DesignMeaning in Planting Design

Meaning in Planting Design

Image above features the seasonal interest of The Healy House’s native plant matrix.

There is a growing ‘trend’ in landscape architecture when it comes to planting design – more and more often, Landscape Architecture Magazine and landscape design social media feeds are filled with more sublime, flowing meadows, containing a symphony of softly mounding grasses interspersed with a wild yet refined mixture of seasonal perennial interest.   Yet more substantive than trends of previous eras, this planting movement embodies a shift in our cultural relationship with place and nature.  There is a yearning for meaning and context within the broader landscape.

In our practice we refer to this approach to landscape and planting design as ‘matrix planting,’ or depending on the application, sometimes also meadow planting.  The ‘matrix’ consists of generally lower, rounded, perennials or grasses that maintain a fairly uniform appearance throughout the growing season as the predominant vegetation.  This matrix serves to provide visual continuity and structural support for taller/skinner perennials that might otherwise tend to flop over.  It also serves to hide spent plants that have finished their short but glorious solo performances.  This is in stark contrast to the planting design trend of the 2000’s-2010’s where designers would focus on color-blocking large swaths of colorful perennials, placing plants in uniform monoculture (one type of plant) to achieve a bold, yet short-lived display of color/flower.

This is the Healy House’s native & waterwise matrix planting in full bloom during the spring.

In the fall, the right matrix plantings will undergo the seasonal transitions elegantly. A well-designed plant palette will be ecologically functional, resilient, and provide year-round interest.

The matrix planting movement is representative of a broader cultural shift toward appreciating local ecologies, and a deep-seated desire for a sense of psychological comfort and connection in outdoor space.  The difference between a showy yet short-lived, high-maintenance color-block planting versus the subtle orchestra of a matrix composition is in many ways a metaphor for life.  What we are seeing in our post-Covid world is a desire for less: less stress, less ‘Keeping up with the Jones,’ less pressure to look and be 1000% amazing 1000% of the time. More and more people are waking up to the fact that this desire for constant epic-ness is ultimately artificial, emotionally draining, and devoid of personal satisfaction.  

The plants lining the garden pathway at The Healy House have an impressionist appeal, with a balanced composition of cultivation as well as organic complexity.

The matrix approach, while seemingly complex, is actually very similar to a well-designed life anchored in the consistent rhythms of small, positive daily habits that results in a sense of overall flow.  In the same way that constant daily routines help to alleviate the stress of having to think about every individual decision throughout your days, similarly a matrix approach to planting design is anchored in the initial mix and composition.  The secret is to choose a mix of plants that go together, because they literally grow together in native ecosystems.  One or several ‘mixes’ are then organically applied to the landscape a painterly fashion.  Rather than every individual plant in a landscape fighting for your attention, the resulting composition is actually quite visually cohesive.  
The matrix movement is not only more ecologically substantive, but the resulting landscape designs also provide a much deeper sense of meaning that expands beyond the physicality of an individual planter bed, or even an individual site.  This is more than a trend it’s a social and cultural movement, our shifting cultural relationship with nature, embodied in plant composition.


To read more on how to plant meadow grasses, click here.


To purchase our astrology-inspired matrix planting plans for intermountain park strips (and many other planting plans), visit our Etsy shop. 

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