Garden Structure

May 13, 2020

We all know that in the month of April we might find ourselves venturing into the garden a bit more. The days are getting longer, plants are starting to wake up to the warmth and the lawn is screaming for its first cut. We can be forgiven for only focusing on the garden during the spring and summer months, when the weather presents us with opportunities to be outside. It is natural to think that spring and summer offer up the most in terms of outdoor interest, colour and structure. As designers at this time of year, we want to focus more on garden structure, which can open up opportunities for your space all year round.

It is not entirely false that the majority of our gardens will look and feel complete in the spring and summer months due to the seasonality of the plants typically chosen. However purposefully creating spaces with structure will enable the garden to have a year round presence, therefore it is a key ingredient to any design. Without a level of structure in the garden the space can lose its function, aesthetic qualities and important views, meaning that the general practicalities of the space can sometimes be diluted in autumn and winter.

The structure of a garden goes far beyond the obvious hard landscape elements of walls, paving, steps, trellis and pergolas. Structure can actually be created, formed and established through various planting typologies. We should not be put off by the word structure or even intimidated by its meaning. It doesn’t always refer to something large, tall or complex but refers to this idea of creating a backbone and a consistency within a garden, meaning it can be viewed and enjoyed throughout the year.

Below are three different layers of planting that could be considered to create structure within any garden. Trees, evergreen shrubs / topiary and groundcover. All are very different and are on entirely different levels of intervention but at the same time they all provide an all-important framework.

The term ‘tree’ covers a wide range of species, but it is fairly safe to say that having a tree or multiple trees within a garden, automatically provides a level of structure. Whether there is a single-stem tree acting as a focal point, a small cluster of fruit trees, a row of trained pleached trees, or a show stopping characterful multi-stem tree, they all do the job of providing structure. Together with this they will provide height, screening/privacy, shade, seasonal interest through their flowers, fruit, and leaves, as well as scale to the space. With a certain amount of design consideration, planting trees in any garden helps to form a top layer of intervention, which can assist in creating this structural backbone and permanent existence within the space.

GRDN favorites:
Amelanchier lamarckii

Carpinus betulus

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’

The well-known evergreen species of Taxus baccata and Ilex crenata along with a wide range of other species can be clipped to create forms, which are physically present all year round, ensuring their colour, texture and shape are ever present in the garden. Careful planning and positioning of evergreen topiary pieces and shrubs will strengthen the gardens appearance and act as a natural framework for groundcover and other seasonal species to work around.

GRDN favorites:
Taxus baccata
Ilex crenata
Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’

Trees, hedges, topiary and shrubs are not alone in helping to establish a strong garden structure. Low level species are also important in any garden planting scheme. Evergreen species which will display foliage all year round, planted amongst trees, large shrubs, topiary and grasses ensures that there is a continuity and balance within the planting throughout the seasons.

GRDN favorites:
Pachysandra terminalis
Tiarella cordifolia
Liriope muscari ‘Moneymaker’


Every garden can and should flourish, change and develop with the seasons but at the same time have a well balanced structure throughout the planting elements. As outlined above, structural planting can be formed using individual plants or a collection of species and as designers, our aim is to achieve a balanced garden, which provides a space that can be viewed and used and enjoyed all year.