Garden Designers Round Table Post: ‘Top Landscape Plants’

| April 26, 2011 | 24 Comments


Black bamboo!’

Rupert de Havilland (obviously not his real name) physically shuddered and moved swiftly on as though such a thing were best forgot. He would certainly not be using that in his next design.

But, I have an elephantine memory.

And five years ago Rupert was saying ‘Rob, positively my favourite bamboo – I put one in all my gardens.

Is this the basis on which we should really choose plants for our clients?

We could bang down a list for you of plants we like quick enough.


Fastigiate hornbeams would almost certainly be there


For an evergreen, Prunus lusitanica is hard to beat

Robert loves herbaceous plants


Lesley has a real thing about Erigeron ‘Profusion’.

But none of these are really the answer here.

Our top landscape plants must be whatever the next project needs. Whatever the garden, the landscape context, the client’s tastes demand.

Anything else is our personal taste and its widespread acceptance is fashion.

This leads to inappropriate use of plants or, in the design fraternity, to the use of all the usual suspects.

Plants are tools. Using them is a question of massing, line and context.  Like any tool their present and future role must be understood, their demands known and their original geographic provenance which will prove how relevant they are to their projected use.

But to do this successfully requires knowledge and training. Let us call it plantsmanship. Only with this can you really select options. And even then your options must be site specific and satisfy your client.

Therefore your repertoire needs to be wide.

This is a plus for us since plants are one of our key strengths.

It is also a plus in other ways. Variety is after all  the spice of life and so there is always a freshness in our use of plants. We keep our nursery guys and gals on their toes with our requests. And it avoids ‘the look syndrome’ – the plants for which you become known.

Clients also like to have something different as well as something they have seen before.

So rather than having top landscape plants why not be a top selector!

Lesley and Robert

Now click on the following links to see what some of our Round Table colleagues in the States have to say on the matter:

Nan Ondra : Hayefield : Bucks County, PA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

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Category: Design Bites, General

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  1. Ferdi Nel says:

    I agree 100% with you. Even though it is sometimes difficult not to go with your personal preferences, and to plant what the landscape really needs.

  2. Robert says:

    Dear Ferdi Nel,
    From our point of view you put yourself in the clients place and absorbing what satisfies them use yourself and your knowledge as the conduit. Of course if you don’t get any vibe you have to fill in, but its always site specific. And the sites are so varied.
    Thanks for your comment.

  3. […] Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK […]

  4. A top selector, I like that! I know that plantsmanship is one of the most important things I bring to the table. Thanks!

  5. […] Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK […]

  6. Robert says:

    Dear Laura,
    The problem is that there are a lot of designers out there thinking formulaicaly. But gardens are not formulas!
    I was at college with one guy who was AIMING to know 100 plants! Imagine that!
    I am sure that all us GDRT – ers are top selectors!
    Love your work and plantsmanship certainly sings out for me in it.

  7. Ivette Soler says:

    YES!!! Plantsmanship! Diversity of plant choices from project to project! I could NOT agree more.
    For years I worked as horticultural consultant to a designer whose goal it was to narrow her plant palette down to an identifiable “look”, a style. We were forever at odds about this – I think like you do! I no longer work with this designer, but I must say, her desire for an identifiable look works for her – she has huge amounts of press because her gardens look like HER gardens.

    I think the gardens we make should look like our clients gardens. Thank you for this post!

  8. Robert says:

    yes you make the point more definitely; their gardens and our gardens. I think even if they don’t know plants, at the end they should feel like the ones chosen were right for them!
    Glad you agree.
    Always respect your combination of design and planting.

  9. Nan Ondra says:

    You raise some great points, Robert. You are fortunate to have clients that appreciate the long-term value of having designs created specifically for their site. Like Ivette, I’ve worked with designers who use the same plants and combinations over and over, no matter whether the site has sun or shade, moist or dry soil. The homeowners always seemed thrilled at planting time, I suppose because they fell in love with those plants in the designers’ display gardens and looked forward to enjoying them in their own landscape. But I always wondered how thrilled they were after the first few years, when those plants didn’t perform the same in their growing conditions. They may as well have copied a plan out of a book or magazine, instead of paying for the plantsmanship one would hope for in a professional designer. I can certainly understand wanting to use plants that have been proven performers in your area, but not to the point of imposing plants on sites where they’re not suited just to create a certain “look.”

