The Tilly Guide To Softscape & Landscaping Plants
By Axis Fuksman-Kumpa • March 25, 2022
Have you been thinking of upgrading your landscaping? If you have, you’ve probably thought a good deal about the plants you want to surround yourself with. Whether you’re dreaming of lush green foliage, feathery ornamental grasses, or bountiful fruit trees, that’s all softscape.
Softscaping includes all the living material in your landscaping from a blade of grass to an enormous shade tree. The greenery is only half the picture in landscaping, of course. Your patio, stones, paths, and more are all referred to as hardscape—and after learning about softscape, you can read our full Guide to Hardscape to complete the picture of how to do a full landscaping renovation.
In this article, we’re going to be talking about the wide variety of plant options you have for your landscaping. Selecting the right plants are key to ensuring your garden meets your maintenance desires, budget, style, and environmental concerns. For example, are you looking for an xeriscape design, drought tolerant plants, a backyard full of natives, a rock garden or something else?
We’ll be discussing some common landscaping plants as well as some of our favorite options that we love to use in our landscaping designs. To make it easier to find the perfect plants for your needs, we’ll be breaking them down by type of plant and by purpose of plant. Read on to find plants that will work for every landscape, aesthetic, and budget!
Types of Plants
With almost 400,000 species of plants in the world, there are a LOT to choose from when it comes to landscaping. Let’s simplify things a little bit by talking about some of the most commonly used categories of landscaping plants. These groupings can help you fill the gaps in your landscape if you’re in need of groundcover or a shade tree. They can also help you add diversity to your landscaping by selecting a variety of plants from different categories. A backyard that includes trees, flowers, groundcover, and ornamental grasses will have much more visual interest than one that just has a few shrubs. Some plant categories to consider are:
These trees will grow into lofty softscaping statement features that provide much-needed shade. Whether you’re looking to protect delicate, shade-loving plants or you’re looking for the perfect spot for your garden bench, these shade trees will give you exactly what you’re looking for. Shade trees will also add grandeur to your property and help your landscape feel established.
- Ginkgo - Ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest and hardiest tree species. Its unique fan-shaped leaves make it stand out among other deciduous trees and they turn a beautiful yellow in the fall. Ginkgo likes full sun and is hardy in a wide variety of climates.
- Oak - Oak trees are one of the widest ranging trees in the U.S., so it’s likely you’ve already seen a few in your neighborhood. They’re a stately, strong-wooded tree that can live for up to 200 years. When you plant an oak, you’re planting for another generation or two! They’re a great source of food and shelter for wildlife, but be prepared for acorn cleanup duty in the fall.
- Maple - Maple trees can grow to an impressive stature, but they are most well-known for their stunning fall foliage. Their distinctive leaves turn to vibrants reds and oranges in the fall, turning a summer lounge spot into a show stopping autumn attraction. Since they have relatively shallow, wide root growth, avoid digging any paths or garden beds close to your maples to prevent root damage.
- Elm - Elm trees are an old standby for American landscapers and city planners until Dutch elm disease struck in the 1930s and wiped out most of the population. Nowadays they’re making a tentative comeback with disease-resistant strains and can be a forgiving and elegant tree if they stay in good health.
These trees got their name for obvious reasons—they stay green all year round. Many evergreens are conifers, familiar for their spikey green needles. There are leafy evergreens, though, including shrubs like holly and azaleas. “Evergreen” is a useful category to identify plants that you can expect to keep their foliage all year round and add a little bit of green to your winter landscaping.
- Spruce - These trees will grow into a statuesque feature of your landscaping! Many spruce varieties are quite fast growing and will be towering in no time, with some spruces reaching over 60 feet tall. These hardy trees can survive across most of the country, including in very cold climates.
- Blue Spruce - This spruce variety is a firm favorite for its unique, blue-tinged needles! Blue spruces will thrive the most in full sun and moist soil—plus, that sunshine will show off that hint of blue all year round.
