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 from scratch that will have huge impact with less effort.

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Start with Structure

You’ll want a garden that is interesting to look at in winter as well as summer so pick trees and large shrubs with good shapes 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 consider 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.

Choosing your Filler 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 again is to look at gardens in your neighbourhood over a year and see what grows well.  Plants in garden centres are often ‘forced’ to flower earlier than they would if planted in a garden. So looking in neighbours gardens will help you determine when plants actually flower in your area. After all 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.

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, or your neighbours.

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 buy plants when they’re in flower, that way I know exactly what they’ll look like.

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

How long will the plant last?

A perennial will come back year after year, whereas an annual will 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.

Buying annuals that don’t self seed is a complete waste of money and resources. It is true that the flowers on sterile plants (ones that don’t set seed) often last longer but they’re generally low in pollen and nectar – so useless for pollinators – planted in peat-based compost – which we need to avoid- and potted in single-use plastic pots

Where will the plant live?

Where does the plant like to grow? Sun, shade, partial-shade. Despite what plant labels might tell you this isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds. Location is hugely influence by soil type. 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. So as before look in 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.


What is your soil like?

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!

Regardless of the soil type you have, every soil type is improved by having compost added to it. Take it from me, enriched soil makes gardening so much easier

Do you have an issue with slugs and snails?

The biggest challenge for a lot of gardeners is knowing if the plants they buy are resistant to slugs and snails. 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!

How hardy do you need the plant to be?

Different plants can survive different degrees of coldness. It is gutting to invest in a beautiful plant only to find out that it can’t survive outdoors in Irish winters. If you have a greenhouse you can lift the plant and store it there over-winter, but if you don’t you face letting the plant die or finding space for it indoors. 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!

Whatever you buy, buy organic

When buying a plant you can choose to buy the plant, seeds or bulbs. Seeds are the least expensive but germination can be tricky, bulbs are pretty much full proof to plant but can rot in heavy clay soils. 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

Where to buy organic plants in Ireland


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….


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