Jonathan Garner takes a plant-based approach.After 11 articles, we’re finally pulling ourselves out of the ground and ready to focus on what grows from the healthy ecology we’ve encouraged, nurtured, and in many cases, created. Don’t lose sight of the fact that, in many projects, we commence work with a challenged or very troubled ecology. The building designer, the landscape designer, the builder, the client and the surrounding community have us landscape and horticultural professionals to thank for bringing the many facets of the construction project into a finished package. In some cases, we’ve kickstarted mining, industrial and other unsavoury sites back to a foundation that nature can build upon. In others, we’ve planted treasures that might not be truly appreciated for a generation or three! Our role in the development of healthy environments, healthy communities and healthy people shouldn’t be understated or forgotten.
Enough back patting. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the green stuff.
Without a healthy soil profile, we can’t grow decent plants. If we can’t grow decent plants we risk not being paid. We’ll chat about what goes on inside plants in a few months’ time. Right now, let’s discuss plant selection.
In many circumstances, there’s a landscape architect or designer telling us what to plant where. They have a vision of their design intent. They’ve provided a plant schedule. They’re possibly earning that lovely margin by providing the plants.
These engagements can often make me feel uneasy. Who takes responsibility for potentially inappropriate plants failing? Naturally, one would think this should fall on the specifier’s shoulders. Often, it doesn’t.
You could have provided the best soil profile, planted to exact standards, obtained the plant from the best grower and implemented an effective watering regime. Everything’s done right, but if it’s specified for the wrong spot and it fails, then who pays for the replacement? During these forms of engagements, make sure exactly who is responsible for replacements prior to embarking on the project.
Another circumstance is where the client specifies and supplies the plant material. Again, make sure who is responsible for replacements prior to the work.
The final approach is where you’re engaged to specify and supply the plants required to fulfill the various needs to achieve the design intent. Now we scratch our heads with what to plant where. When it comes to plant selection, experience pays dividends. If you’re new to the game, or struggling to come up with some ideas, then consider approaching it in a manner I learned when studying in England.
Right plant. Right place
We’ve all heard the phrase, but what’s an effective way to determine the right plant for the right place?
The trick is to break it down into an organised process of four factors: function; appearance or aesthetic; plant adaptability and management. The priorities of these factors will differ with each job or application. Restrictions of plant choices might depend on the client’s tastes, site-specific issues, and in many cases, availability of the plants.
A quick reminder to armchair designers. There’s no point suggesting plants if they’re not available.
A closer look
Let’s tease the four factors apart.
Function basically relates to why we’re using the plant or what we actually want from it. In other words, its purpose within the landscape or garden. Function guides the type of plant we need for the application. Is it to screen something? Is it to provide shade? Is it to look pretty or provide cut flowers for the house? Is it to stabilise a bank? Dry up a wet area? Function also covers three important facets of the landscape: architectural, engineering and environmental. Let’s dive into these three when we talk about designing with plants later in the year.
Once I’ve identified what function the plant is to serve, I’ll write out a list of worthy plants for that application.
My next step is to consider the appearance or aesthetic of what’s on my list.
At this point I need to carefully consider the plant type and size of the area I’m working in. Anything I plant will take up space both above and below ground. To ensure the plants are going to perform well, I need to consider available soil volume for the root system to exploit and the size of the available space above ground. So even if I’m trying to select a shade tree, there’s no point in choosing a broad one like a Jacaranda when I only have several metres of open space to grow it in. Another angle within aesthetics is to consider whether your plant choices will marry with the garden style you’re working in. Let’s say the style is tropical and I’m looking for a tall plant to screen the pool from the neighbours. Although there are several worthwhile conifers that would do the job, they’re not going to look suitable for the style of the garden. Conversely, if we’re looking for a plant to screen in a formal European style, a non-invasive bamboo would hardly tick the box. Aesthetic qualities also include the overall shape of the plant, its foliage, flowers, fruit, bark and how it will look in combination with the other plants under consideration.
Once we’ve determined the aesthetic qualities we’re looking for, the next consideration is to determine adaptability. In other words, whether or not the plant will truly perform in the location. Factors relating to site adaptability, such as soil availability, exposure to excess sunlight, too much shade, salt spray, temperature, radiant heat, strong winds, frost, cold winds, tolerance to pest and disease, root competition, soil Ph, texture and drainage will define whether the selections made for aesthetic reasons will truly deliver on expectations. ‘Don’t fight the site’ is a simple phrase that sums up adaptability.
Naturally maintenance practices will contribute to a plant’s overall appeal and budget. If we don’t keep up with providing the resources for what each plant needs, the visual and physical quality of the garden will begin to suffer or possibly fail.
At this point, the designer and the client need to be realistic with how much maintenance they’re prepared to commit to. I’ve lost count of the number of broad-acre landscapes and estates designed and built without a thorough understanding of the true ongoing costs to manage the projects.
Pruning, weeding, tidying, mulching, mowing, feeding, lifting and dividing all require resources and consideration at the time of selection. If you’re unsure of the maintenance requirements of plants, contact or engage an experienced horticulturist to provide you with this precious information.
Although the ongoing maintenance is often disregarded as the expense is spread out, it does have an effect on achieving the design intent. When you provide the client with maintenance requirements and associated costs for the specified plants, you’re adding a level of value that will likely go beyond your competition.
Once you’ve filled out the four elements required for the plant and feel you’re still stuck for inspiration, visit some retail nurseries or take a walk around the district of the particular project. Put yourself in the mindset of choosing plants and the suitable options will present themselves.