Using Firmly Formed Plants to Structure Your Garden

Structural plants are the backbone of a garden, forming the framework and helping to anchor other plants within a defined space. Here, we help you decide which structural plants to use and suggest places to put them.

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Creating a Framework

Use structural plants within the garden to frame (or block out) views and to lead your eye around the design. Shrubs in a border, perhaps forming a low hedge, provide a setting for plants of moderate height; repeating planting helps to create visual reference points. When planting trees, consider their eventual size and the shade they will cast.

Hedging is ideal for defining the boundaries of a large- or medium-sized garden. It also provides shelter and increases privacy. Strike a balance between evergreen and deciduous species: evergreens are effective year-round screens, but they can cast a dense gloomy shade in winter, while colorful deciduous hedges allow some light through most of the year.

Beech, used here as a hedge, defines the internal structure of this garden (image 1).

Here, green and purple maples frame a stone statue, while the sculptural Gunnera at the back forms a focal point (image 2).

Temporary Structure

While the main framework of a garden should be permanent, much of the planting within it is seasonal, emerging in spring and dying down in winter. Some perennials provide vital structure for all but a few weeks in spring, when, as with many handsome grasses, their stems are cut to make way for new growth. Large, shapely foliage plants, such as Miscanthus, act as an anchor for smaller species, or contrast with leafy flowering shrubs like Deutzia. Airy plantings also benefit from the occasional strong shape to balance out their wispy forms.

Clumps of bold foliage, here, cannas, in a busy planting design act contrast with slim-stemmed flowers and provide structural accents in a border (image 1).

Using plants in broad interlocking swathes prevents an over-fussy effect. The resulting planting, although strongly structured, looks natural (image 2).

Year-Round Interest

While evergreens may seem the obvious choice for year-round interest, they're often not visually interesting enough to stand alone. Deciduous trees and shrubs, on the other hand, may inject important bursts for several seasons - new foliage in spring, flowers and berries in late summer and vibrant leaf color in fall - before falling fallow in winter. But that doesn't mean they don't contribute then too: trees often have a beautiful winter silhouette. Many species of sorbus offer these benefits; they are the ideal four-season trees for a small garden.

A winter garden may not offer the obvious charms of summer, but there can still be sufficient interest to draw your eye into the garden — perhaps even enticing you to pull on a coat and venture outside.

If you mix deciduous and evergreen species, the garden in winter can be both structurally interesting and surprisingly colorful (image 1).

Trees form an important element of the spring landscape, some offering blossom, others vibrant green new growth (image 2).

Formal planting is the ultimate in structural design. This row of clipped evergreen trees is balanced and restful, and the effect can be enjoyed during all four seasons (image 3).

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