Elements of Plants

The components and features

There are five elements that are considered primary as Principles of design which are used to achieve feel and form in a design. There are also many other factors that may be equally or more important, or not relevant at all. These are called secondary elements and they will vary by situation.

Plant Type

From trees to groundcover, this element describes the kind of plant that is selected and what the plant needs. Plants with similar light, nutrient and water needs should be grouped together. It is important to group plants with the same water needs together into irrigation “hydrozones.”

Height & Width

When assessing the size of the plant, take both the height and the width into account as well as the particular cultivar of that plant. A cultivar is like a sub-species of a plant type that will show specific characteristics, for example, colour or final size. It is extremely important to make sure that a plant’s size when fully mature will still fit the location that has been selected.


There is a large palate of shapes that can be found in plants. Examples include oval, cone, pyramid, upright, irregular, spreading and column. The use of these shapes should be considered early in the design process. Columnar shapes can be used for barriers and present a formal look. Spreading shapes can be used to soften structures and forms. Upright shapes can be used to call attention to an area. Oval shapes are easy for the eye to follow and can be used to bridge areas. In addition to new plants, consider the forms of structures and plants that already exist in the space. New plant forms must complement existing components as well as each other.

Tree forms

Shrub forms

Seasonal Color

Color is often the first thing that is noticed about a plant. It can be used to great effect to provide interest.  Warm colors like red, orange and yellow are stimulating and will call attention to an area or object. Cool colors such as blue, green and violet are relaxing and will subdue an area or object. Related are traits of seasonal interest. These are features of the plant that vary through the time of the year. Examples would be foliage, flowers or fruit.


Different plants will have different appearances to their surfaces. The density of the leaf set, bark or branching structure contribute to a plant having a course or fine texture. Fine textures can make a space seem larger. Course textures can make a space seem smaller. In general, use course textures sparingly and fine textures more often.


Examples of Secondary Elements

  • Drought tolerance
  • Soil adaptability
  • Full sun or shade tolerance
  • Insect resistance
  • Disease resistance
  • Moisture tolerance
  • Temperature hardiness