Win at Planting Design with Criteria-Based Plant Selection

We’ve all been there: You have poured effort into creating a strong design concept that is carried through your forms, your hardscape, and even your site furnishings. Your project is shaping up to be a wonder of landscape architecture. Then you get to 50% CDs and 100% budget, and now it’s time to do the planting design…

It can all fall apart when it comes to planting.

Plants make a very powerful contribution to the aesthetic of a project. But selecting plants can be an arduous process that you don’t always have the time or budget for. In my landscape architecture firm we used to often find ourselves recycling plant lists from previous projects to save time. However each project has its own style, and try though you might you are not going to achieve new and unique aesthetics by using the same old plant list!

The most effective way to make sure every planting design is unique AND successful is to use a combination of criteria-based plant selection – selecting plants based on specific desirable traits that support the aesthetic and environmental goals of the project – and modern tools such as Pinterest and The Plantium.

Try The Plantium to quickly find great new plant selections for every project, or read on to learn 4 quick steps to compile your criteria and OWN your next planting design project.

Expand Your Plant Palette

Step 1: Growing Conditions

Each plant requires specific conditions to thrive, so you must understand your growing conditions before you start choosing plants. Often your design will be subdivided into discrete planting areas with different environmental conditions. Start by documenting at least the most basic environmental conditions for each area:

  1. Hardiness zone
  2. Exposure
  3. Water use

Some projects may also require more in-depth consideration of factors such as reflected heat, extensive heavy clay, highly saline soils, potential foot traffic, etc.

And don’t forget: it is the height of embarrassing to specify invasive plants, so make sure to avoid plants categorized as noxious or invasive in your project area!


Step 2: Aesthetics

Now it’s time for the fun part!

Before you select even one plant, refresh yourself on your project’s design concept. Harken back to the fundamentals of your design and consider how the planting should work to promote the concept, style, forms and focal points you have created.

Plant Selections Varies Greatly with Design Style

Is your design rustic? Tropical? Modern? No matter where your project is located, the texture, scale, density, and variety of plants you select can make all the difference in achieving your design aesthetic. Ask design questions such as: What should the scale of the plants be in relationship to people and other elements such as the architecture? How dense should the planting be to achieve your style? How complex should the palette be?

Make simple statements in answer to your design questions, and use these to then flesh out your criteria in increasing detail.

Looking at example imagery can be highly useful in this phase!

Example of plant imagery board.

Let Pinterest be your guide, and make note in each image of how the aesthetic is achieved using plants as design elements.

Now focus on your individual planting areas. Use sketches in perspective view and bubble diagrams in plan view to create the bones of a planting design that reflect your design statements. Create your design as if you were blocking out a painting; thinking not about specific plants, but about what elements would make the most beautiful composition. 3D models are extremely helpful in this process, if your perspective-sketching skills are as tragic as mine!


Sketches to determine aesthetic criteria.

Your sketches don’t have to be pretty or time consuming! But they are an invaluable way to visualize your planting design in concept before choosing plants.

Step 3: Pick Some Plants – Finally

By this point you have created a (possibly extensive) list of environmental and aesthetic criteria that you can use as a guide when selecting plants. If you like plant selection the old-fashioned way, you can download our spreadsheet template to help document your criteria/plants, and build a plant list from your library of books, catalogs, and websites.

Example Plant Criteria Spreadsheet

But wait! Fortunately designers are increasingly able to put aside the manually created spreadsheet and pile of books for a more efficient process! Planting designers can now turn to the ever-useful internet and tools such as The Plantium that feature faceted searching and list building capabilities to make quick work of compiling your plant list using all the criteria you identified.


Planitum Search Page

Online programs like The Plantium make searching for plants using your criteria a cinch, and even let you create and evaluate plant lists automatically.


Step 4: OWN that Planting Design

No more “shrubbing it up,” and no more feeling less than confident about a design that is being presented to a client or (even worse!) about to be put in the ground. Use the tips above to make every planting design a great one, starting with great plant selection!


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