Constraint, Repetition and Variation in Garden Design


Soft Landscaping
Dynamic Planting

The dynamic planting includes bulbs, foliage and herbaceous perennials which change, grow, flower and fade with the season. These are the stars of the show, providing the ever-changing tapestry that plays out against the more permanent elements of hard landscaping and structural planting. One of the factors that determines the look and feel of a garden is the proportion of space given to structural vs dynamic planting. Then, how much of the dynamic planting is given to textural/foliage plants compared to space given to flowers. In the design of my White Garden, structural plants take up one third (33%) of the planting space. Foliage plants (ferns, grasses etc) take up more than a third (42%), with just one quarter of the total area used for flowering plants (25%). This allows each flowering plant to stand alone so that its bold flowers can be shown off against plenty of foliage.

Textural (foliage) Planting

There are several key foliage plants which were chosen to provide a background texture that underpins the planting. These have been repeated in each bed, creating a unified character:

  • Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) — in the ground (x6) and in pots (x2)
  • FernsDryopteris affinis (x7); Polystichum setiferum ‘Congestum’ (x5)
  • European ginger (Asarum european) — round cover, gradually filling in all the bare ground between plants (x20 clumps)
  • Red barrenwort (Epimedium rubrum) — perennial, (x5 clumps)
One sign of good planting design is when the structural and textural (foliage) planting can stand on its own merits even without flowers.

Bringing it all together

Before we even get to flowers, this garden has a coherent theme from the consistent use of hard and soft landscaping. The photos below show how pleasingly these elements work together. Note the repeated use of clipped box, ferns, Japanese forest grass, European ginger (ground cover), bricks, slabs and decking: Constraint, Repetition and Variation.

Flowering Plants

Last but not least, flowering plants include annuals, perennials and bulbs. For the White Garden, I limited these to plants with large, bold, white flowers and plain green leaves (no variegation or coloured foliage). Most of these are in the ground, but some are in pots, brought into the picture as they come into flower. On the whole, they are separated from each other by structural or textural planting so that each clump of flowers appears surrounded by greenery. This has proven very effective at producing maximum visual impact. I have listed them in approximate flowering sequence, from February to November:

  • White Starflower (Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’) — perennial bulb (x5 pots) — FEBRUARY/MARCH
  • White narcissus and hyacinth (N. ‘Thalia’) — bulbs (x4 pots) — MARCH
  • Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) — perennial bulb (x2 clumps) — MARCH
  • White tulips (T. ‘Purissima’) — perennial, in ground (x30) and pots (x20) — APRIL
  • White iris (Iris sibirica ‘White Swan’) — perennial (x4) — MAY
  • White peony (Paeonia officials ‘Alba’) — perennial (x2) – MAY
  • White foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea ‘alba’) — self re-sown biennial (x10-15) — JUNE
  • Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’deciduous shrubs (x2) — JULY
  • White liliesperennial bulbs, in pots (x3 pots) — JULY
  • White cosmosannual, in pots (x2 clumps) — JULY
  • White agapanthus (A. ‘White Ice’) — large pots (x2) — JULY
  • White snap dragonsannual, (x8) — AUG
  • White cone flower (E. ‘White Swan’) — perennial (x2 clumps) — AUG
  • White dahlia, short varieties (e.g. D. ‘Playa Blanca’) — perennial, in ground and in pots (x8) — AUG
  • White japanese anemones (A. ‘Honorine Jobert’) — perennial (x2 clumps) — SEP
  • White kaffir lily (S. coccinea ‘Alba’) — perennial (x1 clump) — OCT
  • White nerines (N. — perennial bulbs, in ground and pots (x2 clumps) — NOV

After all I have said about constraint, that might look like a long list, but because all the flowers are the same colour, they naturally harmonise. Also, for much of the year, only three or four of the above are in flower at once. This helps keep the garden calm and visually uncluttered. However, there is sufficient variation to keep it fresh and interesting as the season unfolds.

White Garden Planting Throughout the Year

I hope you have found some inspiration in this article and can take away some ideas that you can apply to your own garden. If so, please let me know in the comment section below.

7 thoughts on “Constraint, Repetition and Variation in Garden Design”

  1. What a FANTASTIC article!
    I feel like starting out on a whole new garden project, to work with all this superb advice.
    Perhaps this article should be seen as a seminar. Truly excellent!

  2. Again, I am smitten with this wonderfully inspiring article. Thanks and kindest regards from the industrial Rhur region in Germany – Your sincerely Monika

    • You are so kind Monika. I am glad you enjoyed it and hopefully got something useful out of it. I don’t know if I’ve said before, but my brother and his family live in Arnsberg so I have family and fond connections with Germany. Happy gardening!

  3. You’ve put into words what has been in the back of my head for years. Really helpful. Super article, better than all my gardening books and magazines. Thank you.

    • Wow Cat, that’s high praise indeed! Thank you so much. Like you, it had been in the ‘back of my head’ too. When I started writing the article it was going to be something quite different, but the more I wrote and rewrote it, the more I realised what I was trying to say.

      I’m soo glad it has been helpful!

  4. What a fabulous article, I too have trawled through books and websites to find a cohesive white garden plan and you have explained it so well…off to the garden centre I go! Thank you.


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