By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
Garden architecture and structural plants serve the samebasic purpose as a window, beautiful painting, or a fireplace in your livingroom; they draw your eye to a particular focal point. Architectural plants areoften big and showy, but even smaller structural plants can be bold, stylish,and dramatic. Read on for a few ways to make a statement with your garden’sarchitectural and structured plants.
Working with Structural Plants
Start with relatively mature plants, if your budget allows.Although they may be more expensive, mature plants provide instant form andstyle. Consider the eventual size of the plant, and allow space accordingly;otherwise, you may have to remove the plant at some point in the future.
Avoid overcrowding, especially if your garden is small.Leave enough space for your architecture to show at its full potential. Includelow-key supporting plants that draw attention to your focal point plants;however, keep them to a minimum. Too many lesser plants can detract from thebeauty of your focalpoint.
Consider the needs of your architectural plants. Chooseplants with structure according to your growingzone, then ensure they have the proper growing conditions in terms of soil,sunlight, water, and fertilizer.
Examples of Structural Plants
Topiary(the art of pruning trees or shrubs into ornamental shapes) is a traditionaltype of structural plant. An espalier(a fruit tree trained to grow against a wall or other flat structure) isanother interesting method of garden architecture.
Other plants to include for garden architecture appeal are:
- Yucca (Yucca spp.): Adds real drama to the landscape with colorful, sword-like leaves year-round and spikes of tall blooms during the summer. Most varieties of yucca are hardy to USDA plant hardiness zone 7, and many can even withstand cold weather as far north as zone 4.
- Elephant’s ear (Alocasia): This is a tropical plant with huge, stunning leaves in a variety of colors, including various shade of greens and purple so dark they almost look black. Elephant’s ear is suitable for growing in zones 8 through 11.
- Red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria): Provides a bold statement with poker-shaped blooms of bright red and yellow above clumps of attractive, striking foliage. Also known as torch lily, red hot poker is available in various shades of orange, apricot, and yellow.
- Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum): Including common forms such as upright or laceleaf, Japanese maple trees offer beauty all year. Trimming is critical, as improper pruning can stimulate unsightly growth and destroy the natural shape of the tree. Allow the tree to age gracefully, then prune carefully and selectively.
Additional plants with structure include:
- New Zealand flax
- Acanthus (bear’s breeches or big spinach)
- Weeping trees (including weeping willow and weeping juniper)
- Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa)
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Creating Four Season Interest With Dwarf Evergreens
In garden design, the term "bones" refers to something architectural that defines the structure of a garden. Think of bones as the skeleton or framework for your garden's look. They can be features on their own or used to move the eye from one part of the garden to another.
Garden bones can be artificial, such as an arbor or obelisk, or they can be a plant. Very often evergreen trees or shrubs are used. Evergreens delineate the garden no matter the season, standing out equally well in the profusion of summer and against a backdrop of snow.
Large-scale gardens have successfully used evergreens in mixed borders for centuries. It is fairly recent that home gardeners have developed an enthusiasm for including them in more modest garden designs. Part of the popularity of using evergreens as the garden's bones is due to the wonderful variety of dwarf evergreens currently on the market.
Topiary focal points
Topiary is a great plant for structure because it can be made into any shape you like! Good plants include box, yew, bay, ilex, and conifers.
Plant topiary balls, cones, spirals, or lollipops for striking evergreen focal points. Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave, you can create your own shapes. You can cut freeform, but I recommend using a topiary frame, which is a wire mesh shape that you place over the plant as a 3D template.
You can even buy animal shapes like chickens!
Use topiary in flower beds as an anchor or add two plants as markers by a gate or along a path. Topiary of different shapes and sizes also has a great effect when planted together.
9 Ways to Create Height in Your Garden
There are various ways to introduce height and interest in your outside space, whatever its size – whether it be a feature tree, a pergola, using vertical plants or even simply mounding the soil. Here are just a few ideas to help you add that third dimension.
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Grow up a structure
Obelisks, whether wood or metal, will draw the eye to an individual feature plant. As well as supporting greenery, these structures are great additions in themselves in the winter months, as they can bring much-needed interest to an otherwise flat landscape. You could try adding one to a large pot, which can then be moved around to create interesting planting anywhere.
Obelisks can define an entrance to a garden or be used as a centrepiece. Alternatively, add a few through a long border in various numbers to create more interest and to include plants that need support within the beds.
