The dance of plants

Some tutu-like blooms to brighten this sunny but grey-brown subzero day in Toronto.

Stumbling across the word choreograph in the textbook for the planting design course I’m taking, I had a little A-ha! moment. Choreography and the garden: of course!

I’ve been in the habit of thinking of the selection and placement of plants in painterly terms – or of creating floral arrangements at static moments in time. But while the painterly principles of composition are essential – balance, proportion, scale, emphasis, et al – it’s the notion of time that I’d paid insufficient attention to; its simultaneous continuity and movement. A-ha! I said. And a-ha, again!

Our text is Professional Planting Design by landscape architect and horticulturist Scott C. Scarfone. He makes a strong case for remembering that a garden is dynamic and ever-changing:

“Planting design is different from other design professions in that we are designing using living entities that respond to their environment and that change over time. … Plant designers must be able to fully understand and take advantage of the changing nature of their medium, and that requires a carefully trained eye capable of noticing the myriad factors that influence a landscape or garden and the plants that fill it.”

Naturally, I know that plants, particularly perennials, have blooming periods. However, the notion that I could map these facts-beyond-my-control into somewhat controllable patterns hadn’t previously lodged in my brain with such a loud click.

Now, as I carefully train my eye as instructed, I’ll be thinking of choreography: of the movement of individual performers; solos, pas de deux and choruses; of filling the stage in three dimensions.

And while my mind is embracing music, I also like the idea of orchestration, which moves notes and instruments through time in a similar way. I’ll be thinking of individual plants as melodies weaving through the life of a garden, with harmonies or even pleasing dissonances or recurrent themes.

Get out your sheet music, gardeners. It’s time to go for baroque (sorry!), to really think about time as we plan our own Four Seasons.


  1. That is so cool. I hadn't thought of garden design before as being a kind of choreography, but it's a perfect metaphor. Thanks for sharing your a-ha moment and setting off my own. 🙂

  2. I like this analogy too. I think my garden's dance is a highland fling or else some sort of breakdancing. Right now, it's a mime's pose, locked in the frigids. (thanks, Ontario, for sharing your storm and cold winds).

  3. I love the idea of choreography and orchestration as well. As with jodi, most of the choreography is happening in my head right now. I guess one of the advantages of a small gardening space is you start thinking in terms of choreography early, and mine is no minimalist choreography, more like Busby Berkley, because…I am a plant hog.

  4. Helen, I think I had some vague notion of this somewhere in the dim recesses of my brain, but making it explicit like this is so helpful. Thank you! -Jean

  5. This is something I need to work on. For several years, my perennial bed looked good without any actual planning from my side. But last year something happened, and it didn't look good at all. It was a cacophony!

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