Leafy Structure

English oaks

Leafy plants, more formally known as deciduous plants, are essential to a great landscape.  Though evergreens can provide a certain kind of dense and geometrically gratifying presence in a landscape, deciduous plant material have a textural contribution all their own.  I designed and planted this landscape many years ago.  Four English oaks, some 14 years later, now provide an overhead structure for the drive court.  The biggest technical challenge was providing flat ground for parking to the right of the driveway. That accomplished,  the U-shaped triple thickness yew hedges do a great job of describing level ground, and screening a parking area from view.  The maturing oaks provide overhead structure to this space.  They have great size, heft, and presence.        

columnar beech
Deciduous trees can go a long way towards endowing a landscape with structure.  These columnar beech were planted more than 15 years ago.  Each one has been planted and maintained as if they were individual living sculptures.  These leafy trees compliment the architecture without obscuring it.   


 Smaller columnar beech planted fairly close together will eventually form a hedge of a height to be determined.  This beech hedge is fairly new.  Given some age, these trees will grow together to form a leafy structure in the summer, and a densely twiggy screen in the winter. A single beech, planted in an open area that permits it to grow unobstructed is a specimen.  Multiple beech planted in a line are structural, as they have more visual significance as a wall.  Multiple beech planted in a block, or shape, are as much about sculpture as they are about beechiness. 

Annabelle hydrangeas

Annabelle hydrangeas are difficult to place in a landscape.  The flower heads are large, and the stems weak.  I rarely plant them, unless I have a chance to place them on sloped ground.  They can provide great structure on a sloped site.  I hate having to prop them up-I prefer to plant them on top of a wall.  Their large leaves, and extraordinary flower heads can structure a landscape space beautifully, given a proper placement.  


Carpinus, or hornbeam, is a tree eminently suited to provide structure to a landscape.  They grow large.  They tolerate pruning well.  These 30 foot tall carpinus settled down in a new home some 8 years ago without much fuss. Are they thriving-yes.  The late spring freeze in 2007 resulted in some twiggy dieback, but they have since grown out of the insult. They now structure a garden, a fountain, and a collection of roses-affably.   

columnar carpinus

Carpinus is a favorite tree when I am seeking structure in a landscape.  These columnar carpinus created a leafy pergola that to this day, many years later, organizes a landscape, provides shelter, and visually endows a landscape.  These carpinus have been limbed up; the bare lower trunks mimic the poles or columns of a pergola.    

Limelight hydrangeas-if you read this blog regularly, you know I am a fan. This leafy deciduous shrub needs little in the way of maintenance.  The large leaves,  the long lived blooms, and its sturdy habit of growth make it a great source of structure in a garden.  The annual plantings would have little impact without the strong structure provided by the boxwood, and the hydrangeas. 

Even when the Limelights are in their green stage, they happily provide structure to a landscape.  In the winter, the dry flower heads and twigs are an effective contrast to evergreens. 

Himalayan white barked birch

Winter structure is important in my zone.  Winter always lasts longer than I think it will.  The white bark and lacy branch structure of this Himalayan white barked birch is as beautiful during snowy weather as it is during the summer months.  The hedge of Annabelle hydrangeas in the left of this picture-densely twiggy. 

gold vicary

Gold vicary is a shrub that was much more common in the landscapes of my childhood than it is now.  Why is that?  Plants fall in and out of favor just like anything else.  The lime green leaves are strikingly different than the dark green of the spruce needles.  As a single specimen, the color can be difficult to balance.  This circular planting of gold vicary encloses a rustic sunken garden planted simply with grass.  

An old wisteria trained over, and about to overpower the gated entrance to this garden is a great example of how any leaafy plant has the potential to organize the presentation of a garden.

