by  boscobel house and gardens

Photo provided by boscobel house and gardens

Create a Visual Story

For an aesthetically minded designer like Campbell, a visual story is key. “Things should relate to each other,” she says. “You can do it with color: If you have blue somewhere, you can repeat it somewhere else— such as blue Hydrangea in one place, and Lamb’s Ear or Catmint to pick up the hue in another spot.” Shape, too, is a good way to create a story. “I like to mix different shapes, which lends visual interest.” To tie it all together, she might use the same leaf color. “You want to create a whole picture,” says Campbell.

Plant for All Seasons

Here in the northeast, it takes strategizing to have something happen- ing in the garden at all times of the year. Campbell suggests using ever- greens like Mugo Pine and Boxwood as foundational plants. “They add winter interest and also structure—not just in the winter but throughout the year.” Even past-prime flowers and grasses can sustain charm. Higley likes combining Feather Reed Grass with Black-Eyed Susans. “They’re low maintenance for a sunny spot or edge that can get a little wild—and with the dried heads of the flowers, they look great in the winter, too.” 

Know Your Colors

People tend to think of flowers for color, but a savvy gardener will use foliage, too. “If you have a green house, and you have foliage with red lines planted up against it, that can be really striking,” says Higley. When you do use flowers for color, keep in mind, which plants will bloom at the same time. Yellow and red don’t mix well, but if you plant Witch Hazel for yellow in spring, and Bee Balm for red in summer, you’ll be safe. Knowledge of the color wheel is great, but not mandatory. “Colors are very personal,” says Higley—and they’re a perfect way to insert what matters most in the garden. Your own stamp of individuality.