Choosing plants for a new planting scheme: some handy tips

porch planting at Great Dixter

There are a few rules that you should keep returning to.   Consider the effects of foliage,  form and texture.   Treat the exercise like decorating a room or flower arranging.  Think what goes together.  For leaves a mixture of large blades and strap leaves, some upright will be much more interesting.

Research  shapes of plants and overall size and spread and remember, less is more.  With these in mind, proceed to the strictures and advantages of the specific site:

Choices will be limited by soil type – is it waterlogged and then bone dry in summer? What is the pH?  Climate, for instance  is the area sunny or shady? Will the plants get looked after well, or at all?  On the seasonal front:  when is this part of the garden viewed? Does it have to perform all year round?

Then the creative considerations follow:  what sort of mood do you want to evoke? Formal? wild meadow?  This will be governed, to an extent, by how near to the house the flowerbed is.

Decisions on colour and shapes follow.   Think what effect you wish to conjure with a plant before homing in and making specific choices.

With colour  if a building or wall is anywhere near at hand relate your choices to that.

Make a finite list of your plants to work from.   Treat it like the swatches you might hang round a room to be decorated.  It is your  palette and work within it, perhaps not using all the plants.  Double check to see that seasonal interest (if required) is represented and remember the job that topiary or bare shrub branches can do in extending the season.  Box edging or balls can be invaluable.

An aside tip, add bulbs last of all – or the following season, if necessary.  Choose a “filler plant:  that can be sprinkled around while the slower shrubs get going.  I often use foxgloves or black voilets in shaded places.

Molinia caerulea at Scampson Hall

Use rhythm and repetition as you make your plan for the flowerbed – using different cultivars within a genus can look fantastic – eg:  different types of heleniums or using various members of the scabious family.

Where specifying a large mount of a single type of plant, it may be worth the wait of buying in stock plants and then propagating off them.  The wave shaped beds at Scampson Hall, Yorkshire have an army of  Molinia caerulea in serried and dramatic rows.  These were propagated in this way.


  1. Mark and Gaz says:

    Handy tips Catharine! There are so many ‘rules’ out there that it can be daunting but taking the time to work things through before buying does pay dividends and makes the process easy. And then there’s ‘breaking the rules’…

  2. rhythm and repetition – useful couplet to tag the memory on when thinking about design. Am doing a collection of pots soon for a friend so might be tapping in for advice Catharine. Love the porch planting image

  3. HolleyGarden says:

    Great tips! I totally agree that foliage interest should come before colors. Sometimes, though, a bloom can just be so beautiful as to make us forget all the rules! Guess that’s why I’m just a gardener, and not a designer! I should really learn how to propagate, too!

  4. Love that porch planting as well…great advice to took me five yrs to decide on the right colors inside but no time to plunk down plants outside…needs a bit of exterior redecorating now..

  5. I too love foliage. What a beautiful green and white corner.

  6. I came for a visit. Loved the pics of all these succulents. Just ordered two packages of succulent seeds to play with. Hope I don’t make any bizarre discoveries with them like I did with the pointy-headed cabbage. Mizz Chairman of the Garden in Florida

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