Planting Philosophy

Planting out a garden from scratch or adding to or amending an existing one, can all be fraught experiences. Where to start? How to choose? Though daunting, it’s also without doubt the most exciting and satisfying part of garden making. The fact is, you can make it as simple or as complicated as you like, there is no absolute rule of thumb to planting out a garden.
Firstly it helps if you become interested in the subject – hence why you are reading this! Planting a garden always feels like an ongoing evolving experiment. You do your research, make your choices, plant them in the best conditions, look after them best you can, hopefully they flourish but naturally sometimes they flounder or simply fail. From here you build on your successes and remain undeterred by your failures learning from them and moving on. When I’m feeling unadventurous I’ll use a base of plants I’ve had success with before and add some unknowns to see how they go. When I’m feeling adventurous I’ll use an entirely new palette and that’s when things get really exciting.

Rarely do you operate in a void. You can be sure that someone not too far from home has had success with the sorts of plants that would thrive in your own garden. You just need to get out and about and start looking – other people’s front gardens, private gardens open to the public, public gardens and even roadside verges. In fact the more untended, forlorn and forgotten places where plants are thriving are particularly good to pay attention to. If they are thriving on neglect chances are they’ll do well in your garden. Don’t dismiss plants that you think are common or a little plain. It’s all about the context. Pay close attention to much of the planting in the gardens in this book and you’ll notice they are fairly stock standard plants you see everywhere, but the ‘worlds’ they have been placed in mean they become one element in an overall palette of colour and texture that hopefully eradicate any association with dullness.
Take photos, ask questions, write down names – botanical names NOT common names. Common names are next to useless in the real world of horticulture. Gather as much information as you can but avoid overwhelming yourself.

A warning, falling in love with a particular plant can be a double edged sword. If the plant you have fallen for doesn’t return the love you can turn yourself inside out trying to make it work – this is where you need to be able to move on and find something better suited to that particular spot.

I like to take a very pragmatic approach to planting, breaking it into structural components – working from the big stuff down to the small stuff. Trees and hedges being the big stuff and groundcovers, grasses and flowering perennials the small stuff and shrubs fitting somewhere in between. Before becoming smitten with a tree or plant’s colour or flower, the first thing I will consider is whether it is capable of doing the job I demand of it structurally and spatially. If it’s a tree, will it be the right size and shape, will it cast shade, then what sort of shade? It it’s a large shrub will it be big enough to screen out the neighbours, can I prune it to do what I want or will it’s natural form do the trick? For grasses will they be big enough, will they be too big? And if they are groundcovers, will they spread to create a carpet big enough? Once these questions of shape, size and form are answered you can then move onto the aesthetics of colour, texture and flower.

This is where you need to start thinking about a palette of plants that work together. As a general rule plants that come from a similar climate will look right together. Plants that hail from the tropics and sub tropics work together, plants from more arid areas such as Australia and the Mediterranean tend to combine well. The aesthetic factors that determine whether what plants sit well cheek by jowl are leaf shape and size, foliage and flower colour and foliage texture.

Big graphic leaf shapes with a glossy textures and deep greens scream tropical, whereas smaller leaves with more matte surfaces and grey green and silver foliage colour speak of drier arid areas. Paying close attention to the colours, shapes, textures, form and size of plants, their leaves and their flowers is the most effective way to evaluate plants in an aesthetic sense. Once you begin doing this, you can see past the seductive allure of a big pink flowering hibiscus, and be strong enough to exclude it from your planting scheme that you had previously decided was all about blending with the natural reserve of bushland that your garden adjoins. Well done!

Perhaps one of the most fool proof way of approaching planting is keeping it extremely simple. Restricting your plant choice to around 8-10 different types of plants ensures you’ll have a strong scheme that holds together well. Keeping the foliage colour fairly uniform is a good idea but then adding a couple of contrasting plants say with silver or variegated foliage to give the scheme a lift. Adding highlights to a scheme this way is something I do all the time – take a close look at the gardens throughout the book and you’ll see what I mean. Another simple way to make a scheme work is adding a focal point by way of a clipped sphere of Buxus microphylla(Japanese Box)or a lurid flowering plant such as a bright yellow Anigozanthus (Kangaroo Paw). A focal point does just that, it focuses the eye and helps to ground and strengthen a planting scheme.

Just a note about relying on your plants to ‘create’ your garden. Plants can do amazing things and in time can give you all the structure and spatial definition, colour and texture you could want for, but they can also disappoint. I’m a big believer that putting more work into the other non plant elements helps to take the pressure off your plants. Creating a complete ‘world’ paying attention to wall and floor treatments, seating and the overall mood of the space means that the addition of plants enhances and enriches the space, but if they don’t perform as you’d hoped or suffer during the dry spells, the space is still strong enough to carry on regardless.

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