Planning Your Outdoor Space Part VI: Selecting Plants

a picture of a shade garden featuring hostas, evergreens and other plants

By Jerry Pence

(This article was first published in the July 2006 issue of The Gateway Gardener.)
a picture of a shade garden featuring hostas, evergreens and other plants

Texture and form dazzle to create interest in this predominantly green shade garden.

In the previous article in this series, I wrote about placing plants in your design according to their function in the landscape. With that done, now it’s time to look more closely at specific plant selections. There are some basic ways to select different plants for different situations.  Using color, form and texture is a great way to get started.


Knowing what different spaces are to be used for is helpful when using color to select

a picture of a water fall feature with colorful annuals to brighten the shady location.

Splashes of annual color brighten the scene in this shady water garden.

plants for your design.  An area that calls for attention or action, such as around a pool area or near the front door of a home, could call for plants that jump out at you.  Colors like reds, oranges and yellows do this.  These colors also work well for making a long distance seem a little shorter – at the end of a long walkway, in the back of a large yard, etc.  Using blues and greens, however, gives the feeling of calmness and serenity in a setting.   This would be appropriate in an intimate area or in a shade garden setting.  By knowing what kind of feeling you are trying to obtain, you can use color to narrow down your palette of plants.


Another way to select plants is to know what type of form you need in a plant.  Don’t pick a broad-shaped plant if you need something tall and narrow.  Often, form is over looked when selecting plants.  The tricky thing about form, however, is that it can change with time.  Therefore, you must consider the mature growth of the plant or how the plant is going to be pruned over time, when using form as your criteria.  Selecting plants that contrast one another in form can add interest in your landscape.


a picture of plants with different textures

Feathery textures complement the rounded leaves of other plants.

The most overlooked way of selecting plants is by using texture.  Texture is very interesting and can do some wonderful things for you in the landscape.  Coarse texture can refer to leaf size and feel, the feel and look of the bark or twigs and whether a plant is thorny or not.  We might use a coarse-textured plant as a barrier, or we might use it to make an area appear closer than it is, just as we would bright colors.  It would be inappropriate to place a coarse-textured plant with foliage that scratches or is uncomfortable to brush against in a patio area or along a walk.

Medium-textured plants are those that are indifferent to us by both touch and sight.  These help reinforce both the coarse- and fine-textured plants and are versatile players in design.  Examples include serviceberry, dogwood, leaves of burning bush, some viburnums or sweetspire.

Fine-textured plants are those that are soft in appearance and touch, such as some ornamental grasses, white pine, or plants with small leaves.  Fine-textured plants are great around areas where people will be, along walks or for making a long distance appear shorter or closer.

Mixing textures is key in selecting your plants.  Using fine textures against coarse or medium ones will enhance the look of the fine texture.  The same is true with coarse textures when used against fine or medium.  Placement and interaction of these plants can make for a very interesting and successful planting.  Textures also can change with the seasons.  A plant with coarse-textured leaves may become medium-textured when those leaves have dropped.  A barberry has small, fine textured leaves, but coarse, thorny twigs.  A burning bush has medium-textured leaves, but coarse, wing-like bark on the twigs.  Putting similar textures together provides mediocrity and boredom in the landscape – so textures might be considered the variety of the landscape!

Jerry Pence is an award-winning designer and Vice-President, Design Management & Horticulture for a local property management company, where he oversees grounds for properties in St. Louis and Florida. He also has been an instructor in the Horticulture Department at St. Louis Community College at Meramec for 15 years.