How it “functions” in the landscape
Story and Photos by Susan Jasan
There is a famous phrase in design: “Form follows function.” More correctly, “Form ever follows function,” which is often attributed to architect Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924). In fact, the concept has been debated for centuries, much as the eternal question, “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?” Basically, it is the principle that the shape of an object should be designed based on its use or its function.
Taking the concept a step further, architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) said, “Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
For this writer and designer, when considering plant selection for a landscape, it seems prudent to fully consider the form of a plant as one considers the function it will serve in the landscape, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, “joined in a spiritual union.”
Equally so, one must also consider the environment in which the plant will live: light exposure, water, soil nutrients, or lack thereof.
But even as one reflects on the function a particular plant will serve in the landscape, whether a foundation planting, a specimen plant, for color or fragrance, or simply for fun, one is also profoundly struck by the reality that a plant’s form in and of itself typically makes the strongest statement in the landscape. Form quite simply is the three-dimensional shape of the object and leaves a lasting impression.
It’s not unlike the adjectives we use to describe the human form: One person might be tall, another short, another round, another husky. And so it is with plants. Trees and shrubs are typically categorized as columnar, compact, conical, a cordon, mounding, rounded, globe, broad, weeping, spreading, arching, oval, narrow, vase, pyramidal, pleached, upright, spiral, espalier, irregular, or even topiary. Ground covers too have a great variety of forms and are often described as clumping, matting, sprawling, spreading, or spiky.
How does one know what form to use in what application in the landscape? Part of the decision is personal taste, part of the decision is based on the function the plant will serve, and part is determined by the plant’s relationship to others in the design. Using a massed area of one form can create continuity or monotony, depending on one’s perspective. And be assured neither view is right or wrong. Using a single specimen with a strong form can be an effective means of developing a focal point when contrasted against plants of a differing form.
Remember too that though a certain plant may have a “typical” form, sometimes cultivars within a genus or even within a species have very unique forms. For example the typical maple tree, such as a red maple (Acer rubrum) has a broad form. An Armstrong maple (A. x freemanii ‘Armstrong’, has a relatively narrow form. And in further contrast, the Amur maple (A. ginnala) has an upright form that is rounded or broad at the crown. So, if there is a certain type of plant that you like, but the natural form is not quite what you want in a particular space, look to see if there might be other cultivars that better fit the application you desire.
One significant caution in regard to plant form: If you are trying to shape or prune your plant into a form that is not its natural growth form, the plant will continue to try to grow back to its natural shape. In this circumstance, you are better off selecting a different plant that can give you the look you want.