- Emerald Green Arborvitae - Not all evergreens look like big pine trees! The emerald green arborvitae is a wonderful example of a tall, narrow evergreen with more ornamental applications. Use several to create a privacy screen or place one or two for decorative effect—you can even use them for topiary. Added bonus: they’re low-maintenance and resistant to drought and pests.
- Green Giant Arborvitae - These trees are like the big, BIG brother to the emerald green arborvitae! They have a similar narrow, conical shape but grow much larger and much faster—they’re actually one of the fastest growing conifers around, adding 3-5 feet every year and reaching over 50 feet tall. That speedy growth (combined with easy care) makes them an ideal screen tree to give you privacy in a jiffy.
It’s hard not to love a flowering tree. The height and structure of a tree combined with delicate, fragrant blooms makes these selections springtime showstoppers! While they do really shine in the spring, many of these trees keep elegant foliage into the summer and autumn, making them an attractive part of your landscaping well after their blooms are gone.
- Cherry Blossom - The most well-known cherry blossom tree is the Japanese Cherry Tree (known for its sakura blossoms), but “cherry blossom tree” is actually a catchall name for a wide variety of flowering trees. All of these trees are known for their delicate flowers which typically bloom in the spring, but don’t expect fruit from your cherry blossom tree. These ornamental plants will only produce small, sour cherries (if they bear fruit at all) which will only be popular with birds, not people. If you want a true explosion of cherry blossoms, the Kwanzan Cherry has a reputation as the variety with the most blooms.
- Dogwood - Dogwood is a large genus that includes many wonderful flowering trees and shrubs that offer delicate blooms and sometimes even edible fruits. The classic example that comes to most people’s minds when they think of dogwoods is the flowering dogwood tree, which has a short stature and flowers in pink, white, and red varieties. Fun fact: the “petals” you see on dogwood flowers are actually bracts—modified leaves that surround a cluster of tiny true flowers in the center of the bloom.
- Magnolia - Magnolias are another plant with a wide range of species and cultivars, meaning there’s a magnolia to suit almost any landscaping need. You can find magnolias that grow like compact shrubs and huge magnolia trees that can grow 80 feet tall or with canopies 40 feet wide. All of these varieties produce large, striking blooms and have smooth bark, making them an appealing choice for most landscapers.
- Crape Myrtle - Crape myrtles are notable as a beautiful plant that produces flowers later in the season, typically blooming in the summer and into early autumn. You can find crape myrtle varieties that will grow to the size of a petite dwarf shrub and others that will become 30 foot tall trees. They also have unusual bark that peels, leaving behind an impressive pattern of colorful striations. Be cautious where you plant crape myrtles as they can seed aggressively and can become invasive in some areas if not properly contained.
- Redbud - These beautiful trees are native to the eastern U.S. and have a delicate structure with bright pink blooms. Redbuds are actually a member of the bean family, and unlike most other trees, their flowers grow directly on their branches. These trees typically only reach 30 feet in height and are sometimes used as a colorful shrub border.
Some ornamental trees can be striking landscaping features without needing flowers at all. These trees are loved for their distinctive foliage and bark, making them stand out in a sea of more conventional green and brown. They make excellent focal points as specimen trees or add variety with a small stand of them at the periphery of your backyard.
- Japanese Maple - There are hundreds of varieties of Japanese maple, but all of them are recognized for their beautiful foliage. Maples are known for their signature lobed leaves, but Japanese maples have a whole range of leaf shapes, textures, and colors from green to orange to purple and even variegated. Larger varieties can reach 30 feet tall, while smaller ones can be grown in containers or even shaped as bonsai.
- Birch Tree - The classic paper birch tree is known for its yellow autumn foliage and bright white bark that peels off the trunk like sheets of paper. The birch family includes many variations on the classic, including the river birch with a more salmon pink bark and the sweet birch (or black birch) whose dark, cracked bark stands in striking contrast to its yellow foliage in autumn. Most birch are tall growers, but bog birch is a hardy shrub-sized pick perfect for rain gardens.
