September 2003
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Garden design using shade plants and shade trees   

Gardening Newsletter - September 2003, Issue 13

This newsletter is a little unusual in that it is comprised of one article.  However, the subject of this article, architecture in the landscape, is so important as to warrant this level of attention.  In it you will learn some of the considerations I make when creating a custom design for a customer.

Rebecca Green

Quote of the Month

What a man needs in gardening is a cast-iron back with a hinge in it. C.D. Warner

Architecture in the Garden

It is an unfortunate reality in our society that most people think of the landscape around their home as an embellishment that is added on once everything pertaining to the structure of the home is complete. The typical homeowner plants some shrubs to hide the foundation of the house. Perhaps he or she will have a small flower garden. Most of the yard is lawn. A fence might be put up for privacy. This is the stereotypical American landscape.

However, with a little thought and planning the home landscape can be so much more. It can have areas for different outdoor activities, such as: entertaining, children’s play, swimming, and gardening. It can shield your home from strong winds or hot sun. It can provide privacy. It can feel cozy and secluded, or it can be open and take advantage of great distant views. Before you select the plants you want to include in your landscape you need to define what you need and want from your landscape.

In order to develop a plan that will turn your wish list into reality you need to think in three dimensions. Your yard has three planes: the ground plane, the vertical plane, and the overhead plane. You can think of these three planes as the floor, walls, and ceiling of a house. The structures and elements that occupy these three planes define spaces in your landscape. For example, a meadow is one large open space. However, as you plant trees and shrubs, and build walls, steps and paths the once large open space is partitioned into numerous smaller spaces. As such, designing a landscape is similar to designing a house.

The ground plane is just what you would think it to be: the ground. It may be flat or on a grade. Despite popular belief, your ground need not be a uniform blanket of grass. By using different types of groundcover plants, paving materials, and mulch you can begin to subtly define spaces in your landscape. For example, a children’s play area may be mulched, an entertaining area might be paved, a sitting garden may have groundcover. Where one type of groundcover or paving material ends and another begins implies a spatial edge, i.e., the end of one space or room and the beginning of another.

The vertical plane includes walls and plants of various heights. Just as walls divide the rooms of a house, walls or implied walls define your garden rooms. They create a sense of enclosure, which is key to defining spaces or rooms in your garden.

The height and density of the elements in the vertical plane, whether they are plants or man made walls, varies the degree of enclosure. Tree trunks can create the illusion of columns. A tall hedge or dense planting of trees can create a very private enclosed space. On the other hand a short hedge, while still creating a feeling of enclosure, also allows for a feeling of openness.

Foliage influences the degree of enclosure too. The larger the leaves and the more closely together they are the more enclosed the space will seem. Small leaves on a tree with an open habit, such as on honey locust, create an effect similar to that of a shear curtain. Of course the amount of enclosure provided by a deciduous tree (a tree that looses its leaves) is far less in the winter.

The figure below illustrates the concept of garden rooms with plants defining the vertical planes. Openings in the plantings act as doors from one room to the next. Large plants are used to block views, while small ones are used to define areas while keeping the sense of openness.

The overhead plane is equivalent to the ceiling or roof in a house. It also limits the height of the vertical plane. A group of maple trees may stand fifty feet tall. However, when you are standing beneath them the vertical plane is only as high as the lowest branch. The closer the trees are together the greater the sense of enclosure. Again the size and density of the foliage also influences the degree of enclosure, as it did in the vertical plane.

Being a plant lover, I tend to use plants rather than structural materials to define the floors, walls, and ceilings of the landscapes I design. Using plants in this manner is said to be architectural. Once I know the requirements of the landscape and the type of spaces that are needed to meet those requirements, only then can I select the plants to be used. The following are some examples of types of spaces that can be created using plants.

Open space

A low hedge or ground cover is used to define the edges of an open space. At eye level the space is open in every direction.

Semiopen space

A semiopen space is enclosed on one or more sides. It is ideal when you want to block the view on one side but keep the view on another side.

Canopied space

A canopied space is enclosed overhead but open on the sides. It tends to be shady, as no direct light can reach the space beneath the trees. The only light this area receives is the filtered light through the leaves and the indirect light from the sides. Unlike an open space, the canopy of the trees limits the vertical element of this space. Clearing the underbrush from a forest can create this type of space.

Enclosed canopied space

An enclosed canopied space is typical of a woodland setting. It is created by small trees and shrubs growing beneath large trees that provide an overhead. Unlike the canopied space, the small trees and shrubs growing beneath the large trees limit the amount of light that enters through the sides.

Vertical space

A vertical space is created using tall, narrow plants. The effect can be similar to that of a gothic cathedral.

Another architectural use of plants is to connect separate elements in the landscape. The picture below illustrates this idea. A planting of trees and shrubs connect the three separate structures, providing a unifying effect.

Sometimes a building or wall may partially enclose an area. Plants can be used to complete the enclosure, as illustrated below.

The ideas presented here are just the beginning. A little imagination and planning is all that is needed to create an attractive landscape that goes way beyond the typically foundation planting. By using plants in architectural ways you can create a lush and practical landscape the whole family will enjoy.

That's all for now. If you have any comments or questions on the newsletter, please email us at


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