Planting Design: 3 Ways to Create Interest in Long and Narrow Spaces (part 1)

I’m not exactly sure what the formula is for a long and narrow space… probably something like 1 part depth to 7 parts length. But, it’s obvious when we encounter one (often along driveways, walkways, patios, and fences, median strips, and house walls). We feel restricted and start wishing someone had made the space just a little deeper. Then we run to google to start hunting down tall and narrow plants.

This is a three part post on how you can add interest while preserving the best characteristics of a long and narrow space. These techniques can be used alone or combined with one another in many situations. But, before we begin to discuss what to do lets talk a little bit about what not to do:

First, don’t try to plant a lot of unrelated plants to try and add interest. This almost always looks like a distracting jumble that doesn’t make sense. Long and narrow has limitations, but it also has unique attributes like a long sight line. It also has inherent continuity which adds stability in the ground plane of a design. Adding a smattering of different plants in different colors will only serve to take away these attributes.

Second, don’t plant something that is going to outgrow the boundaries you need. As the plants mature they are going to be a mess once you have to start shearing them back. You will be left with twigs, an unnatural form, and / or a top leaning planting that has been hacked away at to fit the traffic that occurs there. When spaces are less than 8″ deep and plantings can’t expand beyond the planting area in width then you are pretty much at the point where you need to stick with vines, gravel and succulents, espalier, artwork, a decorative fence panel, etc. That is perfectly OK. It’s much better to admit defeat and tuck a couple pots where you can rather than try and grow something that doesn’t fit.

Now, let’s talk about some things that we can do to enhance the positive and work with the negative. The first idea is really simple and can be applied when planting in any shaped space. When planting, choose to stagger the plants on center rather than aligning them in a straight line.

Here’s an example of a tight, linear layout which we commonly see with hedgerows. Often times these get so tightly clipped that they almost stop serving most of their purpose: softening hard lines and creating interest.


A linear, one dimensional, plant layout accentuates the length and shallowness of this planting bed.


Now consider a staggered layout. Here’s the same planting bed redone by alternating the center lines of the plants by about 9″. It is shown in plan view (top) and in section (below):


A staggered layout creates excitement, depth, movement, and interest.


The benefits to this approach are numerous:

  1. The planting looks more natural
  2. Shadows can be created which add depth and interest
  3. The hard lines of the planting bed become softened
  4. The eye sees sinuous movement which adds interest

I don’t often plant in straight lines anymore unless I am doing something modern or planting my vegetable garden. I am almost always staggering my plants and using irregular spacing between them as well. Consider using this technique in spaces even if you can only offset the plants several inches from each other. It can sometimes be just enough to create new movement in a straight space.

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