Creating an Ornamental Garden: Selecting Plants

verbena bonariensis

I’m no garden designer but having being an interior architect for 15 years, I am well-practiced at balancing colour and form. I’ve also been gardening since I was 8 so and I have lots and lots of direct experience. Here are my tips on how to create a plant plan for scratch that will have huge impact with less effort.

Nothing mentioned in this article has been sponsored. It’s all just my own personal opinion. If you like your sources to remain independent then please;
share this article, or
buy me a coffee on Ko-fi, or
make a small monthly donation via Patreon. or
with a one-time donation via Paypal

Start with structure
You want a garden that has some interest in the dormant months to pick a selection of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and place them at regular intervals around the garden. Their location should take into account the light levels and soil type preferred by the shrub but also the time of year they flower or have colourful foliage. There is no point having two shrubs that flower at the same time right beside each other and nothing going on elsewhere.

perennial sweetpea

I find the best way to decide on the right shrubs is to keep an eye on the shrubs in neighbours’ gardens. Are they growing well? Do they look good all year round?

An interesting garden incorporates plants of different height levels so be sure to pick trees and shrubs that will provide that in your garden, and be careful not to pick plants that might be too tall / big for your garden.

Chosing your plants
Once you have decided on your shrubs and trees it’s time to select plants that go between them. This is hard! There is so much choice, so much information and yet so much that can go wrong. Fear not. 99% of plants are not suited to your garden and you’ll just waste money by just picking what’s on sale at the garden centre.


The best thing to do is to look at gardens in your neighbourhood over a year and see what grows well. It also gives you chance to see when plants actually flower in your area and how they look throughout the growing season.

Plants in garden centres are often ‘forced’ to flower earlier than they would if planted in a garden. So there is no point in buying that lovely pink daisy to brighten up you bed in March if in reality it won’t flower until April normally.

Also some plants have lovely flowers but terrible growing habits. Personally I hate plants that loll around a flower bed, I like them upright and neat with very little maintenance. You really only get to see that type of thing when a plant is established in a garden. I also dislike plants that have a lot of foliage and very few flowers, unless the foliage is attractive or the flowers are jaw-droppingly awesome. I find it also varies from plant to plant. Two plants of the same species can have different leave/flower proportions. For this reason I avoid buying plants that I’m unfamiliar with out of flower.

Once you’ve identified your list of favourite plants, pick 3 key plants for each season and base your planting scheme around them. I came across this great article listing the best 25 plants for beginners to grow and here is a list of some of my favourite easy-to-grow plants and when they flower in my garden in South Dublin, Ireland;

  • February – Hellebore (evergreen), Snowdrops (bulb), Cornus (shrub)
  • March – Daffodils (bulb), Crocus (bulb), Iris (bulb), Snowflakes (bulb)
  • April – Tulips (bulb), Primroses (perennial), grape hyacinths (bulb), Magnolia (tree),
  • May – Aquilega (perennial), Scabiosa (perennial), Campanula (perennial), Dicentra (perennial), Astilbe (perennial)
  • June – Delphinium (perennial), Aliums (bulb), Astrantia (perennial),
  • July – Hydrangea (shrub), Crocosmia (corms), Campanula (perennial), Astrantia (perennial)
  • August – Fushia (shrub), Russian Sage (perennial), Hydrangea (shrub), Dahlia (corms)
  • Sept – Fushia (shrub), Japanese Anemone (perennial), Hydrangea (shrub), Kaffir Lilly (corms)
  • Oct – Rubekia (perennial), Nerine Lillys (bulbs), Sedum (perennial)

rose campion

Plant in Groups
Most gardening books advise planting in 3 or 5s, which is fine if you have the space and don’t want a huge selection of plants. This doesn’t work for me because I treat my garden is like a plant jewellery box and if i did 3 or 5 of each plant i wouldn’t be able to fit in all of my favourite plants. This runs the risk of the garden looking bitty so i get around it by planting groups of 3-5 complimentary plants beside one another. The three plants will all flower around the same time so that I’m getting clumps of colour in the garden instead of spots here and there.