- Olive Tree - Olive trees bring a bit of mediterranean flair to any landscape with their gnarled trunks and long, silvery leaves. Olive trees can grow and even fruit anywhere with hot, dry summers (hello, California), but winter temperatures below 20ºF will damage your tree. They need to be protected from extreme cold and dwarf varieties can be a good choice for container gardening to bring inside during the colder months.
- Aspen Tree - The quaking aspen is a beautiful tree that always appears in all those gorgeous fall foliage photos. It has distinctive pale bark and its delicate yellow autumn leaves rustle in every light breeze, adding gentle sound and motion to your landscape. The downside of quaking aspen is its prolific spread both from seed and from vining suckers that will quickly spawn a whole grove. This fast growth is good if you’re trying to fill space, for you’ll have to carefully keep growth back if you want to avoid a backyard full of aspens.
If you love the year round color of an evergreen but are looking for something a little smaller than a majestic cedar, consider evergreen shrubs. These smaller plants will provide the same greenery in the dead of winter while keeping to a height you can prune without needing to pull out the tall ladder. Whether you’re looking for ornamentals or a privacy screen, there’s an evergreen shrub for you.
- Azalea - Azaleas are a classic landscaping shrub with colorful and prolific spring flowers. While technically classified as part of the rhododendron family, azaleas are a large group in their own right with a long list of varieties that are both evergreen and deciduous. If you plant an evergreen azalea, you’ll get to enjoy the blooms in spring and the lush green foliage all year round.
- Rhododendron - Another traditional landscaping shrub is the rhododendron—a spring-blooming broadleaf evergreen with a myriad of attractive varieties. These shrubs can be picky about where they’re planted, preferring dappled sun and acidic soil, but that can be good news for people with shady gardens and the willingness to do a little soil amendment. Once established, you’ll be rewarded with a striking shrub with year round foliage.
- Boxwood - The boxwood genus includes about 70 species of slow growing, densely packed broadleaf evergreens that are a quintessential landscaping favorite for good reason. They’re highly prunable, deer-resistant, and come in a range of sizes that make them the perfect plants for topiary, privacy screens, hedges, or anywhere you want a splash of green foliage.
- Zen Garden Shrubs - If you love the peaceful look of a zen garden, there’s an array of traditional Japanese-style garden evergreens to choose from. With a range of care needs, sizes, and colors to choose from, you’ll be able to find an evergreen to suit every climate and empty patch of the garden. Popular choices include the Sawara cypress, Japanese boxwood, and garden juniper.
The world of deciduous shrubs includes an array of beautiful plants for your landscape. Although these shrubs don’t keep their leaves over the winter, the trade off is that many of them produce a bounty of vibrant flowers to add color and sometimes scent to your garden. A little bit of TLC will have these bushes churning out blooms suitable for any flower show—and attract a whole array of pollinators.
- Hydrangea - Hydrangeas are an adaptable shrub known for their round pompoms of vibrant flowers. These incredible blooms come in a rainbow of different colors (including unusual green flowers) depending on the variety of hydrangea and even the soil pH if you’re growing Hydrangea macrophylla—they’ll grow blue flowers in acidic soil and pink in alkaline soil. You’ll get to enjoy those flowers later in the season from mid-summer through fall, long after the other spring blooms have faded away.
- Lilac - Lilacs are a familiar favorite in landscaping known for their clusters of petite purple flowers and sweet, honeyed aroma that will wash over your garden every spring when they bloom. While some of the classic varieties of lilac tend to grow tall and leggy, newer varieties like Miss Kim have the same beautiful smell and blooms with denser growth. Lilacs thrive in areas with full sun and require little maintenance beyond some annual pruning and watering during dry periods.
