University of Illinois Extension
Selecting Dominant Plants for Each Season - Perennial Placement - Stepping Stones to Perennial Garden Design - University of Illinois Extension

Select Dominant Plants for Each Season

How do you even begin to place plants in your garden design? There are too many details to coordinate. Yes, there are many things to consider, but your detailed seasonal lists have all the necessary information. Select plants that will dominate the garden for each season. Depending on the size of your garden, this could be only one per season, or as many as three or four. These plants will be placed first on your drawing. For example, you choose Peony (Paeonia sp.) for spring, Black-eyed Susan (Rubdeckia) for summer and Porcupine Grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus') for fall. Place them throughout your drawing. Don't place all the spring bloomers on one side and all the fall bloomers on the other - remember balance. Scatter them evenly throughout, taking into consideration their mature size. See Example B.

Diagram of bed layout
Example B

Select a second dominant plant for each season and place them throughout the design, again taking into consideration, size, flower color, flower type, texture and foliage color. See example C. By doing this, you are insuring the continuation of visual interest throughout the year. Something will be in bloom at all times. Some people find it easier to design using color pencils to represent each season.

Diagram of bed layout
Example C

After placing your chosen dominant plants, choose secondary plants or filler plants. Here you can start to play with color combinations to create high visual interest. To help blend the garden, repeat plantings. If you have Corepsis verticillata on one end, why not create a visual connection with another part of the garden by planting it elsewhere. If something doesn't turn out the way you like, erase and try a different arrangement. You may not use all your chosen plants. That's fine. You will have this detailed information for when you plant another bed or add on to this one.

Diagram of bed layout
Accent Plants

Many design books tell you to plant in groups of three, five or seven - odd numbers. You will have a better display and it is easier to maneuver placement with three plants than to find that perfect spot for only one. A general rule of thumb is to use even numbers if your garden is formal (this enhances the symmetry) and use odd numbers for informal gardens. Planting only one of a particular plant is fine! If you have the space and want more of a visual impact, plant more.

Are you following the scale? If a plant is two feet wide and your grid is one-inch-equals-one-foot then that plant would need a two-inch by two-inch area on your drawing. Allow for the mature size. One large Hosta can eventually take up a three foot X three foot, or a nine square foot area. It would take approximately seven Delphiniums to fill the same space. This is where your scale drawing can determine how many plants to purchase so you avoid over- or under-buying.

Is the garden size adequate? This is the time to make adjustments. Don't force the plants to fit into your drawing. Expand or reduce your bed size, making sure to adjust the design outdoors. Erasers are wonderful things!


Example D (Click on icons to see a photo of the selected plant. For a complete list of the plants included in this design, please download the final design plan.)

Example D is the finished drawing. All the plants are drawn in according to their mature spread and placed in the bed according to their mature size. You have chosen plants that are pleasing to you and guarantee a seasonal flow of interest. Congratulations!

He who plants a garden, plants happiness.
-- Chinese Proverb