You can buy ready-made obelisks, or make your own structural pyramids for climbers such as sweet peas, clematis and runner beans. Search online to find instructions for constructing plant supports using bamboo canes or hazel.
Draw your eye to the sky
Trellis can help to disguise an ugly wall, and will also allow you to grow many climbing plants, whatever the size of your plot. A wall or fence is a wonderful bonus in a garden, as it offers you a vertical microclimate that you can use for invaluable extra growing space.
It’s not just flowers that will help you reach the sky – there are plenty of climbing fruit and vegetable varieties, too. If you have a south-facing wall or fence, try growing courgettes, cucumbers and strawberries.
It’s important, however, that you grow the right plants for the specific orientation – so don’t try to grow sun-loving plants on a damp, shady wall, for instance. If you want colour but only have shade, then try growing a Hydrangea anomala subsp petiolaris alongside a rose such as Souvenir du Dr Jamain.
Creep up and over
Pergolas and arbours not only add an attractive vertical dimension that gives the eye an alternative view of the garden, they can also help to disguise unsightly areas.
You can successfully grow fruit over a pergola or, if it’s cascading blooms you’re after, wisteria looks fantastic. There are so many climbing plants you can grow up a structure like this, roses and jasmine being favourites.
A single variety of the same plant can look incredible, but you may wish to add other climbing varieties to prolong the flowering season. For example, you could use a Clematis alpina at the beginning of the season to grow through a rose, followed later by a Clematis viticella in August.
Make sure any structure you use is able to support the weight of the plants.
Hang an array of pots
Hanging baskets and pots are a great way to add instant interest, and they allow you to change your display as often as you like.
It’s not just flowers that look good in hanging pots: there are many varieties of edible plants and herbs that can also work well and are especially handy if positioned near the kitchen door.
You could also use a form of stacking container with multiple apertures, such as a pallet, which could be fitted to the wall for growing plants, fruit and vegetables.
Create a living wall
Living walls have a multitude of uses: they add height, provide insulation, deflect water away from walls in heavy rain, create a habitat for insects, improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, and offer aesthetic benefits.
Instead of using a single climbing plant, a living wall is created by growing a mix of herbaceous plants, such as sedums, ferns, heucheras and succulents.
You can buy living wall systems in garden centres. These often consist of a framework of planting pods and are connected to an irrigation system.
Cultivate lofty edibles
If you have a small garden but still dream of being self-sufficient, there are many dwarf varieties of trees and shrubs available that offer both height and fruit. However, make sure you choose the right plant for each spot.
Height in this small garden is achieved by planting against the fence with espaliers (trees trained to grow flat), and lining the path with small but very productive fruit trees. The dwarf stock varieties have been specially grafted and will also do well in large containers, as long as they get enough sun and you water them frequently.
Apart from apples, pears, plums and cherry trees, you can also get dwarf varieties of peach and nectarine. However, these will need more protection, especially from frost and cold winds. If you want to try a small apricot tree, then consider apricot ‘Isabelle’.
Be a shape-shifter
A wonderful way to grow fruit to add height, if you are willing to be patient and are good at pruning, is by using different-shaped frames.
If you want to see a variety of fruit grown in this way, then head to the wonderfully restored Edwardian gardens at West Dean in West Sussex (pictured), where the gardeners have used a different selection of structural supports for training fruit.
It takes several years to grow fruit this way over pre-formed steel frames, but it will lead to much healthier crops, as the open centre of the structure prevents fungal diseases thanks to better air circulation.
Raise the bar
Raised beds will naturally make any of your plants look taller. You can also use the change in levels to great effect by adding pots at a higher position than they would normally be.
Using trees with a single clear stem along a boundary wall or fence will accentuate length and height. The top layer, especially if evergreen, will give the appearance of a hedge at a higher level.
You could also grade your soil to create mounds, so that plants sit at a higher point. This will bring drama into a previously flat landscape.
Plant for height
Height in gardens is not only achieved by using metal or wooden structures – trees naturally give you year-round interest up high, and they’re great for nature.
A traditional way to plant a border is to position smaller perennials towards the front and taller ones at the back. Use plants such as tall grasses to punctuate the bed and immediately add height they’ll also bring in pleasing movement.
Are you planning to use any of these ideas? Or have you already created a garden with plants of different heights? Share your thoughts and photos in the Comments section.