hints for using architectural plants


A solitary, skilfully shaped Olive tree in a sheltered garden spot can give priceless architectural beauty in a similar way that sculpture, a piece of art or a building’s elevation do. Yet the Olive tree, Strawberry tree, Birch, Maple or Cordyline bring so much to a space with their ever-changing outline, seasonal transition, sound and wildlife. Designing in Northern Europe is naturally different than in warmer climates where the abundance of tropical flora provides an unbounded supply of architectural beauties. Instead, we practice more restraint and work hard to elevate the available architectural specimens we can use into prime positions in our designs. Working in contemporary city gardens, the use of architectural plants has a major role in the design - providing important focal points.

1. Selection 2. Cultivation 3. Irrigation 4. Lighting 5. Evergreen 6. Deciduous 7. Logistics 8. Cold hardiness 9. Cost 10. Maintenance

mylandscapes - landscape designs London UK
mylandscapes blog
contemporary solutions for your outdoor space
about the designerabout the designer

Related Articles | A Garden Full of Architectural Plants


All too often temptation leads us to try a plant we adore but don’t quite have the right situation or enough space for. One of the things I do when I first visit a garden is look to see what grows in the neighbourhood and other gardens nearby. I check the positions for north and south on a compass and look for potential seasonal changes, permanent shade patterns from buildings, the type of soil, available moisture and so on. I select my plants hands-on at the nurser, so that the best specimens are chosen. I tend to spend more of the budget on selections I know but I also invest in new ones, usually smaller less expensive to try for the first time. With the high rainfall in the UK, good drainage is important to be able to cultivate and display healthy architectural specimens. Using raised beds, planters and pots or adding a lot of drainage material to ground flower beds can provide platforms to sustain specimen planting. Automatic irrigation systems can then supplement any additional water requirements.

contemporary planting selection of architectural plants

London Fields roof terrace   Olive tree


Every now and again a client may ask for an Olive tree where there is little sun and possibly not great drainage. Naturally I try and shy away from such practice or at least minimise the risk by looking for a non expensive example. Cultivation is predominantly a function of experience and observation is sometimes one of the most useful tools. I have been amazed at what conditions some Olives, palms or Figs manage to grow in London. Many of them will tolerate shade and in the fertile soil produce larger leaves than usual. Eucalyptus trees love the moist clay and grow fast and dense, though I find them far too intrusive and potentially harmful to structures. Cordyline palms from New Zealand and Ceanothus from California have been doing very well in the UK, but in many parts of London mature specimens have perished recently after a few very cold winters. Tree ferns and Bananas are fun and do well in the right conditions here in London. Some growers would prefer to provide winter protection, though I feel that one should grow what survives naturally.

contemporary planting cultivation of architectural plants

Hampstead garden  Trachycarpus palm


Automatic irrigation maximises growth performance even in the wetter climates. Large architectural specimens would require ample moisture to acclimatise in a new environment and fully succeed in years to come. Laying out pipes in advance and setting out specific nozzle intervals will aid the different needs for growth. A group of bamboo or a Willow will need far more water than an Olive tree or Yucca for example. See how architectural plants in this small garden flourish with an adequate irrigation regime.

contemporary planting irrigation of architectural plants

Hampstead garden  Japanese Maple and Mexican Lily


A shapely multi-stem Pine tree will look spectacular with lighting at dusk. Those architectural, sculptural qualities allow the light beam to travel up to the canopy and enhance characteristics such as bark, form and shape. The balance of the lighting can be achieved by accommodating the elevation with multiple fittings. I usually prefer to isolate the key specimens in the lighting plan so that they can be appreciated separately. Down lighting through contorted branches creates gentle silhouettes onto the ground surfaces. Using a narrow beam up the trunk of a Paper bark maple or Silver birch accentuates the beauty of the trunk.

contemporary planting lighting of architectural plants

Tempus Wharf roof terrace   Scots pine


There are not many native evergreens available to us here in Northern Europe. Moreover, there are not many foreign evergreens that can grow in our cold hardiness zone either. This means finding many different ways and uses for available species as well as trying new candidates, but not without peril… When it comes to long term safe planting there a few successful candidates: Acacia dealbata, Agapanthus, Agave americana, Arbutus unedo, Astelia, Beschorneria, Butia, Chamaerops, Cordyline, Cycas, Dasylirion, Dicksonia, Equisetum, Eriobotrya, Eucalyptus, Fatsia, Mahonia, Myrtus, Nandina, Olea, Phormium, Phyllostachys, Pinus, Pseudopanax, Quercus ilex, Quercus suber, Trachycarpus, Trochodendron and Yucca.

