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Garden Design

Designing with sculptural plants

Phillip Withers

Phillip Withers

June 2, 2013

I often get asked when conducting a design consultation or garden advisory ‘what sort of plants do you like Phil?’ I often say ‘too many’ or ‘I like a mixture of plants’ and it’s true. I feel my fondest memories of gardens come from the ones that have a variety of plants blended to form something we don’t generally see. Here is where a gardener starts to ask questions such as ‘I’m not sure if that works but it definitely looks interesting’.

Georgina Martyn design

Georgina Martyn design

One unique design method of planting that you will find in these type of gardens is when we see ‘sculptural plantings’ mixed in with soft foliage and flowers. It’s a real treat when it’s done well and it’s a trick to work out how to do it well. I’ve seen many designers and garden enthusiasts use plants in a way that let a single sculptural plant steal the show amongst other plant life, almost making you want to go up and touch or pat it as if to say, clever! Maybe that’s just me but it’s great to see…

Some of you are sitting there and saying, hmmm where is he going with this, well think about this…

When we fill up a garden bed with predominantly soft green foliage we cool down a composition, it also brings a calm feeling to a space. Bringing in hints of flower colour provides seasonal interest, beauty and character. If we take these elements that you will find in many good garden beds and push their boundaries with a splash of architectural shape and texture, it’s here that the picture really starts to bounce. The softness of the foliage plants gives us a chance to rest our eyes and feel at home, then the figurative manner of a living sculpture adds to its charm.

So the question is what sort of plants are you referring to when you talk about shape and texture. These are generally succulents and cacti such as Agave, Aloe, Draceana and the list goes on and on.

Photo 1 - Phillip Withers

Phillip Withers design

In this example you can I have used an eclectic fun blend of Salvia, Aulux, Anigozanthos and Senecio which are matched with two lovely sculptural plants to help piece it all together. An Agave attenuata to the centre and Yucca rostrata placed in the pot to the foreground then give it some punch.

Photo 2 - Andrew Laidlaw

Andrew Laidlaw design

In this example you can see that Andrew Laidlaw, one of the masters at this technique, has a really nice hue of colour contrast and varying height to give each plant its viewing. Plants such as Cotinus, Miscanthus, Alpinia, Dahlia, and Artemisia all work together with the interesting Aloe ferox to give it some defined foliage.

Photo 3 - Paul Grant

Paul Grant design

In this beautiful arrangement by Paal Grant we get a good view of softer leaf through to architectural planting with a blend of Limonium, Euphorbia, Coprosma and Adenanthos mixed the sharp edges of Agave gemniflora and Yucca australis.

Photo 4 - Georgina Martyn

Georgina Martyn design

This garden by Georgina Martyn shows a clever method of using hints of architectural planting in a full garden approach. She has used Agave attenuata as the sculptural accent planting amongst an array of other softer shapes such as Aeonium, Festuca, Iris and Kniphofia, and Rosmarinus, just to name a few.

So what do we need to think about when mixing the hard and the soft…

Well firstly we need to do our research as to how big the plants are going to get, and I am not just referring to google. Get out and see it at its established size, speak to someone who uses the plant regurly and undertsands its true habit. One of the tricks to blending plants with shapes is to make sure the full shape gets seen and isn’t hidden to discard its reason for being there. This may mean allowing to see some of a stem or trunk.

We also need to think about having a good mix of hard and soft, remembering that they both have their values in the garden. A softer planting gives us a nice place to rest our eyes, whereas the more sculptural plantings will become features or even patterns in some cases.
We also need to make sure we don’t plant weeds, which comes back to doing your research.

So in essence remember that plants come in all sorts of colours and sizes, but they also have many forms which is not something that should be looked over when designing your next garden, good luck….

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Julie Thomson
10 years ago

Love what you say about hard and soft and feel just the same. Now I am going outside to move some of my agave attenuatas in amongst the foliage that seems soft and weepy. Watch this space.
Thanks Phillip.

8 years ago

Hi looking for a design I saw recently on your site using various styles and heights of succulents. You couldn’t help to show me again

8 years ago

Yes thank you a friend was interested