Plants with Personality


Garden design is far more than just choosing appropriate plants for the site and properly spacing them in well-prepared soil. It’s about creating an energy or mood that makes the owner or visitor feel comfortable and connected to the surroundings. As a garden designer, one way I do this is by selecting plants for their personality rather than just by whether they grow in sun or shade. I consider the demeanor that is portrayed through their weepy forms or jagged leaves. By looking at plants in terms of the personalities they convey, you can match them with how you want to feel in your outdoor spaces. For example, you might want to feel relaxed and unpretentious in your bedroom garden but upbeat and energized in your more-social backyard.

Identifying how you want to feel in the garden and personalizing that feeling is critical because what can set a specific mood for one person may evoke a different mood in someone else. A cool, soothing space might be a green lawn for one person and the understory of a large tree for another. The most effective use of plant personalities triggers personal associations and gives that “warm and fuzzy” feeling.

Just as what can trigger different garden moods varies from person to person, so does how we interpret and define plant personalities. If you look closely, however, you can pinpoint traits that make up a personality or desired effect. Certain characteristics, like a stiff posture, subtle fragrance, or colorful exterior, can clue you into the personality of a plant. Once you begin to recognize these markers, you can choose plants that have a personality that is calm, lively, or anything in between. Let’s take a look at five personalities that I regularly use to set a mood and personalize garden spaces.


Variegated ‘Sagae’ hosta ( Hosta‘Sagae’, Zones 3–9) kicks back with graceful calla lily ( Zantedeschia aethiop­ica,Z 8–10) and golden Japanese forest grass ( Hakonechloa macra‘Aureola’, Z 5–9).

For many gardeners, their space is a place to escape to and unwind. One of the best ways to heighten this feeling is with the introduction of “relaxed” plants, those with a loose, graceful presentation and that are not fussy or terribly detailed. They like to remind us to put the pruners down or close the laptop and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. The best relaxed plants require low maintenance so that we don’t feel like we have to get up and do something every time we look at them.

Relaxed plants typically feature arching stems and an open, branching structure. Their leaves are often smooth or formed into simple shapes with sleek edges, which are part of an overall downward pattern that leads to the ground and reminds us to come down and rest. They do not display sharp or arresting color variations. It’s always a bonus if their flowers release a fragrance that provides an aromatherapeutic effect. A mix of mainly relaxed plants is often a welcome addition to private gardens near a bedroom, study, or dining room.