Planting Plan – The Four Fs

So you’re looking for a way to design a planting plan for your yard? How exciting, you’ve definitely come to the right place! Having designed and planted many a border in my garden designer days, I have put together a sort of crib sheet for you.

Planting plan snippet image

Table of Contents

What Is A Planting Plan?

Garden plans are a drawing that describes the plants that will be planted in your garden. It specifies the placement, variety, and amount of plants for each zone. Each plant is represented by its own unique symbol, which is identified with a key entry next to the Latin name and a short description.

property lines

The Four Fs

A tried and tested method is to select plants according to their function, which you can generally split into four categories: FocusFrameworkFlowers; and Fillers….

Focus

This is the plant (usually a tree or large shrub) which acts as a focal point in the planting space. You need to choose a plant which is visually strong but does not overwhelm the space: in other words, it needs to be in proportion to the rest of the planting or the garden as a whole.

A Focus should command attention all year round – we still need something good to look at even during the winter months. If your planting area isn’t large enough to cope with an imposing Focus you can opt for a smaller specimen, or even choose a non-plant focus, like a sculpture or a bench.

planting plans

Framework

These easy-care plants are usually shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous, which you can use to create a framework within the border. Like the Focus plant, Framework plants have to be in proportion to their plant neighbours.

Imagine a bed of alpine plants with a solitary two-metre conifer growing out of the middle of it – not a pretty sight! Framework plants can also help to balance the scheme: this can be symmetrical, where you replicate the same plant; or asymmetrical where a large shrub at one end of a border may be balanced by a grouping of several smaller, evergreen perennials at the other.

Framework plants can also lead your eye along the border, creating movement from one area to another. Framework plants provide year-round existing structures, with interesting flowers, foliage, stems or berries at various times.

right plants

Flowers

This group consists mainly of herbaceous perennials which come into their own during the late spring through summer to early fall months with their flowers providing a riot of colour, texture and form.

Flowers are perhaps the most hard-working when it comes to design: their attributes (like colour, texture and form) can be used in many different ways – subtly or boldly, traditionally or ingeniously, densely or sparingly – to create a satisfying design.

Strictly speaking, herbaceous perennials are those plants which do not have woody stems; this category not only encompasses those plants which die down each fall to reappear the following early spring, but also tends to include perennials with evergreen foliage, some herbs, and, occasionally, alpines and bulbs. I also include some plants which are strictly shrubs or sub-shrubs, like Lavandula or Perovskia in this category – I tend to use these as I would a herbaceous perennial.

The way in which Flowers are used can affect the ‘feel’ of the design from dramatic to hotch-potch. Blocks or drifts of the same plant can look stunning (and are brilliant for beneficial insects like bees, by the way) but you need a bit of courage to put this into practice.

At the other end of the planting spectrum is the collection of single plants which carry a meaningful association, or you’ve bought them simply because they looked good. From a design point of view, groups of three perennials or more work best. 

plant list perennials

Fillers

Filler planting gives instant colour and drama exactly where it is needed – bulbs, annuals, self-seeding plants, biennials and some tender perennials fall into this category.

You can sow or plant them where there is a gap or, alternatively, you can grow them in pots and then plant them where there is a space. By filling in the gaps, these plants can provide an immediate, albeit transitory, focal point or create movement through a border, and they are past masters at repetition.

plant combinations

How the ‘Four Fs’ fit together

In order to give you some idea of how this method fits together in a plan without worrying about specific plants, I have put together a border in a simple diagrammatic form.

Here we have a Focus, balanced by three Frameworkplants’, with Flowers making up the bulk of the space and some Fillers in between. By paring the forms down to basic shapes we can see how each of the categories fits into the overall scheme:

Maturity of plants

Another point to remember is the mature height and spread of each plant. This will affect the number of plants that you can comfortably fit into a planting space.

Trees and shrubs will obviously take longer to achieve maturity (some of them will take many years) whereas many of the perennials will start to become overcrowded or deteriorate after three or four years or so, at which time you can dig them up and divide them. Some perennials are even shorter-lived and may need to be replaced after two years.

By contrast, the bulk of ‘Filler’ plants will be at their best in the same year that you plant them.

Bear these points in mind when you plant up your new border and don’t worry if you have bare ground in places – the Flowers will grow into the spaces and meanwhile, that is what your Fillers are for.

Seasonality

The last point to consider is seasonality. Unless you particularly want a spring- or any other season-specific-border, try and include plants that will have points of interest at various times during the year. And don’t think of just colour as a point of interest – things like texture and form can also be interesting!

planting plan diagram

A Real Planting Plan

This Cottage Garden plan is for an ‘islandbed, measuring some 5 metres by 5.5 metres – an added bonus is that it is bee-friendly too! In true ‘Blue Peter’ fashion here’s a design I made earlier so you can see how it all hangs together:

Key to Cottage Garden Island Bed

Focus

At the heart of the plot (A) is an apple, Malus ‘Rev W Wilks’ trained as a goblet.

This variety is ideal for such manipulation and, being self-fertile, will produce a good crop in the absence of another tree for pollination, although there will be a more uniform crop if there is one close by.

Framework

The main Framework in this garden is provided by the low outline hedge of roughly 150 Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’. This is the compact, very dense form with small leaves, ideal for as an edging plant. Because of the ravages of box blight, you may want to substitute this with something like Teucrium: it can get a bit straggly, but it responds well to being clipped, and if you do delay any clipping and allow it to flower, the bees will thank you for it.

Flowers

This is really a garden of Flowers, with lots of ‘old fashioned’ plants like LavandulaAsterHylotelephium and Geranium which between them provide colour for us and food for bees throughout the season.

1. Nepeta hybrida ‘Pink Candy’ x 3

2. Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’x 3

3. Eryngium x tripartitum ‘Jade Frost’ x 3

4. Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’ x 3

5. Pulmonaria ‘Cotton Cool’ x 3

6. Hylotelephium ‘Strawberries and Cream’ x 3

7. Geranium pratense var. striatum ‘Splish Splash’ x 3

8. Echinacea purpurea x 3

9. Polemonium caeruleum x 3

10. Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’ x 3

11. Verbascum ‘Cherry Helen’ x 3

12. Salvia rosmarinus x 3

13. Salvia officinalis Purpurascens Group x 3 with Satureja montana x 5

14. Hyssopus officinalis (pink variety) x 3 with Origanum vulgare x 5

15. Hyssopus officinalis (blue variety) x 3 with Origanum vulgare x 5

16. Salvia officinalis x 3 with Satureja Montana x 5

Conclusion

The planting plan described in the article includes a variety of flowers and plants that will bloom throughout the season, providing colour and food for bees. The apple tree at the center of the bed is surrounded by a low hedge of box plants, and additional flowers are planted in gaps between the stepping stones.

Thyme is planted between the stones, and crocus and allium are planted alongside them. Finally, papaver and phacelia are planted in gaps throughout the bed. This planting plan will provide a beautiful and fragrant garden that is also beneficial for pollinators.

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Oliver Wright

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