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10 of the Most Common Mistakes People Make in Planting Design and How to Avoid Them

10 of the Most Common Mistakes People Make in Planting Design and How to Avoid Them

We take a closer look at 10 of the most common mistakes people make in planting design and how to avoid them. Landscape architecture is a comprehensive subject that requires a profound knowledge of multiple disciplines. History of landscape, city and regional planning, urban design, architecture, environmental science, planting design … Each of these subjects is substantial and none should be neglected. We all know that it’s almost impossible to be equally good at all disciplines – usually we’re best at two, maybe three. If you could choose which subject to become best at, which one would you select? How about planting design? Isn’t that the backbone of landscape architecture projects? Isn’t planting design the only mastery that distinguishes landscape architects from all the other professionals in the field of architecture? If you want to design high-quality projects by leaning upon the most considerable aspect and essence of landscaping – planting design — find out how to accomplish this by studying the 10 most common mistakes in planting design and the ways to avoid them:

Photo courtesy of Adam Woodruff

Photo courtesy of Adam Woodruff

1. Lack of Individual Approach We will start with the first and most crucial mistake designers tend to make – forgetting about the individual approach to each project and client. In time, professionals gain experience, which may bring not only benefits, but some obstacles as well. Subconsciously or not, having an extensive background may result in a monotonous, mechanical way of working. [contextly_sidebar id=”425027xRRPz4nfoxahGOhxzZgHLRFjea”] Strong geometry, curving, or broken lines? Which style to use in planting design depends entirely on the concept and idea you decide to express through your work. Take for example the difference between the fine, subtle planting design of Porsche Pavilion and the naturalistic planting design of Royal Bank of Canada at the London Wetland Center. There are no two identical clients or projects, so don’t forget to approach each one of them individually and consciously. How to do that? Just try not to become too proud of yourself. There is no person in the world who knows everything, so as long as you know you are not that person, educate yourself with each project. Set your bar higher and higher – this is how you will make the most of your work, hand in hand with your asset – the individual approach. 2. Ignoring the Universal Principles of Design Unity (harmony), balance, expedience, color, scale and proportion, symmetry and asymmetry, variety, rhythm, similarity and contrast, and dominance (emphasis): These are the principles of design that are well known but often disregarded, especially in planting design.
An incredible green wall display; credit: Patrick Blanc

An incredible green wall display; credit: Patrick Blanc

However, there are world-famous names in planting design whose work can only be admired and used as inspiration by other landscape architects. Think of Paul Thompson, who stands behind the bold planting design of The Australian Garden; Thomas Rainer; or Patrick Blanc, who is famous for his marvelous vertical gardens. Do they apply the universal design principles? What do you think? So how to avoid ignoring the principles? Think of the final result. Identify your idol in planting design and study his work. Make a list of the principles and add or remove some of your own, until you find what works best for you. WATCH: Landscape & Garden Design Principles


3. Overlooking Scale and Proportions Every professional landscape architect knows that he shouldn’t use the same plant list for a small private garden as for a large public park. Always consider the dimensions of the area you are about to landscape. The difficult perception is the least bad consequence, being followed by plants’ irregular growth and adjacent construction damages, which could lead to creating a dangerous area rather than a peaceful and safe landscape. How to honor the importance of scale? Visualize. Think about how the planting design will change and grow over time right from the beginning of the design process. Check out these two examples of well-proportioned vegetation:

Walk of the Town

Walk of the Town. Photo courtesy of T.R.O.P: terrains+open space

4. Ignorance of Plant Characteristics Following the line on plant development in time, it’s also important to highlight the knowledge – or, in some cases – the ignorance of plant characteristics. What height will the plants you use reach, when will they bloom, what fall colors will they have, what are their fruits, will they cause allergies? All of these questions need to be answered by the designer if he wants to deliver a high-quality, healthy, and aesthetically satisfactory planting design. How to avoid the mistake of not knowing the characteristics of the plants you use? Observe. Whenever you get the chance to visit an ornamental nursery, do so. This is the place where you can examine the variety of plants in their different stages of development. Other valuable insights on planting design can be found in this interview with Nigel Dunnett
Mixed boarder used to great effect; credit: Nigell Dunnett