What to look for when buying a plant
Perennial or annual – if it’s a perennial it will come back year after year, if it’s an annual it’ll die at the first frost. A lot of annuals set seeds so you may get seedlings of the parent plant popping up in your garden next year. You may like this, you many not. A herbaceous plant is a perennial that dies back in winter but re-grows in spring. Most perennials need sub-dividing every 3-5 years.

Position – where does the plant like to grow? Sun, shade, partial-shade. I have found that this isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds. A sunny patch with soil rich in organic matter could suit a plant that would wither in the same location with more free-draining soil. Also some plants are tolerant enough to go into a position that differs from what’s on the label. Again I’d look at gardens in the neighbourhood and if in doubt ‘plant’ the plant in its pot in the desired area for a while to see how it gets on – but be sure to water it as regularly as any other potted plant.


Soil type – Most plants are happy enough in bog-standard garden soil but some of the most spectacular plants prefer ericaceous soil. You can get around this by filling the planting hole with ericaceous compost when you buy them, feeding them ericaceous food and mulching the plant with ericaceous compost once a year. But this is a lot of work so I’d be careful not to overdo it with these type of plants unless your garden has acidic soil!

Slug resistance – A label won’t tell you this, which it’s why it’s great to speak to experienced gardeners and look in neighbours gardens. It’s also dependant on the location of the plant in the garden. I garden organically and so I like to avoid a problem rather than treat it. I’ve found that a susceptible plant can do very well in a front garden as there tends to be a lot of hard landscaping to the front of houses and slugs have fewer places to hide. Avoiding slug damage is also a good reason to buy healthy plants from a reputable garden centre. In my experience the plants in supermarkets and DIY stores tend to be ‘forced’ – brought on early, which weakens them and makes them more likely to be munched!

Hardiness – I find it gutting to invest in a beautiful plant only to find out that i have to lift it before the first frost because it’s not hardy. If you don’t have a greenhouse this can create a storage problem. Generally plants have to be hardy down to -10 degrees celsius to make it into my garden. I will make an exception but you’d have to be a stunner of a plant for me to bring you indoors over winter!

Buy Organic
When do you do decide what to buy you can either by the plant, seeds or bulbs. Seeds are the least expensive but germination can be tricky, bulbs are pretty much full proof and great for spring and autumn colour. Plants bought in flower give you the best idea of what it will actually look like in your garden but you pay for this added benefit. Whatever form you buy aim to buy organic if you can. Here’s where to get organic seeds, bulbs and plants in Ireland

  • Seeds – The Organic Centre in Leitrim, Fruithill Farm in Cork, Irish Seed Savers in Clare and Seedaholic in Galway.
  • Bulbs – Fruithill Farm in Cork.
  • Plants – Caherhurley Nursery is the only organic nursery in Ireland and they sell very reasonably-priced plants around the country at ISNA plant fairs.
  • Although Future Forests in Cork don’t sell organic plants they do try and operate as sustainably as they can otherwise. Their premises is made from local wood and harvests rainwater to irrigate their gardens and nursery. They hand weed all their nursery beds, doing away with the need for systemic weed killers and since October 2017 they only sell Peat Free compost and use a Peat Free Potting mix for their own potting. They also use recycled cardboard and local straw and aim to be as efficient as possible with all the materials we use. Their supplier does use peat in their mix, but they’re trying to reduce the proportion of it.Based in Clare but does market and fairs all around the country. Other socially positive plant retailers include the garden centre run by charity Enable Ireland in Sandymount, Dublin 4 and the garden centre run by social enterprise WALK in Walkinstown, Dublin 12.


PS – Check out the rest of the articles in this series

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

3 thoughts on “Creating an Ornamental Garden: Selecting Plants

  1. Great post. And love the tips. I’m trying to revamp my flower beds this winter. Have been learning by trial and error the last couple of years. More errors than success really. But surely I’ll run out of mistakes eventually….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: