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Designing With Plants

With your map of existing conditions and the goals of your garden in mind, you can finally turn your attention to the species and layout of your garden. Read about some basic principles to guide your design and a more in-depth look into plant features and services for your garden.

Creating a Lively Landscape 

As was covered briefly in the previous section, there is a lot hidden behind the humble plant. This page discusses how the various aspects of plants work together with your yard to create something wonderful and unique. For non-design people, 'design' can be an intimidating word associated with professionals and fancy sketches and knowledge that feels out of reach. But it doesn't have to be so scary. Following some basic planting design rules-of-thumb will allow you create the garden that you wanted without feeling overwhelmed by a bunch of complicated plans. 

A good rule of thumb is to put taller plants in the back and shorter plants in the front. This creates a full, aesthetically pleasing organization that can be easily tweaked for different design intentions.

Can You Hear Me in the Back?

In the Spotlight

Focal plants can be used to create a visual feature in a garden. These plants can have drastic contrast in height, texture, or color which makes it stand out from the crowd. Shrubs and trees in herbaceous plantings can easily become focal points.

Gardens Have Layers

Ecologically, a garden with layers of vegetation can support a wider variety of animal species by offering them many different places to make a nest and snack. By adding biological diversity and complexity, competition among species is reduced. Aesthetically, layers create a fuller garden that adds visual depth and interest. 

Add Some Accents

While plans for planting design may show plants in distinctive patches, it's a good idea to add some accent plants with contrasting texture or color to make your garden really pop. A single species can be scattered across a few planting beds to mimic the concept of 'drift' in natural landscapes where new plants disperse across a native meadow from a mother plant.

Plants that Look Good Together, Stay Together

Don't be afraid to do what has been done before. There are a myriad of plant combinations that you can turn to if you are at a loss. This design concept is called "Companion Plants" which refers to plant groupings that look good together. These plants are also companions in the sense that they are adapted to the same habitat and are part of the same ecological plant community.

Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), blazing star (Liastris spicata), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), threadleaved coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillatta)

Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), smooth blue aster (Symphiotrichum laeve

Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), bluestar amsonia (Amsonia tabernaemontana)

Some nursery websites also have recommended companion plants listed for the species you search. Check out New Moon Nursery's website! Along with a great description of each of their plants, it provides a list of suggested companions. Make sure to search by scientific name.

 Fine-Lookin' Plants 

The "A Bit about Plants" section touched briefly on the different qualities, both functional and aesthetic that you may be looking for in a plant. Now, let's see what these qualities bring to the garden party and how you can use them in your design.

Fun With Foliage

Flowers may be beautiful but they really only bloom at certain times during the season. For most of the year, your garden will be a jumble of stems and leaves. Using contrasting or complimentary textures and forms can add visual interest to your garden when it's not in bloom. 

Shades of Green & Tons of Texture


Amsonia hubritchii

Bright green and feathery leaves


Tradescantia virginiana

Darker green with flat, bladed leaves


Asclepias syriaca

Dark green with broad oval leaves


Geranium macculatum

Medium green and leaves have textured edges

The Shape of Plants


Lobelia cardinalis


Matteuccia struthioptheris


Amsonia hubritchii


Phlox divaricata


Dorsey Walfred,


Tall, stiff stalks


Domed or mounded

Spreading ground cover

In the Bleak Mid Winter

A garden in the winter can feel lifeless and dull. But don't worry, there's a solution! Evergreens, colorful stems, and winter fruits add a splash of color for a lively landscape on even the coldest days.

Green for Ever


Ilex glabra


Ilex opaca


Juniperus virginiana

Kristine Paulus,

Edward Rice,


Barking Up the Right Tree (or Shrub)


Cornus sericea


Betula nigra


Cornus florida

F.D. Richards,

Anne McCormack,

Fruit and Flower Fall into Winter


Ilex verticillata


Hamamelis virginiana


Lindera benzoin

Matthew Beziat,

Plants for All Your Needs

Learn more about what sorts of services plants can provide for you and the enviroment.

Wild About Life

One of the greatest things that plants do is attract all sorts of wildlife to come pollinate, munch on, and take shelter in your garden. Certain species are especially good at providing a service for different critters.

Pollinators & Butterflies

Joe pye weed

Eutrochium purpureum


Solidago sp.

Common milkweed

Asclepias syriaca

Purple coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

Cardinal flower

Lobelia cardinalis

Wild columbine

Aquilegia canadensis

Wild lupine

Lupinus perneis


Monarda didyma

A swallowtail butterfly enjoys some purple coneflowers

Prairie dropseed

Sporoboulus heterolepis


Amelanchier arborea

Thin leaved sunflower

Helianthus decapetalus

Red osier dogwood

Cornus sericea

At Your Environmental Service

Oh Deer

Deer and rabbits are common garden gobblers, eating up your new plants before your very eyes. Luckily, there are some native plants that the deer and rabbits stay away from, often due to unsavory smells or unpalatable foliage. Planting these around the perimeter of your garden may discourage rabbit or deer browse further in.

Privacy Please
If you have annoying neighbors or just want a little privacy, plants can help you with that. Columnar evergreens like the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) create a native screen from neighbors.
Erosion control
On steeper slopes, a garden full of deep-rooting perennials, grasses and sedge can easily combat erosion.

What's Next?!

Your new garden is so close I can smell it! Continue on to see how to plan and prepare so that everything goes smoothly.

It's finally time to look at some plants! Using the resources on this website mixed with a generous helping of your own research, you're bound to find some wonderful plants worthy of your yard.


Once you have a pretty good idea of the conditions in your yard and the main goals of your garden, there's nothing left to do but plant research! You can find suggested plants in the Yard Design Templates but remember that those are just ideas. This is YOUR yard! And finding plants can be exciting and fun. Just think about how cool that plant will look, hanging out with bees and butterflies all day, talking with the other plants, making your neighbors jealous.

In that notebook that you have with your yard map and goals, start a list of of plants. This can also be done in an Excel spreadsheet. Excel is great because you can add in information like height, spread, environmental tolerances, and anything else you want to consider for your yard.

Plant-Research Palooza

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