Get in Shape with Shrubs

One of the best kept secrets for creating a glorious garden is to use shapes and forms to define your garden’s personality. Tall and columnar shapes suggest formality while billowy, loose forms are typically more informal. Shrubs are an easy way to get started with this design principle because their shapes are easy to identify.

Use Plant Forms to Create Expression

Discover the visual language of shrub forms by looking at a plant’s silhouette. Certain shapes carry associations that we understand through their outlines. For instance, a bridal wreath spirea has a soft and graceful shape and its flowing pendulous branches imply cascading water and give it a relaxed appearance. On the other hand, a conical blue spruce is viewed as a more rigid, stable and grounded form.

Use Shrubs to Reinforce Your Garden’s Style

Individual plant shapes help convey a garden’s personality and when they are arranged with other plants in borders or into patterns, that style is further reinforced. Garden borders that are laid out in geometric shapes and symmetrical designs appear formal. Orderly shrubs such as boxwoods, clipped yews and arborvitaes will accentuate the defined lines to create a measured, controlled look. Look for columnar, conical, round, and vase-shaped shrubs if you desire a formal garden.

On the other hand, informal gardens are more relaxed and intuitive. They are characterized by curved and sinuous lines that have a more natural and free spirited nature. Fountainesque and spreading shrubs are ideal for this style garden. Azaleas, forsythia and spirea are a few shrubs that will look at home in an informal garden.

So which one is for you? In general, most gardens look best if they complement the architectural design of the house. Arts and Crafts, bungalows, vacation homes, and cottages look comfortable when surrounded by informal gardens whereas Colonial, contemporary and Mediterranean style homes are enhanced by a more formal approach.

Sometimes a mix of both styles can enhance the qualities of each one. By bringing elements of the formal and informal together a good marriage can be forged, one that can yield exceptional results. Try clipped hedges, large or small, to draw a strong outline of plants around the perimeter of your yard or to define a specific area and fill it with effusive forms of flowers and foliage. Together they act as a visual foil for each other and give added interest and balance to the design.

Plant Shape




Rigid and regimented, formal, order

Italian cypress, arborvitae, needlepoint holly


Exuberant, effervescent, bubbling

Forsythia, bridal wreath spirea, cranberry cotoneaster


Formal, stately, lofty, regal

Crape myrtle, Sunjoy® Golden Pillar™ barberry


Jolly, fun-loving, neat and friendly

Boxwood, dwarf forms of spirea, conifer, holly, azalea

Spreading – equal in width and height

Comforting, sheltering

Dwarf burning bush, azaleas, Virginia sweetspire ‘Little Henry’


Stable, grounded, formal

Boxwood ‘Green Mountain’, holly ‘Sky Pencil’

What you can do now:

Take black and white pictures of your garden (use digital camera and drain out the color, or make a black and white photocopy of a color print). Study the plant forms in your garden and see if you have enough variety of shapes to give your garden the personality you want.