Updated: Dec 19, 2019
Whether you’re a Garden or Landscape Designer, a Landscape Architect, Planting Designer, Professional Gardener or keen enthusiast, it is important to approach plant selection for projects of any size with a mantra.
There are countless examples of poor and even disastrous plant selections and associations in public space throughout the world. In the main, these are the result of accident or inexperience from the person designing or using plants. There are also (and thankfully) many more examples of excellent planting, on which, we can be inspired and enthused to replicate. Putting aside ignorance of the material (in this case living plants) and how it grows, soil and site requirements, etc, the main reason, as I see it, is a lack of thought in why to use plants.
Looking at the necessity for good understanding of a plant's growth and environmental requirements Landscape Architects Eckbo, Kiley and Rose way back at the dawn of the second world war documented their philosophy as follows.
'Plants have inherent quality, as do brick, wood, concrete, and other building materials, but their quality is infinitely more complex. To use plants intelligently, one must know, for every plant, its form, height at maturity, rate of growth, hardiness, soil requirements, deciduousness, colour, texture, and time of bloom. To express this complex of inherent quality, it is necessary to separate the individual from the mass, and arrange different types in organic relation to use, circulation, topography, and existing elements in the landscape.' from Landscape Design for Urban Living, Published in Architectural Record 1939
This has resonated with me since I first read it about 20 years ago and means more now than ever before. I can excuse much in the way of plant associations that I find visually disharmonious, as examples of my bias or aesthetic preference. I really cannot abide plant use that is inappropriate for the site, soil and situation. The understanding required to know a plant well can be great, but to know it well enough is not such a stretch and the inability of some 'professional' plant users to consider if they are using the right plant for the job is both worrying and depressing.
It is therefore increasingly important that one approaches plant selection and partnering, firstly with a knowledge of the requirements of the material being used and secondly with a design intention/style or mantra.
Possibly my favourite quote of all time relating to plant use comes again from one of the previously mentioned trio of American Landscape Architects James C Rose, who wrote in an article entitled 'Freedom in the Garden' in 1938.
'Plants are to the designer what words are to the conversationalist. Anyone can use words. Anyone can use plants, but the fastidious will make them sparkle with aptness.'
Rose, James C. "Freedom in the Garden." Pencil Points. October 1938, 19: 640-644
When you see an example of great planting admire the 'fastidious' person who made those plants 'sparkle with aptness'. It is the balance between understanding how it grows and where, coupled with an intended artistry that can be hard to find in oneself, but is worth the pursuit.
Finding a style that is yours, inspired by your experiences, loves and interests is the hard bit. This may take years to develop and refine, but the value in creating a style uniquely yours (or as best as this is possible) is what separates you from anyone else using plants. All dedicated plant users should seek to develop an approach that is their own. One that when they sit down to put pen to paper, or in the garden when positioning plants for planting, this stylistic mantra on how to put combinations together and the pursuit of an overall aesthetic is at the forefront on thinking.
In a professional context it could be what makes you more desirable to employ, or if you are an amateur plant user, it could be what separates your successful garden from your neighbour's less well realised efforts.
Good luck and enjoy the journey.
Links to further reading;
Books - Yes, still the best resource and actually too many to mention, so I'll only list a few here.
Eckbo, G. (1950) Landscape for Living, New York
Turner, T. (2005) Garden Design: Philosophy and Design 2000 BC-2000 AD, Routledge ISBN 978-0-415-31749-8
Brown, J. (2001) The Modern Garden, Thames & Hudson ISBN 978-0500283219
Page, R. (1962 Reprinted) The Education of a Gardener, London ISBN 978-1846559259
Blom, J. (2017) The Thoughtful Gardener: An intelligent Approach to Garden Design, ISBN 978-1910254592
Any, well written book on plants from encyclopedias to the more valuable thoughts and observations gained from experience of great plant users like, Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto, Dan Pearson, Piet Oudolf, et al.