Mixed border used to great effect; credit: Nigell Dunnett

5. Using Little or No Vegetation at All Yes, there are some clients who demand large traditional turf grass lawns, but it’s been widely discussed that maintaining such lawns consumes resources and time, and planning them is far from any ecological or innovative approach. So before talking incompetently to your clients, first remind yourself why we use plants at all. Are plants good for the microclimate, are they good for wildlife and biodiversity, are they good just for visual and sensory pleasure? Think about those questions next time when you are asked to design another lawn. This is how you can avoid that mistake in the future. 6. Not Planning With Forward Thinking Not thinking big is perhaps one of the biggest flaws designers have. What will the long-term consequences of your project be like? Will sustainability take place in your design? Will you consider recycling trees or will your plant selection stimulate biodiversity? How to have future-oriented thinking? The answer is right in front of you. If you are still reading this article, this means that you keep educating yourself. And as long as you are learning constantly, you make progress. This is how you think big – and you do it in each part of your work, so make sure you avoid the mistake of not doing so. 7. Using the Same List of Vegetation for Each Project As already mentioned, experienced designers often walk straight into the trap of their own background. It is much easier indeed to pick vegetation that you know will work. But this practice can ruin your reputation sooner or later, so how to avoid it? Keep educating yourself. Planting design is a limitless field of diversity, so embrace it. There is always a more appealing, more bizarre, and more exotic plant than the one you learned about yesterday, so don’t miss it. If you need more reasons to stop using the same list of plants each time, read this interview with top plantsman Adam Woodruff.
Photo courtesy of Adam Woodruff

Photo courtesy of Adam Woodruff

8. Ignoring Seasons Most of the time, designers tend to imagine the vegetation at its brightest – when in bloom and covered by dense foliage. The problem is that not all the plants in your scheme flower at the same time of the year, and most have entirely different periods of vegetation. This is where your professionalism should come out. Considering how to combine plants so that the park or the garden looks astonishing in and out of season is what can make you stand out among other landscape architects who repeat the mistake of ignoring seasons. Flowers in spring, fruits in summer, fall colors in autumn, evergreens and subtle bark beauty in winter – don’t forget to include each one. How to do that? Make diagrams for each season. This is the only certain way to make an excellent plant selection, satisfying all times of the year. WATCH: Garden Plants for Each Season


9. Not Considering the Successive Maintenance of the Vegetation Being a landscape architect, a planner, or a designer doesn’t liberate you from taking into consideration how your project will be built and maintained. A good example on that subject is to group trees with shrubs surrounding their stems. In this way, when mowing the grass, there will be no possibility of damaging the trees’ stalks in the first place and, what’s more, any shrub looks better than an uncovered part of the ground.

Image credit: Billy Goodnick |CAH FB

Image credit: Billy Goodnick |CAH FB

How to avoid that mistake? Remember that you are the person who gives instructions on how to build and maintain that project, and as an author, you bear a great responsibility. So at the end of each design process, take time to consider the plants’ maintenance. 10. Not Using the Right Plants in the Right Place Picking the wrong plants is another common mistake. Plants’ requirements on climate and weather conditions can be crucial to their development. Sun and shadow, humidity and aridity can influence significantly both the plant’s condition and appearance. Although some experimenting can do no great harm, best results and the most healthy and impressionable plants grow where their requirements are satisfied to the full. How to avoid picking the wrong plants? Explore the conditions of the area. There is a proper plant selection for every situation. In the book “Planting: A New Perspective”, the famous Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and designer and writer Dr. Noel Kingsbury share their deep knowledge of plant ecologies, explain how to group the wide range of plants, and how plants behave in different situations. – Finally, we have discussed the 10 most common mistakes people make in planting design and how to avoid them. So what is your opinion? Is there a universal formula that could save us from all of them? And if there is, what is it?

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Article by Velislava Valcheva

Return to Homepage Feature image: Photo courtesy of Adam Woodruff

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