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.

2 comments on “The Form of Things to Come

  1. As an architect and Master Gardener, I have to tell you that I love your blog and your style. I read through many posts as I scrolled down the list and have to say your approach to blogging is as professionally done as your approach to your career – with solid information and great illustration. I often wanted to take your same approach, sharing my knowledge and explaining my designs, but I found that many in the blogging world have a much different view of ‘gardening’. So I chose to take my blog in a different direction and talk design in general terms, hoping to make a subtle impression, rather than a direct one.

    The photos are wonderful on this site and I see you have a few different individuals taking them. Another reason I show little design work is I keep my blog separate from my professional life, one for client confidentiality and privacy, but another for a creative outlet that is ‘freer in creativity’ than my design profession. Other words, blog about things I don’t want the clients to see! I know you mentioned visiting many blogs from my site, but I would wholeheartedly encourage them to visit HERE. There is much to learn and what you show is done in such a clear, pleasing, understandable way.

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Wow – such high praise from one I truly respect! Thanks Donna.

      I chose to take the design approach to the blog, mostly because it’s what I know best. But long before I became a designer I was a gardener – never really happy with my garden though. I bought books on garden design, as did my husband (what better gift for a gardener than a garden book eh?). All the books had pretty pictures of beautiful gardens – what I wanted my garden to look like but didn’t know how to attain. And none of these books really told me how to get there with a step-by-step, do-this-then-do-that, kind of approach.

      So when I started the blog I knew that it was the former ‘me’s’ of the gardening world that would be my target demographic. As it turns out, my readership is made up of lots of home gardeners, but also former students, colleagues and clients. I suspect the blog’s emphasis on good design may limit my readership since, like you said, not all in the gardening world think like we do. And for the record, I’m still not completely happy with my own garden – retrofits are just never as good as starting from scratch.

      As for the photos, for most of my posts I try to take the majority of the photos myself, but I’m still such a beginner, so I often use some of my sisters’ or my Mom’s photos too. As well, a few students/colleagues have given me photos from their travels which periodically come in handy. And not all of the shots are of my own work – I wish I could say they were. For me the problem with using only my own designs is that some of my clients don’t maintain their gardens very regularly so they aren’t always photo-worthy. I do worry sometimes that clients might read something I’ve written that contradicts what I’ve done in their design, but they can always ask – I usually have good reason for my design choices even if they appear to contravene design principles.

      Anyways, I enjoy your blog because of your light-hearted approach, and your high standards are still quite evident – in your writing, your photos and your design advice. Please note I’ve added you to my short list of links in my Blogroll.

      Thanks again,


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