Landscape Design 101: Choosing the Right Plants

Meredith Gaines — Apr 11, 2022

Now, for the fun part – shopping! When picking out plants, it's very easy to get carried away or overwhelmed by all the options out there. Of course, you want to narrow down your search according to your growing zone, but as we’ve discussed previously, there’s always more to consider when placing plants into your landscape. Together, we’ll create a game plan to help you correctly choose, sort, and shop for your landscape plants so that they’ll thrive!

Shop Smart

If you’re like us, you could spend all day long online or in a store looking at all the beautiful plants and wanting to bring every one of them home! However, not all plants will thrive in the same location, and there’s only so much space in your landscape. For now, focus on shopping smart and not getting lost in all your options.

The first step to shopping smart is planning ahead. Find out your needs and then try to meet them. If you have your preliminary design or a list of preferred plants, pull those notes out and do a little bit of review. Make a list of the types of spaces you have to fill and leave room to write possible plants beneath each category. See our example below:

Deep Shade and Dry Soil

Full Sun and Wet Soil

Full Sun and Dry Soil

List possible plants here

List possible plants here

List possible plants here

Right Plant, Right Place

When choosing plants, it's important to consider the benefit they bring to your yard, but in order to bring any sort of benefit, they have to survive. If you place a plant in the wrong location where the needs are not being met, it will only be an uphill battle. An unhappy plant is an unhealthy one that will be prone to diseases and pests, or exhibit slow or little growth with limited flowering and fruiting. It’s best to work with the environment you have instead of creating a new one just to fit in a certain plant where you want it. Try to be flexible, and if you have to have a certain plant in your landscape, find the ideal spot and start from there instead of the other way around.

When looking at a possible plant, start by reading about its specific needs. Information that you’ll want to pay attention to is the plant’s ideal growing zone, sun requirements, water needs, and mature height and width. There might be other information included, as well, so read the plant’s tag carefully to determine if it’s well suited for your yard. Then, make a list of possible plants as you go, jotting down their needs beside them to save yourself some time.

Example: White Kousa Dogwood Tree

  • 15-25 ft. tall by 25 ft. wide
  • full to partial shade
  • evenly moist soil
  • red leaves in fall
  • white flowers in early spring

Sorting Plants

Once you know the areas you want to fill and have considered what plants to use, sorting your plants by their needs is the next step. And after you’ve gathered the basic care information, the best way to sort your plants is by water needs first, then sun needs second. It might sound odd to put water needs before sunlight requirements, but this is the most beneficial way of organizing your possible plants.

For example, you wouldn’t want to put a succulent next to a variety that will require a lot of water like a hydrangea, or you’ll forever be struggling to find balance. Instead, look at how much water your plants prefer, and if they have similar requirements, know that those plants would be great together. Next, look at the sunlight requirements and further sort them into the areas you have to fill. Refer to the notes you made in the “Shop Smart” section above to help.

Color, Shape, Texture, and Height

Don’t feel limited to one kind of plant in one area. Get creative and branch out into different plant families to mix and match. Choosing a variety of shapes, colors, textures, and heights can add dimension and interest to your area to draw you in and bring the design to life.

Color

Color is an easy way to add interest or simplicity to your design. Choose your favorite colors or build off of a color scheme. Whatever you choose, have fun with it! Pick colors opposite from one another to add contrast or neighboring colors to add harmony and a feeling of cohesiveness.

FGT Tip: Don’t forget that plants change with the seasons, so make note of fall colors too when you’re considering plants to add!

color wheel

Shape

Every plant will have a natural shape or form that they grow into. Even pruned trees will naturally prefer one shape over another. Take a look at the natural shape and see if it fits your landscape’s theme. Some tree canopies are less defined than others, but all have a general shape. For more formal designs, go with columnar or vase shapes. Or go for a more natural look with layered or rounded shapes. Even smaller plants like grass will tend to have a more natural shape compared to a rose bush. Below are some common canopy shapes you’ll find.

types of tree canopies

Texture

Texture adds that extra bit of appeal to your landscape that’s often hard to name. In the landscape world, texture often refers to a plants’ leaves. Coarsely textured plants will have broader, larger leaves, while fine-textured plants have more delicate, thinner leaves. And when talking about grass, coarse grass will have thicker blades, while fine-textured grass has thinner blades. Layering textures is an easy way to add depth and dimension, along with different colors and shapes. Avoid using only one texture, as this can cause your landscape to look flat and less appealing.

textured foliage

Height

Adding varying heights in a garden bed creates movement and sets the tone. If your planting area is deep enough, try a few layers with taller plants in back and shorter ones in front. Play with the different layers to create a focal point and draw the eye upwards. Try not to go from one extreme height to another, as this can look harsh. Even if you only have three rows in your garden, be sure to gradually increase the heights from front to back. Lastly, don’t feel like everything in a certain row has to be the same height–vary the height range within the row to maintain an organic look.

height variations in landscape

Overall, keep it simple! Focus on a few colors, heights and textures, and repeat them in your landscape as you see fit. Adding too many colors without an overarching theme or sense of cohesiveness will end up looking a bit busy like the landscape example below.

busy looking landscape

Helpful Tools

Landscaping can be difficult, even with a plan to follow, so if you find yourself stuck or unsure where to start, here’s some tools to help you out!

  • FGT Plant Finder: Not sure where to begin? Our quick and easy Plant Finder can lend a hand! Answer a few simple questions about the area you’re shopping for, and we’ll provide our best plant recommendations.
  • FGT Yard Planner: You can also use our Yard Planner tool to create customized lists based on your landscape. Simply log in and choose the “My FGT Yard Planner” option in the left hand menu. This allows you to organize your yard into different helpful lists.
  • Extension Websites: If you need some specific or native plant recommendations, look no further than your local extension office. Extension offices are located in every county and state. They’re tied to the local land-grant university and have experts to answer questions specific to your location. Search your local extension office contact information or look online, as most have great resources available already.

Now that you have some strategy to your shopping, take what you’ve learned and give it a go! Choosing and sorting plants according to their needs, and keeping things like color, shape, texture, and height in mind will go a long way for your landscape. And planning ahead and choosing the right varieties for your space doesn’t have to be hard–a little prep work now will pay off for both your plants and for you. Happy shopping!

Don't forget to download and print our Plant Selection Worksheet to help pick your plants and determine where they'll go and what care they'll need.

Plus, view the rest of our Landscape Design 101 course to keep learning and transform your landscape! And be sure to check out our wide selection of trees and shrubs to meet all your shopping needs.

    Meredith Gaines

    Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

    She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

    Questions? Contact Meredith at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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