Garden design is far more than just choosing appropriate plants for the site and properly spacing them in well-prepared soil. It’s about creating an energy or mood that makes the owner or visitor feel comfortable and connected to the surroundings. As a garden designer, one way I do this is by selecting plants for their personality rather than just by whether they grow in sun or shade. I consider the demeanor that is portrayed through their weepy forms or jagged leaves. By looking at plants in terms of the personalities they convey, you can match them with how you want to feel in your outdoor spaces. For example, you might want to feel relaxed and unpretentious in your bedroom garden but upbeat and energized in your more-social backyard.
Identifying how you want to feel in the garden and personalizing that feeling is critical because what can set a specific mood for one person may evoke a different mood in someone else. A cool, soothing space might be a green lawn for one person and the understory of a large tree for another. The most effective use of plant personalities triggers personal associations and gives that “warm and fuzzy” feeling.
Just as what can trigger different garden moods varies from person to person, so does how we interpret and define plant personalities. If you look closely, however, you can pinpoint traits that make up a personality or desired effect. Certain characteristics, like a stiff posture, subtle fragrance, or colorful exterior, can clue you into the personality of a plant. Once you begin to recognize these markers, you can choose plants that have a personality that is calm, lively, or anything in between. Let’s take a look at five personalities that I regularly use to set a mood and personalize garden spaces.
To learn more
The links below will take you to pages in Fine Gardening ‘s Plant Guide , where you can learn more about many of the plants recommended in this article.
Relaxed plants are a welcome addition to private spaces
For many gardeners, their space is a place to escape to and unwind. One of the best ways to heighten this feeling is with the introduction of “relaxed” plants, those with a loose, graceful presentation and that are not fussy or terribly detailed. They like to remind us to put the pruners down or close the laptop and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. The best relaxed plants require low maintenance so that we don’t feel like we have to get up and do something every time we look at them.
Relaxed plants typically feature arching stems and an open, branching structure. Their leaves are often smooth or formed into simple shapes with sleek edges, which are part of an overall downward pattern that leads to the ground and reminds us to come down and rest. They do not display sharp or arresting color variations. It’s always a bonus if their flowers release a fragrance that provides an aromatherapeutic effect. A mix of mainly relaxed plants is often a welcome addition to private gardens near a bedroom, study, or dining room.
Relaxed plants to consider
Brunneras ( Brunnera macrophylla and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–7)
Japanese forest grasses ( Hakonechloa macra cvs., Z 5–9)
Calla lilies ( Zantedeschia spp. and cvs., Z 8–11)
Lilyturfs ( Liriope spp. and cvs., Z 6–10)
Herbaceous peonies ( Paeonia spp. and cvs., Z 3–8)
Pigsqueaks ( Bergenia spp. and cvs., Z 3–9)
Hostas ( Hosta spp. and cvs., Z 3–9)
Siberian cypress ( Microbiota decussata , Z 3–7)
Charismatic plants are the perfect garden greeters
Charismatic plants add punch to the garden with their robust, striking habits that surge upward from the earth. They command attention and exude a hearty zest for life. Their habit is not completely rigid; it is, instead, flexible and willing to dance with a gust of wind. Their leaf forms and colors can be quite varied but should always stimulate the eye. The blooms of these gems are bright and face outward; they look directly at you as if to say, “Come and play with me!” Charismatics make the perfect garden greeters at the entry points of your house or outdoor spaces. They are the icing on the cake in areas frequented by children, and they bring a lively energy to pool patios or other social settings, especially if you can use them in masses.