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Natural Landscaping, Plant Spacing and Design

by James P. Engel, © 2003

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One failing of the modern landscape is that plants are viewed as individual features. Trees in particular are planted individually and separated from each other to develop a uniform shape in full sunlight. A single tree develops a very different form from one growing in a woodland setting. In natural landscaping the emphasis is placed on groups of plants or plant communities rather than on the individual tree or shrub.

One doesn’t have to make a dramatic shift form current landscaping styles. By simply adding layers or plants one can make a dramatic change. For example one can add a ring of low shrubs beneath a larger shade tree.

An isolated shade tree growing in full sun develops a broad rounded outline. The tree is often as round as it is tall. Trees growing in a woodland setting or planted in a cluster grow taller with a narrow crown. The trees are forced to grow tall to reach for the sunlight. The tall lines of the trunks bring your vision upward. The crowns of the trees touch each other creating one large mass of foliage and branches. The area beneath tall trees is open and airy creating a sense of spaciousness. This space is ideal for the planting of understory trees and shade tolerant plants. The individual tree is lost amidst the forest. A group of trees invites the viewer to walk beneath the canopy and be sheltered in its shade. The palette of shapes and textures can be infinitely varied by combining different species and varying spacing.

A single tree in the landscape is like a still life painting of an apple; a group of trees is a still life painting of a bowl of fruit. The colors, texture and play of contrast are more varied and interesting to the eye than a single tree.

In natural landscaping trees should be grouped together in multiples. Trees can be of all one species or preferably of several species that visually compliment each other. A grouping should contain at least 5 individuals for best effect with no limit to the maximum number of trees used. The only limiting factor is the space being planted. Canopy trees should be spaced on average 8 to 10ft apart but don’t sweat the numbers. In nature mature trees may grow two feet apart or twenty, the figure is simply a guide.

Plant spacing should not be left to the engineering types. Natural landscaping is striving to get away from straight rows and even spacing. Nature is random and asymmetrical in its patterns and you are striving for the natural look. Use a rock or other object to lay out your planting. Toss the object to mark the plant locations. This will give you a more random look.

This page updated September 10, 2004