Designing with see-through plants

I’m a latecomer* to the term “see-through plants,” new to me until this spring. It was in a presentation on small-space gardening written by another Master Gardener. Her point was that designing with see-through plants is one way to make a small space seem bigger. Hmmm, thought this small-space gardener, interesting.

After that, I started to notice plants for their “see-through” qualities. First, in gardens – later, when trawling through my photo archive. As I tried to figure out what they are, why they work, and how to use them, it became clear how useful they can be for gardens of any size.

Grasses are the most obvious see-through plants

What is a see-through plant, I wondered? Well, duh. It’s a plant you can see… through. It isn’t like a big, dense, flowery glob. It has gaps in the structure large enough to show what’s on the other side. Or, at least, to show a hint of it.

In leaf, flower or fruit, ornamental grasses do this exceptionally well. Their tops can be spikes, tassels or feathery plumes, each screening the view differently. Some, like the muhly grass (Muhlenbergia) below, are as soft as mist.

The pink haze framing the bench is muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) dotted with Verbena bonariensis. Does anyone in the GTA grow muhly grass? It *might* be hardy in the Niagara region.

(To see missing captions, cursor over the image or touch it via mobile. Click any image to view a slide show.)

Look at the two pictures paired above. At left, two plants of arching Molinia ‘Skyracer’ gently mark a transition between areas in the Montreal Botanical Garden. At right, purple Salvia peeps through the gaps of the Molinia in the middle of this bed at the Toronto Botanical Garden. To different degrees, the grasses both conceal and reveal what’s coming next. And, of course, they move like curtains in the breeze, and catch the light at different times of day.

Flowers on stilts

But you don’t have to be a grass to be see-through. Any flower that has an open framework of naked stems works, too.

Like a fleet of tiny spaceships, backlit alliums hover above this bed at the Toronto Botanical Garden.
With its small, rounded, purple flower clusters on tall, waving, leafless stems, Verbena bonariensis has become a poster child for see-through plants. Its tiny footprint squeezes easily into a sunny garden.
Flower spikes work, too

While the flowers above are concentrated at the tops of the stems, flower spikes are a narrow arrangement of flowers along a stem. They can be densely arranged, like the blazing star (Liatris) or loosely arranged like a lily (Lilium). This can potentially give you more floral bang for your see-through buck, as well as an open, upright accent.

Spikes can be like the slender, white Actaea (or Veronicastrum?) that reach up to raise the profile of the garden without dominating it, or the turk’s-cap lilies that gradually pop open to say “look at me!”
Use to provoke curiosity – and create a sense of veiled mystery
As you’ve seen in other examples, here in Wouterina deRaad’s garden, your eyes rest on wands of Persicaria ‘Firetail’ and you wonder what’s beyond. This encourages you to move through the space.
Use to intensify drama – or create breathing space

As lovely as the knot garden is at the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, its clipped precision looks even more charming from behind this loose, lacy curtain of Valeriana officinalis. And the bed of, yes, again, Verbena bonariensis subtly breaks up the large expanse of lawn as you walk through this Minneapolis public garden.

Without feeling like a tunnel, a frame of see-through plants directs your eye to the bridge. Of course, the plants include the tree, which can be pruned to accentuate the trunk and branches.
Use to build layers of colour and texture

Their open form lets you build up layers of shape on shape, or colour on colour, like a garden collage. But, like any garden design technique or interesting plant quality, such as variegation, be careful not to overdo it.

When massed, and especially when viewed from a distance, the spaces within see-through plants close up and gain solidity. In another view of the TBG’s entry garden, which begins this post, a purple smoke tree’s spiky branches contrast nicely against them.
The lighter-than-air, late-spring version of this small Rosedale garden relies on plants with see-through qualities. Later, the grasses will take over the role fulfilled by the Allium, Camassia and Narcissus. This is what my Master Gardener meant, I think, by using see-throughs to enlarge small spaces.
Remember to look up
See-through plants like this Thalictrum can become a translucent ceiling in the right spot.
They can add height without weight, like these yellow grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), which looks even more brilliant from the other side of the bed, framed by blue sky.
And look down

Think in all directions. Those misty plants can give a bottomless effect to your garden, too.

*As I said, I’m a latecomer. I might have saved myself a lot of time by googling. Well into the writing of this post, Google served up this excellent 2008 article on See-Through Plants by writer and photographer Janet Davis. Zip over there for her knowledgeable take on the whys and hows, plus suggestions for many other useful transparent plants.


    1. Yes, I think too many of the plants in my garden are solid masses. I need to think transparent thoughts, too!

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