Elements of Design

Rob Zimmer
Color plays an obvious role in garden design, but the more subtle shades are often overlooked. Choose foliage plants that contrast and complement and come in unusual shades to elevate your garden to the next level.



One of the most common questions I receive from gardeners and plant shoppers is for help in selecting plants that combine well together in the garden. Whether for sun or shade, or both, many gardeners assume that they have no skill or talent in combining plants. The truth is, however, most gardeners excel at this without even realizing it.

There is no right or wrong way to combine plants that you love in your garden. By selecting the plants you enjoy and working with a few simple garden design elements, you can create spectacular beauty to grace the garden all season long.


When I'm helping gardeners design combinations large or small, texture becomes more important, in many cases, than color or bloom.

There are many varieties of textures to choose from in the garden. Some plants have extremely lacy or fernlike foliage. Others have sward like foliage or blades, such as irises and grasses.

Plants like hostas often feature extremely corrugated or steer suckered foliage that is attractive year long.

Some suggestions for plants with wonderful texture in the garden include ornamental grasses, ferns, hostas, coral bells, herbs, native wildflowers and succulents,

Combining a variety of textures creates instant beauty and interest in the garden, especially when enhanced with flowers and foliage.

Foliage is just as important as flowers when it comes to designing a special place in the garden, as well as in containers.



Once you begin to pay close attention to foliage, you may just find yourself completely forgetting about blooms.

Foliage can come in a variety of different colors, forms, and patterns that last throughout the entire growing season, providing rich, lush beauty.

Examples of excellent foliage plants for the garden are coleus, elephant ears, caladium, ferns, hosta, coral bells, grasses, calla, canna, irises and many colorful shrubs and trees.


A garden wouldn't be a garden without colorful blooms to provide a parade of color throughout the seasons. Designing with color can be as simple as choosing plants in one color scheme. It may be combining a few colors together, or, it may mean an array of colorful blooms to create a rainbow of color, cottage garden style or prairie style all season long.

Annuals and perennials are available in every color of the rainbow. Find your favorites and design your dream garden.

Texture is a key element in garden design and can be found in a number of garden plants, such as ornamental grasses.


Vertical interest

Often overlooked in the garden, vertical interest is an important aspect of design. Plants that provide height in the garden draw the eye skyward, adding a new dimension to the blanket of color below.

Plants that provide vertical interest in the garden are ornamental grasses, cannas, trees and shrubs in columnar form, delphinium, hollyhocks, blazing star, sunflower, lilies and vining plants, both annual and perennial.

Seasonal characteristics

When designing your garden beds and containers, keep in mind the seasonal characteristics of plants that will define their placement throughout the season. For example, what does the plant look like once it has completed flowering? Does the foliage still provide interest for the rest of the season?

Some plants also change color throughout the season, becoming more or less vibrant, depending upon the time of year. Other plants provide interesting fruit or berries once flowering has completed that maybe even more interesting than the blossoms.

Sometimes, the seasonal characteristics of plants may come as a complete, unexpected surprise, thrilling us as gardeners as we explore and deepen our knowledge of plants.


Growth form of our plants is also important to consider when designing a garden or container. There are plants that are low growing and sprawling, or creeping. Other plants may be mounding or ball like in shape. Others are wild and airy.

In container gardening, this is often referred to as thrillers, fillers and spillers. Your thriller is your accent plant, often dominant in shape and form. Fillers are used to create a lush and fall luck. Spillers or trailers are designed to extend the beauty horizontally or vertically.

By combining plants of different growth forms together in the garden, instant beauty and interest is created.

Find Rob Zimmer online at www.robzimmeroutdoors.com. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/RobZimmerOutdoors. Listen to Outdoors with Rob Zimmer, Saturday mornings, 7-8 AM on WHBY.