Architectural planting - GARDEN GALLERY - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Garden Gallery

Architectural planting


A tableau of textural greenery is created with a curtain of bamboo, clipped box and a leafy hydrangea set against natural stone.


SCULPTURAL LEAVES, striking stems and tightly trimmed topiary create the planting architecture within a garden. These bold evergreen and deciduous forms help to mould the design, and can be used to catch the eye, enclose a space, or add drama to wintry landscapes when the flowers of summer are long gone.

Bold ideas

Architectural plantings are dramatic and awe-inspiring. Plants that can be shaped and used to underpin the geometry of a garden have been important designers’ tools for many centuries, and the key to success is to use them sparingly and where they will have most impact; what is left out is just as important as what is included.

With a palette of small-leaved evergreen trees and shrubs, you can create architectural structures, such as hedgerows, to construct the building blocks of a garden design, as well as geometrical or abstract sculptural forms to produce distinctive focal points that draw the eye. In fact, many plants possess such versatility they can morph into shapes that would be difficult or expensive to create using any other means. Some styles rely on architectural planting to achieve the look: for example, parterre gardens are made up of Buxus sempervirens trained into intricate patterns on beds of gravel, while contemporary architectural style employs closely clipped hedges to enforce the rigour of geometry on the design. In addition, boundaries in all types of garden are often defined with yew, beech or hornbeam hedges to convey the illusion of an outdoor room, and to control the vistas within the space and of the landscape beyond.

“I often include plants that provide texture and colour in winter, such as clipped yew, box and beech, and combine these with handsome grasses, including Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, Hakonechloa macra, and Miscanthus ‘Starlight’, which offer movement and contrast beautifully with the static topiary.”


Ornamental plants are included in architectural schemes in varying degrees. Some designers eschew the use of flowering plants altogether, relying on architectural foliage plants and hard landscaping to carry the scheme. Others deploy blooms in tightly controlled ways to create bursts of colour, or they may use single colour themes, with white or pale yellow perennials, seasonal bulbs or bedding plants to reinforce the cool calmness of the space.

Clipped forms

Plants that can withstand continual and close clipping and regenerate from dormant buds when hard pruned are ideal for hedging and topiary. Box (Buxus sempervirens) is a dense-foliaged evergreen shrub frequently used for low to medium-sized hedges, while dark evergreen yew (Taxus baccata) is suitable for taller hedges and creates a wonderful foil for statuary or decorative planting. Both box and yew are also ideal for topiary forms. Deciduous trees, such as hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), and beech (Fagus sylvatica), make effective hedgerows for architectural schemes, their ridged green foliage and dead bronze leaves, which are retained in winter, providing colour and texture all year round. Their winter coats contrast beautifully with evergreen conifers, too.

Punctuation marks

Designers also use a wide spectrum of woody plants with architectural forms to punctuate their schemes. Many trees and shrubs have naturally imposing shapes that can be used to complement architectural designs, either as single focal points, or as punctuation throughout the design. Examples include hollies, Amelanchier, Viburnum rhytidophyllum and Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’ - their shapes embellished through clipping, thinning or raising the crown to reveal the stems beneath. Some shrubs, such as Ilex crenata, can be cloud-pruned, where the canopy is clipped into globes to create striking features, often seen in Asian gardens and now popular in the west. Spheres of box, either single specimens or grouped like giant green marbles, are also highly effective in contemporary designs.


Architectural trees and shrubs require a range of conditions, depending on species. Check plant labels carefully for site and soil requirements, and choose those that suit your conditions. Remember, too, that some, including rhododendrons, require acid soil.

Topiary or shaped specimens, usually crafted in box if small, or yew if taller, can be abstract or geometrical, and favoured shapes include balls, cones, chess pieces, birds and animals. Simple forms are fairly easy to train, but they require time and care. Alternatively, mature specimens of ready-formed topiary, from dinosaurs to galloping horses, are available from specialist nurseries. However, they will still need to be maintained a few times a year to retain their shapes. Trim topiary annually from late May to midsummer.

Key plants for architectural planting

Amelanchier x lamarckii; Buxus sempervirens; Carpinus betulus; Cornus species; Euonymus japonicus; Fagus sylvatica; Ilex aquifolium and I. crenata; Laurus nobilis; Lonicera nitida; Ligustrum species; Picea glauca var albertiana ‘Conica’; Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’; Pinus species; Prunus laurocerasus and P. lusitanica; Rhododendron species; Taxus baccata; Viburnum species


The sculptural lines of a mature Japanese maple are exhibited perfectly against a timber deck, creating a exciting focal point.



Erect stems of moisture-loving horsetails (Equisetum camschatense) make architectural walls around a formal pool.



Statuesque small trees can be grown in big pots, but must be kept watered and fed regularly.



Clipped and sculpted evergreen shrubs are useful counterpoints for relaxed plantings of ornamental grasses.



The interplay of clipped and architectural forms of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs provides a feast of contrasting shapes and textures.



A regiment of standard hornbeams (Carpinus betulus), clipped into cubes on plinths of evergreen box conveys a sense of formality and order.



Clipped forms provide important structure in winter when the cacophony of summer has vanished.



A large conifer is transformed by cloud-pruning, its globular shapes emphasised by spheres of box below.