6 Tips for Placing Plants

How do we place shrubs and flowers so that they look their best? Here are six options to consider as you plan your garden.


No doubt you’ve heard the advice to place short plants at the front of a border, mid-sized ones behind them, and the tallest group in the background. This makes sense, but to avoid having the border look too contrived consider mixing it up by placing the occasional loftier plant toward the front. If the garden bed is seen from all sides, tallest plants can take pride of place in the middle and serve as background for shorter and yet shorter choices in front of them.

Vary the heights of the plants within your layers to avoid straight lines unless you’re aiming for a formal look. Uniform heights can create an unnatural stairstep effect. Overlap masses of plants so that they flow together, and eliminate any open areas between groupings. Voids in the landscape draw the eye and detract from the picture you’re trying to create.



A key principle of landscape design, repetition is achieved by repeating the same color, form or texture throughout an area. You might choose the same plant or select different plants that are similar in color or form. Repetition unites a garden bed or border, and if you’re able to use it throughout your landscape, all the better.



While repetition is desirable, contrast is also key. Try to vary plant texture from one grouping to the next. Think of astilbe’s tracery fronting large-leaved hostas. Contrast in form also pleases. Picture tall spiky iris next to rounded coneflower. When you’re wondering what to place next to something you’ve just installed, think of which plants would offer the most contrast in texture and form. You might try looking at your garden with partially closed eyes, squinting. This will help you see shapes and textures and aid you in making good garden companion choices.



I indulged myself this last year by ordering lots of early-blooming bulbs and found that I’ve added an additional month to my garden display. Late-blooming plants can provide the same result. One way to achieve all season-bloom is to draft a simple spreadsheet, either on your computer or jotted down on a legal pad. Write down the seasons, separating them into early and late, and list all of the plants you love that bloom in those seasons. Keep in mind the colorful foliage that is always present in your garden, and then fill in any gaps in your chart. Completing this exercise will help you see what you’ll have blooming at different times of the year, thus allowing you to seek out seasonal companion plants that will lead to marvelous color and texture combinations.



The plants you place at the front of your home are the most visible of all. Ideally, they’re a mix of conifers, shrubs and perennials. Repeat some of them for a unified look, and try to keep one foot of space between any plants and your house. Soften the hard edges of the home’s façade with taller, rounded shrubs or small trees, and accent the front door with containers or colorful plantings that will help guide visitors to the entrance.



Try using similar colors in some of your background vegetation and a few plants along the front of the bed. These will be separated by a middle layer offering varying hues. Think of tall yellow daisies in the background with ‘Angelina’ sedum in the foreground. Red cannas and dark purple coralbells would work similarly. These front and back color reflections can help mesh the garden together.

Design principles like these are guides when you’re asking yourself, “Just where should this go?” The choice is yours. Whatever you do and wherever you place your plants, your garden will be beautiful.


Diane McGann is a Stillwater-based master gardener and award-winning garden writer.

Layering Plants graphic


Join our upcoming workshop, Landscape Design Basics for Homeowners. University of Minnesota Horticulturists Julie Weisenhorn and Jim Calkins lead this full-day session, sharing theory and basic principles of sustainable landscape design and tips for avoiding mistakes commonly made by novices and professionals alike.  Year after year, this is one of our most popular classes!

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