contemporary planting evergreen architectural plants

Regent's Park garden   Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp debeuzevillei


There are more native deciduous trees and shrubs available to us here in Northern Europe even though one of my favourites – Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle) is from Australia… Deciduous trees give us seasonal change and their outline and bark get exposed and brought to the fore in winter. Deciduous species are easier to prune and normally this can be carried out in winter when the structure is easier to assess. Acer griseum, Acer palmatum, Aralia, Betula, Catalpa, Chitalpa, Cornus, Edgeworthia, Ficus carica, Gunnera, Magnolia, Paulownia, Rhus and Salix

contemporary planting deciduous architectural plants

St Paul's roof terrace   Ginkgo biloba


There have been occasions when I simply could not get a large specimen I wanted into a site – particularly on roof terraces or terraced houses. There are ways to compensate for that by using long, narrow and bendy stems that can be carried through a staircase or a narrow path such as bamboo, silver birch or willow. Usually a small crane can be used when vehicular access is good. When large and heavy specimens arrive on site it is important to stabilise them if not planted straight away to prevent toppling over in wind. When set in raised beds and planters we need to elevate the plants into their position and this is usually done in one of three ways: build a ramp, stack pallets up as we go along or use a Ginny lift.

contemporary planting logistics of architectural plants

Shad Thames roof terrace


Buying a cold tender large specimen and planting it in the ground anywhere in London presents a risk. It is very tempting to buy a beautiful exotic that has been kept in top condition in a poly tunnel somewhere in Europe but giving it an appropriate home is another matter. I prefer to minimise the risk by only using borderline hardy species in small sizes and acclimatise them slowly. As many evergreens are slow growing sometimes this approach negates the attitude of here and now. The knack is to utilise selections that look exotic but are cold hardy. The most important aspects of successfully growing tender plants in a cold climate are a sheltered warm position, good drainage and controlled irrigation. More often than not losses occur due to of having wet roots in a cold season rather than from air frost.

contemporary planting cold hardiness of architectural plants

Hampstead garden   Brahea armata

  9. COST.

With the abundance of specimen nurseries across Europe, the range of large pot sizes we can obtain within the UK is unrivalled. The cost naturally fluctuates with the value of the Pound against the Euro and also the time of the year. Transporting during the hot summer months for example is dearer than at any other time due to the method of refrigerated transport. My task as a garden designer is to advise the client on how to use the budget wisely and apply it to the right selections. Knowing the growth rate, flowering age, maintenance requirements and cold hardiness coupled with the understanding of the site give a solid platform from which to control and justify the cost of any specimens.

contemporary planting cost of specimen architectural plants

Sandbanks courtyard garden  Cycas revoluta


Many architectural plants require little maintenance – particularly evergreen Mediterranean and exotics such as palm trees. One of the inherent labours of maintenance in warm climates is the fast growth rate and therefore the increasing difficulty in getting to the crown as it reaches a mature height. Here in the UK, with the exception of the Southwest and Northwest coasts, architectural plants tend to remain relatively small with a slow growth rate. This provides an opportunity to enhance and change the appearance of a species. Raising the crown of palm trees for example changes their look from a rounded one into a triangular one, which is particularly conducive to lighting. Stripping the hairs of a Trachycarpus palm reveals a beautiful pattern on the bark and transforms quite a common look into an exotic one.

contemporary planting maintenance of architectural plants

Sandbanks courtyard garden  Agave americana 'Variegata'

Whether we know much about gardens we all observe and absorb those beautiful ancient architectural plants and trees along our travels. This green architecture marks our history, weaves our landscapes and defines a place in time. It is this beauty we find in the contorted stem of a millennia-old Olive tree, or a hollow trunk of a desert Pine tree, or the flaking bark of a Eucalyptus that feeds the affinity we have with cultivating them in our own backyards.

amir   Written, photographed (unless indicated) and posted by Amir Schlezinger.

Related Articles | Back to Homepage | View the Full Portfolio


10 garden benches 10 garden lighting 10 paving stones
10 garden decking 7 garden screens 10 garden seating

© 2001 - 2016 MyLandscapes Ltd

All Rights Reserved

020 8815 9544

Est. 2001 | Made in London


follow us on facebookfollow us on twitterfollow us on pinterestfollow us on linkedinfollow us on youtubefollow us on Google+