Structure In The Landscape


Structure can refer to anything that gets physically and tangibly built.  Familiar structures are houses, bridges, amphitheatres, pergolas, and bus stop shelters.  This may be just me talking, and not the dictionary, but structures imply strength and durability.  An igloo is a structure that is very durable and liveable in the appropriate climate.  A pergola can be variously built to support a clematis vine, or a wisteria.  Structures of stone, as in the pyramids in Egypt, have existed for many centuries.  A classical cathedral in Europe has a physical structure in the form of flying buttresses that permits great height and lots of glass.  A bridge enables overhead foot or vehicular traffic.  Structure might refer to an armature inside a sculpture. This waterbridge built in Magdeburd Germany in 2003  (photo from Twisted Sifter, April 2011) is a spectacular example of  structure.


Structure can also refer to those things that have a different sort of physical presence.  A well written paragraph has a structure, as does a haiku, or a limerick.  A classical opera has a structure which might better be described as a form, or an organization of certain elements.  Paintings are structured by their edges, no matter what shape those edges take.  The composition of a painting has a structure that may vary greatly.  A 16th century religious painting may have plenty in common with a painting by Picasso, but their structures have distinct differences. 




 Baseball and scrabble both have rules which structure how the games are played.  Physically exhausting games such as hockey are structured very differently than chess.  Imagine a game (this implies a structure) or sport (this emphatically implies structure) with no structure.  One person might show up with a bat in a neighbor’s basement-then what? That person would need to create a structure based on the physical limitations of the space and his solitary tool, and create a game.  Alternately, 50 people might show up in snowmobile suits, swim trunks, shoulder pads and helmets, with bikes or  decks of cards in a parking lot, or on a mountain top.  Then what?  The game would be created, rules would be established.  Teams would be chosen, or every person for themselves would compete against a goal, or a standard.  Or perhaps everyone would read from their favorite book-to what end would have to be decided. 


This is a long way of saying that great landscapes and gardens benefit from some structure.  This does not mean they need to be formal, or traditional, or boring.  It means there is a deliberate arrangement of each element. The relationship of one element to the next is deliberate.  As in organized.  Organized spaces are pleasurably easy to follow, both visually, and physically.  A path leading to an abrupt dead end with no visual prize is frustrating.  A landscape that suggests certain relationships is intriguing, satisfying. 

 evergreens in the landscape

Visual organization comes in lots of different forms.  Evergreens planted in shapes or lines provide structure that is evident in every season.  This boxwood parterre/sculpture provides a framework for seasonal plantings. Were nothing else planted, the landscape would still read.  In all of the seasons.

containers in the garden

A large pot set in a meadow can organize, or focus the eye.  The edges of a meadow might provide it with structure.  Very architectural plants can provide structure.  In wild places, species will colonize areas that provide them with optimal conditions.  Every aspect of nature, beginning with the arrangement of molecules and ending with the arrangement of the solar systems is about structure. 

Grass can comprise those spaces left over once garden or landscape beds are cut.  Or they can have a powerfully purposeful shape.  In this case, the lawn covers sculpted soil.  The amphitheatre organizes a large space, and provides direction as to where to walk, or where to hold a concert.  The structure of this lawn makes it makes friendly to people.

myrtle topiaries

These four matching Italian pots and myrtle topiaries visually mark the walkway from the house to the side garden. As that walk crosses over the driveway, it is a good idea to provide some structure-as in  “slow down before you cross-check out these topiaries while you are waiting.”

parterre garden

This cutting garden is enclosed by a stepped hedge of yews and boxwoods.  During those parts of the year when this ground lies fallow, the garden will still have a shape, and some enclosure.  It will still compell the eye.

 This contemporary garden is very structured.  A wall of green in the form of Thuja Nigra, a single tree and a sculpture make for a very minimal, but visually satisfying landscape.  Imagine the sculpture without the green wall behind it-I am guessing it would be barely visible against the visual noise from the houses down the street.  Imagine the sculpture without the tree-lonely and disconnected.  Imagine the tree and the arborvitae hedge without the sculpture-sleepy.  The relationship and placement of each element is deliberate, structured.  This structure makes the experience of the landscape an interesting one.

At A Glance: Structure