  10. Pam/Digging says:

    Excellent point, Robert and Lesley. I was looking forward to seeing your faves and a little eye candy from England, but yours is also a good response to the topic.

  11. Very thoughtful, as always. I think there’s a fine line between becoming complacent/predictable and indulging in TOO much experimentation in a client’s garden. Around ten years ago when I was quite new, an experienced designer told me she tried to use five new plants in every design. Now five is a rather arbitrary number – that could represent a lot of risk or a little depending on the scope of the project and your comfort with the cultural conditions, but I’ve taken the general idea to heart. Give the client the benefit of my experience of tough performers and reliable combinations, while stretching myself to add new ideas specifically to fulfill THEIR garden vision and give them a few “everyone always asks about BLANK plant!” moments.

  12. Robert says:

    Dear Nan,
    thanks for your comment!
    I guess Lesley and I are trained gardeners before being garden designers and not considering the site and conditions is just not something we would do.
    I sometimes think that celebrity and magazines are a little responsible for the site not being considered.
    People want the latest Tom Suart Smith look etc.
    One of the Chelsea designers last year sold chelsea collections of the varieties of plants he had used in his exhibit through a major store and they flew off the shelves.
    I think the specificity of our planting is one of the key things which we as planty GDRT designers can and should offer!

  13. Robert says:

    Oops! Glad we have got away with it. But aware that little short on sumptuous piccies front! Somehow without the site and the client it seems pig in a poke! Could have listed plants on the last planting design we have done, which I am quite excited about and will post about in due course. Thought the rest of the posts were fab tho – such great plantsmanship and sense of colour!
    Thanks for your comments.

  14. Robert says:

    Dear Susan,
    Thanks so much for commenting. You are completely right about it being a fine line. It is throughout. I think you pick up quite quickly the clients level of knowledge and ability to care for the plants and then it is almost you are right a balancing act: tough, fun, new, old kinda balancing act. But that balancing act is exactly what we can as designers do to perfection.
    Best Wishes

  15. debsgarden says:

    I appreciate your approach very much. Each garden should be as individual as its owner. As an untrained gardener, happily doing her own thing, I was somewhat surprised, when I came out into the gardening world and took a look around, to discover there were trends and fashions and rules! It was almost enough to make me go scurrying back to my own little plot, but really it just opened up possibilities – many of which I ignore.

  16. Nice take on this month’s topic, Robert! “the look syndrome” – very funny! It’s something I strive to avoid at all costs. I would cringe if I heard someone say that about my gardens!! Part of the challenge of coming up with a design is drawing out a client’s true wishes. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not, but if I can find out what they really, really desire then choosing the right plants becomes much easier.

  17. Robert says:

    Glad you think we hit the right note!
    I think the trends and fashions can be taken advantage of as ideas if they suit you and your garden – but its quite a big if!
    Thanks for your comment.
    Great to hear from you.

  18. Robert says:

    Yes, yes, yes, its the client’s garden. I put myself in their shoes with my knowledge.
    Love your work and there is nothing as defined as a look, so don’t worry!
    Thanks so much for your comment.

  19. Thank you, thank you, thank you! PLANTS ARE TOOLS. I often comment to my gardeny friends that ‘I hate plants’ which is totally not true, but then the conversation can turn towards the why rather than the what. Of course I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t actually love to use plants as much as a painter loves paint. For me they are a means to communicate, mitigate and solve design problems. I can lust over plants that I can’t use or am not familiar with, but until they can do the work…you know what I mean.

  20. Robert says:

    Yes, I do see. Surely we both just think that the design comes first and then the plants as part of the range of tools. And we respect all the tools and should know how to use all of them?

    Thanks for your comment

  21. Genevieve says:

    Robert, thanks so much for your awesome statement. YES, it is so true. Since I got my start as a maintenance gardener, I came to this realization from the total opposite side, of thinking of plants as primary. But even as a maintenance gardener, I saw that hardscape, paths, and the features of a landscape were what made it truly “pop” and be a pleasure to use.

  22. Robert says:

    I think you start with the structure and then the structural planting and then anything can make it ‘pop’, as you wonderfully call it, but you can’t really do anything well until you have the foundation well laid.
    Thanks very much for your comment.

  23. […] Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK […]