The Form of Things to Come – Part 2

In my last post, I opened a discussion on plant form with a look at columnar or fastigiate forms and their use in the landscape. Today I continue this discussion with two additional forms – Pyramids and Vases.


Pyramids or cones are wider at the bottom, becoming narrower and tapering to a point at the top. Their geometric form gives a garden solidity, structure and definition. In our climate, it is during the long winter months that pyramids carry the most visual weight – most of the pyramids we see are evergreens, which are dense, stiff needled and weighty in appearance. As well, pyramidal forms carry their weight close to the ground – this wide-bottomed shape means that visually they are very grounding (anyone else start silently singing the refrain from a certain song?)


A solid green pyramid, which I suspect is Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’, stands out in this winter landscape, firmly anchoring the more yielding forms of leafless woodies and dried grasses. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Blue spruce and bench

The pyramidal form of blue spruce provides definition and structure to this pretty vignette.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Pyramids can be quite variable in size and proportion – some are short and squat, some tall and narrow and some in between. This means their use in the landscape is also variable. A tall narrow pyramid will behave more like a columnar form, making a striking vertical accent or effectively framing a view or entrance, whereas the more wide-bottomed specimens won’t have this effect and better serve as anchors with their bottom heavy appearance (there’s that song again).

Pyramidal Spruces

Left – A tall narrow pyramid like Picea pungens ‘Fastigiata’ makes a dramatic vertical feature.
Photo: Pat Gaviller.
Right – Short and squat, dwarf cone-shaped Picea pungens (likely cv. ‘Montgomery’) steadies this pretty composition. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Picea pungens var. Glauca

Two Picea pungens var. glauca create a nice frame – their size, form and texture provide solid structure, matching that of the large brick building. Photo: Pat Gaviller.

Pyramids are also useful for repeating the shape of roof peaks or mountains in the background. As well, their natural geometry lends itself to use in formal landscapes, where parterres and hedges are clipped into strong geometric forms.

Spruce and cedars

The narrow pyramidal forms of two cedars effectively repeat the shape of the church steeple (and frame its entrance), while the broader spruce repeats the form of the roof peak. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Geometric shapes

Pyramidal forms fit well into formal designs. Photo: Evelyn Steinberg

Keep in mind that the more narrow the pyramid, the more it will perform like a columnar form, so the same guidelines will apply regarding its overuse. Otherwise this form can be used fairly freely in the landscape, remembering that evergreen material shouldn’t comprise more than about half of your plant material due to its weight. And of course scale, proportion and all the other design principles still apply.

Vase shaped

Vases are inverted pyramids – narrow at the bottom and flaring out towards the top.  They are graceful and elegant, making them excellent feature trees/shrubs. Like pyramids they vary somewhat in proportion, with some being quite slender and others much broader. A very narrow specimen can make an elegant vertical accent, frame an entrance or view, or be planted in groups. Just like columns or narrow pyramids, narrow vases shouldn’t be overused – because they stop the eye and draw it up, the same guidelines will apply as for columnar forms, though a narrow vase is less dramatic.

Sutherland Caragana

Left – Slender vase-shaped Caragana arborescens ‘Sutherland’, together with a bird bath and Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro’, make a lovely focal vignette in a client’s sunny backyard. Photo: Sue Gaviller.
Right – A trio of Sutherland Caragana also works well. Photo: Jane Reksten.

Broader vases are still graceful but don’t behave as verticals. They can therefore be used liberally throughout a landscape composition – a single specimen though, makes an outstanding feature on its own.

Broad Vase

Plants with broad vase form are a beautiful addition to the landscape, whether used singly or grouped.
Left – Malus
‘Thunderchild’. Right – Sorbus decora. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Vase shaped trees planted on either side of a street or walkway create a lovely arching canopy as they meet at the top. If you’ve ever peered down one of Calgary’s elm-lined streets you’ll know what a spectacular sight this is, especially with a dusting of hoar-frost coating the lacy branches of the stately elms.

Vase shaped trees

Ornamental crabapple trees have a beautiful vase shape – some very broad and some more narrow. I love how the designer has utilized the form in this landscape, both framing the walkway and creating the arched canopy over it. Photo: Gabe Girimonte.

Pruned Syringa prestoniae

Syringa prestoniae grows naturally in a globe shape, but looks lovely pruned into a broad vase. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Vase shapes are a favourite with many gardeners – in fact so enamoured are we of this form that we’ll often prune a shrub into a vase shape, and labour to maintain it, despite the fact that its natural growth habit is otherwise.

I’ve seen various shrub species, including Syringa, Prunus, Lonicera and Viburnum, pruned in this manner.

Note too that during the growing season, the leafy canopy of a vase-shaped tree or shrub may affect its form, appearing somewhat like a ball on top of a vase. Whether you then choose to use this plant as a round form or a vase, will depend on how much of its woody skeleton is visible when clothed in foliage. It will also depend on how much of the year it actually has leaves.

Vases and pyramids are important inclusions in your landscape or garden composition. Indeed they work in beautiful concert with each other, fitting together like puzzle pieces.

Pyramids and Vases

Left – Ulmus americana and Picea pungens var. glauca. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Right – Picea and Prunus sp. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Next post we’ll continue to build our garden sight-line with more plant forms, so y’all come back now, hear?


The Form of Things to Come

My first thought the morning of February 2nd is hooray! Balzac Billy didn’t see his shadow! According to groundhog legend, this means spring is just around the corner. Again I say hooray! A sense of disquiet ensues though, as I remember the client designs I’ve been putting off because hey, there’s lots of time, it’s still the middle of winter. While I don’t really subscribe to the belief that a rodent can predict the weather, I suddenly feel called out of hibernation. I’m not sure I’m ready.

I dust off the old creativity cap and reluctantly put it on. I’m just not feelin’ it though. I guess I could work on my next blog post – yikes not feelin’ that either. I believe I have the dreaded writer’s block, and designer’s block too! This is weird – my brain is usually so full of thoughts and words and ideas that stuff just tumbles out onto my drawing page or laptop screen.

A memory of some words my husband once spoke to me finds its way through the fog, “Sue, just put your pencil on the paper and start to draw”. Yes, yes of course – start the process and inspiration will follow. I know this to be true.

Fortunately I’m able to come up with some concepts for last night’s client meeting – I’m actually pretty happy with the drawings, and the clients are ecstatic. Now if I can just get this blog post underway. So where were we anyways? Oh yeah, in my last post I left off with the promise of discussion on the significance of plant form, texture and colour.

Plant Form

We choose plants for any or all of these characteristics (form, texture and/or colour), but in order to arrange them appropriately we need to understand how specific traits will play out in the garden scenario, in relation to other plants. To me, plant form is the most important quality a plant brings to a garden composition, so I’ll begin there. It is the various plant forms working in concert that creates a sight-line. Much like a city skyline, the landscape sight-line is what we experience when viewing the garden from more distant vantage points – across the street or down the road. It allows us to see the garden in its larger essence.

Calgary Skyline

An attractive city Skyline has high points and low points, as well as variety in the shape of its buildings. Photo: Pat Gaviller


A landscape too should have variety in height and form – note the different tree and shrub forms that contribute to this attractive sight-line. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Sight-line 2

Designers of English Landscape Style gardens pay particular attention to the creation of an undulating sight-line. Photo: Marny Estep

As well, the form of the garden’s woody denizens (trees and shrubs) makes a significant contribution to the creation of a true four-season garden. It is this that provides a sense of permanence in the garden – to see its beauty season after season, year after year.


This view from my diningroom window is always serene and elegant – due in part to the variety and balance of form. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Plants come in many shapes. Classifying these shapes, simplistic though it is, can help us to understand their visual impact in the landscape and utilize them accordingly. For the sake of simplicity then, let’s say plant forms fit into one of the following categories:

  • Columnar/Fastigiate
  • Pyramidal/Conical
  • Vase shaped
  • Weeping
  • Topiary/Grafted standards
  • Fountain/Arching
  • Round/Mound
  • Mat/Flat

Today I will discuss the first.

Columnar/ Fastigiate

Columnar and Fastigiate forms are tall and narrow with very little taper. These strong vertical accents draw the eye, stop it, and send it skyward, thus momentarily arresting the flow of movement. Stately and spire-like, they have many applications in the urban landscape.

When used as a single specimen, a columnar form appears somewhat like an exclamation point. They are also lovely as a trio, and placing one on either side of an entrance or view will provide a visual frame, inviting the eye (or the viewer) through.

columnar forms

Left – A single columnar form can make quite a statement. Photo: Cathy Gaviller.
Right – A group of three is also stunning. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Skyrocket juniper

Two narrow Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’ nicely frame an entryway. Photo: Marg Gaviller.

Columnar forms are useful where taller scale is required but space is tight. As well, adding a few of these tall narrow trees to Mediterranean theme gardens can help to set the mood as they mimic the tall Italian cypress.

Italian Cypress

Nothing says Mediterranean quite like Italian cypress – it is seen in abundance throughout the region. In colder climates, like ours, other columnar trees can do the trick quite nicely. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Overuse of this form can result in very choppy movement as the eye stops and starts, darting up and down. This ‘jumpy’ feel will be most evident if these forms are dotted randomly around the landscape. If you want to use numerous columnar forms, they are best grouped together, used sequentially to reinforce a design line, or in a pattern of alternating elements.

columnar aspens

Alternating Populus tremula ‘Erecta’ and Picea pungens, effectively reinforce the straight design line, as well as providing some privacy for the homeowners. Photo: Sue Gaviller

On a smaller scale, columnar form is seen in these Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Avalanche'. They provide winter interest in both form and colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

On a smaller scale, columnar form is seen in these Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Avalanche’. They provide winter interest in both form and colour and reinforce directional movement along the path.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

The columnar plant form is an outstanding addition to the landscape – why not give one or two a home in your garden.

Join me next time as I look at another of the plant forms for your garden.

Til then,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.