Designing with Plants

Landscape & Plant Design

The Introduction

Design and specification of interior landscapes have become increasingly complex over the years. More choices both in plant availability (sizes and varieties) and container choices have led to far more expansive options facing designers. Expertise however, is a key factor in making the right choices as will become apparent in the following descriptions. A balance of artistic creativity and practicality needs to be made. With the right choices, the plants will be well suited to their chosen position and will perform well with relatively minimal maintenance required. This can significantly reduce maintenance costs.

Scale, form and texture of the plant, can be selected by designers with relative ease. If these were the only criteria to consider, plant selection would be relatively simple, and the demand for specialists not high. The reality, however, is complicated by the diversity and variety of the environmental characteristics required by different plant species for survival.

Some argue that “form” follows “function”, and that once the function has been identified, a selection that works to fulfill the function will automatically fulfill the aesthetic requirement. This theory has some merit, but also is somewhat limited, quality and presentation are still of paramount importance.

The starting point for many designers will begin with a theme, then move quickly on to deciding on the scale, form, and texture of planting.


This 4 meter clipped ‘crown’ Ficus Panda works well in the short pot. It is clearly visible from any direction (including the integral pot). The visual effect of putting such a plant in a tall pot would diminish as the balance would be lost.

These Phoenix Roebellini, although relatively tall at 1.8 meters work well in the tall pots. This is because they are in a space with a very high ceiling height, and are viewed by people passing through the space. The plants themselves, which are architecturally stunning, are better positioned in these pots as the plants are raised to an elevated position for ideal viewing from a standing position (total height approx 3 meters).
This last example indicates once again that exceptions can work in the right circumstances. Height is not the only factor, with respect to scale however, the width or spread of the arrangement is also an important consideration. This could be due to general appearance, or a necessity due to general circulation. Displays of bushy plants in areas of limited width or passageways are inappropriate.


Form will be considered here as a basic plant ‘habit’, and we otherwise ignore factors such as texture and scale, although in practical terms these would also have a bearing.

The examples given do not cover every kind but give a good representation of the forms that are available.

Feature plants, those that can carry themselves in a display effectively alone are normally in the 120cm plus bracket, but in a taller pot, this can be reduced to approx 60cm. This is not an exact science, more a matter of common sense, taste and application. Indications are down to interpretation and tastes differ.

The broad categories shown below have notes appropriate for the group.

Upright Feathered

Upright habit with a narrow spread, and foliage from top to bottom.
These, depending on circumstances and the variety chosen, can range from 80cm to 4-5meters plus.


Tree-shaped plants with a defined ‘clear’ trunk and crown of foliage. Some are available with ‘braided’ trunks. These would ordinarily need to be a minimum height of 120cm to get a developed ‘crown’ and are available to 4-5 meters plus (an exception would be a Bonsai).

Feathered Palms

Palms with a bushy habit and multiple stems coming from the base.
These can vary in size from 60cm to 4.5 meters, some varieties are more appropriate at either a smaller or larger size.
Some have elegant ‘arching’ fronds (adding to the spread) others are quite upright and limited in width.


Palms with a defined trunk, and head of foliage.
These can be from 1.2 meters to 8 plus meters. Some larger specimens are available as 2 or 3 trees of different heights in a single pot. Cycas, which have a similar form are available from 50cm to 2.5 meters.

Branching shrubs

Bushy branching plants with no definable ‘solitaire’ trunk.
Some can have a relatively ‘light’ branching network (such as Codieaum vars.), others can be more solidly defined (such as Dracaena Massangeana {branched)) Many branched plant varieties are also available as ‘single stem’ or ‘multi-stem types’, with an appropriate price difference.

Multi-stem plants

Plants fabricated with defined stems and “heads”, usually with 2, 3, 4 or 5 clearly identifiable stems of different lengths. (Number of stems normally connected to the overall height).

Tailing / climbing plants

Plants that trail over planter edges or climb supporting structures.
These can also fall into the Groundcover category.

Groundcover plants

Low growing spreading plants or naturally short plants used to cover the soil surface. There are numerous options, just a few shown above. Colour is available in this category, but options are limited.

Spiky plants

Plants with spiky sword-like leaves are generally more appropriate as solitaire plants or in groups of the same variety. Normally relatively short plants, from 30cm to 1 meter. (An exception would be Yucca “on canes” as a multi-stemmed plant).

Jungly plants

Plants with predominantly large foliage and an informal habit.
Normally associated with larger-leaved varieties. These are often relatively tolerant to low light conditions.
Some have very large leaves that are not supported eg ‘Anthurium Jungle King’ with individual leaves reaching 1.2 meters.


Texture will be given three basic categories which give a distinct and definable overall feel. These are fine, medium and coarse. Fine is represented by small and or finely cut or feathery foliage, medium, by medium-sized foliage and coarse by large bold foliage.

As in all other attempts at simplifying issues by categorization and ‘pigeon-holing’, there are limitations. Not all plants will conveniently fall into any one category, and there is plenty of room for interpretation and discussion as to what falls into which. Scale could also have bearing on the argument, for example, a 60cm Dracaena ‘Song of India, may be considered to have medium-sized foliage, whereas a 3-meter specimen may be considered to have fine foliage. Others cannot be disputed, but in general the idea is to raise awareness of the concept of the readers’ interpretation.