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Tips for adding structure to your garden

By: Sherri Ribbey
Get a great-looking garden all year long, no matter what’s in bloom with these great ideas for adding structure.

Adding-structure-to-your-garden-Lead-Labels

Use defined shapes

When designing your garden, you’ll want to start with great structure plants to create a backdrop and offer a sense of permanence no matter what season you’re in.

While colorful blooms come and go throughout the season, an evergreen backdrop provides constant interest. Evergreens grow in a range of habits from pyramidal to globe-shaped. Plus, there are many that are simple to cut into the shape you want, such as the boxwoods (Buxus spp. and hybrids) and yews (Taxus spp. and hybrids) in the photo above.

Add structure with hedges and borders

Planted close enough together, boxwoods grow to form a hedge, just like you see here. Keeping it tightly clipped draws the eye quickly along the walkway beside it, leading right to the door. This low border also serves as a frame for what grows beyond it. The squared shape and dense, rounded mounds create repetition and symmetry in a garden that mixes several types of plants.

Adding-structure-to-your-garden-interesting-branches-labeled: Redtwig dogwood’s young stems display the most color. Regular pruning isn’t required, but removing up to a quarter of the oldest branches every year in early spring will keep the color bright in winter.

Incorporate interesting branches

Winter can be a long, difficult season. Perennials have gone dormant, and much of the color in the yard has vanished. Though deciduous shrubs and trees have dropped their leaves, fully exposing the garden’s bones, there doesn’t have to be a lack of interest.

In the photo above, weeping and upright branches still add shape, even without their leaves. And redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba) draws attention with bright, colorful bark, working like an exclamation point in the landscape.

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Adding-structure-to-your-garden-create-contrast-Labels: Repeating one shape, like these upright pyramids, around the garden creates a rhythm that pulls the eye along.

Use contrast to create focal points

Build even more interest with the bones of your garden when you focus on shape and color, like you see here. Alone, the tight pyramid of the juniper (Juniperus chinensis) is eye-catching. Surrounded by softer, airy vase-shaped ornamental grass, like maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis), however, the dense evergreen becomes an especially striking focal point.

A sweep of bright red Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica) provides balance to the variety of cool green hues. The cream-variegated leaves of weigela (Weigela florida) help brighten the border, too.

Adding-structure-to-your-garden-hardscaping-elements-label: The wooden fence along the back of the yard mimics the stairstepping path that leads visitors through this slightly sloped garden, tying the whole space together.

Choose hardscaping elements that add structure to your garden

The texture and shape in this garden don’t just come from plants. The well-spaced boulders add unique contrast with their texture, form and even color. While their shape echoes other low-growing mounds in the yard, the boulders’ smooth surface and neutral hue provide resting places for the eye as it scans the garden.

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Adding-structure-to-your-garden-emphasize-focal-point-statue: Surrounding the fountain with fine texture, like this carpet of creeping thyme (*Thymus serpyllum*), helps highlight it as the focal point of 
the bed.

Add accents for multiseason interest

The ornaments and objects throughout your garden are just as important as the plants that grow there. Depending on their material and the winter weather in your region, many can stay in place throughout the year, meaning interest no matter the season.

Mix & match materials

The garden in the photo above relies on containers and ornaments set into the border and along a wall to draw the eye deeper and up. In this formal-feeling garden, a mix of materials, from the metal planters to the cast-concrete ornament to the stone figure in the fountain, still has a cohesive feel. That’s because there’s not an abundance of variation. With its bold presence, the wall of stacked stone is a handsome hardscaping addition, breaking up some of the fine textures throughout the border.

Adding-structure-to-your-garden-using-unique-objects: In among this airy grass, these metal orbs take on even more interest than they might set in any other garden spot. And a grouping makes a bigger impact than one alone would.

Use accents to create extra interest

Choose just about any sort of unique object to use as an ornament in the garden, but consider the spot you’d like it to go, too. This way, you can accentuate certain combos or play up the already-interesting traits of a planting. With their geometric shapes and lines, the metal orbs in the photo, for example, are a nice contrast to the stand of wispy tufts of blue fescue (Festuca glauca). They add shape and structure that helps define this area.

Plants that add structure to your garden

You’ve seen how structure plants can transform your garden, creating a framework of year-round interest, shape, color and texture. Now get a closer look at 5 beautiful, reliable plants that will do just that anywhere in the yard.

Here, you’ll find a mix of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, as well as perennials with unique traits that stand out in the garden. Find out more about each plant’s unique interest and growing information and see it in the garden.

Redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Redosier dogwood has white spring flowers and green foliage that turns red and orange before changing to purple in fall. But it’s this shrub’s red winter branches that stand out most, especially after snow. Give redosier dogwood a place in full sun to part shade. Plants grow 3 to 10 ft. tall and 5 to 10 ft. wide in USDA zones 2 to 8.

Clematis (Clematis spp. and hybrids)

Add color and vertical interest to fences, pergolas, arbors or trellises in full sun or part shade with clematis, which reaches 1 to 30 ft. tall and 3 to 8 ft. wide. Flowers open in shades of pink, red, white, purple, yellow, blue and even bicolor in late spring, early summer, midsummer and fall.

This perennial is cold-hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9. ‘Jackmanii Superba’ in the photo is an improvement over classic ‘Jackmanii’, with more profuse purple blooms from early summer to fall. It grows 10 to 12 ft. tall and 2 to 4 ft. wide.

Rocky mountain (Juniper Juniperus scopulorum)

Draw the eye up! It’s easy with Rocky mountain juniper. Since it ranges in size from 10 to 24 ft. tall and 2 to 12 ft. wide, this columnar evergreen tree makes an especially good screen in a narrow space. Flat green foliage can be tinted gray or blue, like ‘Wichita Blue’ in the photo, which holds its color well and reaches 10 to 12 ft. tall and 3 to 4 ft. wide. Rocky mountain juniper grows best in full sun and USDA zones 3 to 9.

Boxwood (Buxus spp. and hybrids)

Boxwood’s good-looking evergreen foliage fills out to form a dense mound. Let it grow in its natural habit or prune plants back in spring to maintain the shape you prefer. Depending on the cultivar, this shrub grows 1 to 15 ft. tall and 1 to 15 ft. wide in full sun to part shade. Boxwood is cold-hardy in USDA zones 4.

Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)

Yucca’s green bladelike evergreen foliage is deer- and rabbit-resistant. Some cultivars, such as ‘Color Guard’, which grows 18 to 24 in. tall and 24 to 36 in. wide, have bright yellow variegation, like you see in the photo.

Butterflies love the cream-colored summer flowers. This perennial grows 18 to 36 in. tall and 18 to 48 in. wide, with flower spikes that reach up to 6 ft. Yucca likes full sun best. It’s cold-hardy in USDA zones 4 to 11.

Redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Redosier dogwood has white spring flowers and green foliage that turns red and orange before changing to purple in fall. But it’s this shrub’s red winter branches that stand out most, especially after snow. Give redosier dogwood a place in full sun to part shade. Plants grow 3 to 10 ft. tall and 5 to 10 ft. wide in USDA zones 2 to 8.

Boxwood (Buxus spp. and hybrids)

Boxwood’s good-looking evergreen foliage fills out to form a dense mound. Let it grow in its natural habit or prune plants back in spring to maintain the shape you prefer. Depending on the cultivar, this shrub grows 1 to 15 ft. tall and 1 to 15 ft. wide in full sun to part shade. Boxwood is cold-hardy in USDA zones 4.

Clematis (Clematis spp. and hybrids)

Add color and vertical interest to fences, pergolas, arbors or trellises in full sun or part shade with clematis, which reaches 1 to 30 ft. tall and 3 to 8 ft. wide. Flowers open in shades of pink, red, white, purple, yellow, blue and even bicolor in late spring, early summer, midsummer and fall.

This perennial is cold-hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9. ‘Jackmanii Superba’ in the photo is an improvement over classic ‘Jackmanii’, with more profuse purple blooms from early summer to fall. It grows 10 to 12 ft. tall and 2 to 4 ft. wide.

Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)

Yucca’s green bladelike evergreen foliage is deer- and rabbit-resistant. Some cultivars, such as ‘Color Guard’, which grows 18 to 24 in. tall and 24 to 36 in. wide, have bright yellow variegation, like you see in the photo.

Butterflies love the cream-colored summer flowers. This perennial grows 18 to 36 in. tall and 18 to 48 in. wide, with flower spikes that reach up to 6 ft. Yucca likes full sun best. It’s cold-hardy in USDA zones 4 to 11.

Rocky mountain (Juniper Juniperus scopulorum)

Draw the eye up! It’s easy with Rocky mountain juniper. Since it ranges in size from 10 to 24 ft. tall and 2 to 12 ft. wide, this columnar evergreen tree makes an especially good screen in a narrow space. Flat green foliage can be tinted gray or blue, like ‘Wichita Blue’ in the photo, which holds its color well and reaches 10 to 12 ft. tall and 3 to 4 ft. wide. Rocky mountain juniper grows best in full sun and USDA zones 3 to 9.

Published: Jan. 28, 2020
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