Although I often tell homeowners “you don’t need to know why you like a certain design, it’s ok to just like it,” the reason you like any design is usually because it has a good balance in basic design principles. In my 16+ years of landscape design experience, I’ve developed specific design philosophies related to each of the many aspects of landscape architecture — hardscapes, lighting, furnishing, water features and others. Today, I want to share with you my guiding perspective on plants.

Although often thought of as the easy part of landscape architecture, planting design can be very complex. Plants are distinct from the other tools a landscape architect uses — pavers, stone, etc. — because they’re always changing, both in size and by season.

In my landscape designs, I follow a few primary planting principles, leaning heavily on a few favorites along the way.


It might seem obvious, but for me, color is the most important part of a planting design. You get color from many parts of a plant such as its blooms, leaves, stems and branches. Color also changes depending on conditions such as light and shadow. I use color intentionally to evoke a certain mood, using calming blues and deep greens for relaxation, or perhaps fiery reds and oranges to add excitement and drama. In most landscapes, I use a combination of colors to balance the emotion and keep a level of interest all year round (more on that below!).



Texture often goes unnoticed, but I believe it’s essential to making a mediocre design outstanding. By combining textures, I can balance the mood of a space, much like with color. I pair large, loose forms such as Hydrangeas with smooth, fine textures from plants such as Arborvitae or Boxwood. When it comes to texture, it’s not just about the overall feel of a plant, but the individual elements in a plant’s leaves, stems and branches. For example, I can accentuate the exfoliating bark of a River Birch or Paperbark Maple by pairing it with the smooth lines of an ornamental grass or Hosta. The pairing highlights the features of both and balances the design.



Plant shapes (or what I call “forms”) can serve many roles within a landscape. When choosing plants, I usually start by looking at the architecture of adjacent buildings and the tastes of the owner to determine a theme. Manicured hedges and smooth, flat lawn areas can give an ordered, formal feeling to a space, while loose, natural-shaped plants and organically curved bed lines have a less formal, more relaxed aesthetic. Like with most design principles, I lean toward using a blend of plant shapes for balance but designing strongly within one style can be dramatic.

Crepe Myrtles With Landscape Lighting

Seasonal Interest

The design principle to which most client requests are related is seasonal interest. Seasonal interest tends to be a culmination of the other design principles I use. Designing with seasonal interest in mind is an organic way of designing and is always at the forefront of my work. It’s easy to depend on annual plantings — Pansies, Impatiens, etc. — to add seasonal interest, but far more rewarding is to achieve interest with trees, shrubs and perennials. I often choose evergreen trees and shrubs first in my design process to anchor the space all year. Then I build a design from there, adding layers of interest through color, texture and shape.

contorted-filbert-carex-design-groupWinter Interest (Above)

contorted-filbert-carex-design-groupSummer Interest (Above)

Carex Design Group Style

I commonly am asked “What’s your design style.” Although I have many personal style preferences, including native landscape design and extremely modern aesthetics, I find it difficult to say I have a favorite for my designs. I use and appreciate a multitude of styles because each includes varied uses of color, texture, shape and seasonal interest to help me create beautiful outdoor spaces. And most importantly, it’s about my client’s style preferences, not my own.

For help taking your style preferences from idea to action, give me a call at 865-765-5550 or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation.

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