- Butterfly Bush - The butterfly bush offers spectacular cones of brightly colored flowers and attracts butterflies and other pollinators by the dozens. That pop of color lasts through the summer and into the fall and there are a variety of cultivars that reach different mature sizes, so select your nursery plants thoughtfully for the space you want to fill. Butterfly bushes spread prolifically, so be prepared to keep up prompt deadheading and check your local regulations to see if they are considered an invasive species in your area.
- Knock Out Roses - Most roses can be beautiful but temperamental plants to grow—and that’s why Knock Out roses are such a favorite of gardeners and landscapers. This hardy shrub rose cultivar is disease resistant, cold resistant, and even requires minimal pruning. These roses now come in a variety of colors and sizes, making the dream of a low maintenance rose a reality.
Many people love vines, classic, whimsical, grow up trellis and pergolas. One thing to remember is vines can easily get out of hand if not maintained so keep this in mind depending on the level of upkeep you want in your yard. Some fantastic vine options include:
- Wisteria - These are rapidly growing plants, which are great to quickly cover a fence, pergola or arbor, but again, can get out of hand. The lavender flowers before the leaves come out. Tilly loves them because they give off a whimsical look and are fantastic to finish off a cottage or classic style garden.
- Bougainvillea -The bougainvillea is a tropical favorite that comes in many ink bottle colors. These are not actually from flowers but from modified leaves called bracts!
- Clematis - Most varieties of clematis grow to be about four feet and classically adorn lamp posts and mailboxes. A dark purple variety called Jackmanii is very popular, but clematis can be found in all shades of pink, purple, white, and striped. The bloom times also vary across varieties with some flowering in early spring and others well into autumn. The aptly named Fall Blooming Clematis is notable for its smaller but prolific flowers and tenacious habit growing significantly larger than its larger flowered relatives.
- Ivy - There are many types of ivy. English Ivy is Evergreen, making it a great option for color all year round. Boston Ivy turns vibrant red and orange in the fall, which can create a beautiful spectacle in your yard.
- Hosta - Hosta is an ‘old school plant’ grown mostly for its leaves with some wonderful new varieties like Sum and Substance, Blue Angel, and Blue Mouse Ears. Hostas are easy to care for and create a lush look. They are low maintenance which makes them a great option for any gardener.
- Echinacea - This is actually an herb with similar properties to vitamin C which is why you’ll hear about people taking it to boost their immune system. This is a native, naturalizing, long flowering that is great to attract pollinators. There are many different cultivars of echinacea, in many different colors from orange to red to green to white and one of the most common, purple!
- Geranium - These are a cute, long flowering perennial that you could compare to clouds! They are a fragrant deer resistant, which makes them a great option in many areas. You will often see these flowers on garden borders.
- Salvia - This great, long blooming, purple spike like flower is a fantastic pop of color. The salvia will readily rebloom if cut back after first bloom and is also deer resistant.
- Catmint - A fast growing, silvery foliage, finely textured purple flower. They are very easy to grow, a mounding perennial. While they are deer resistant, cats love it, akin to cat nip - hence the name!
- Coreopsis - small yellow flowers with finely textured leaves. They are long flowering but somewhat short lived. They look great planted in masses together.
Groundcover is low growing plants that are essentially the ‘floor’ or ‘rug’ of your garden. They are a great, low maintenance alternative to a lawn - especially in shade. They will help prevent weeds and provide seasonal flowering interest! They are a great option for a slope, a border, lining a driveway or to fill a tricky side yard.
- Periwinkle - Periwinkle aka myrtle or vinca is an evergreen groundcover with small blue flowers in spring.
- Lily of the Valley - This is an old fashioned groundcover with dainty flowers on stalks and has a wonderful scent. It spreads slowly but will endure season after season, making it a great option.
- Pachysandra - This is a very easy evergreen and a great option, especially in a shady area or an area with acidic soil.
- We’ve written about some of other great groundcovers here
A bulb is any plant that stores its complete life cycle in an underground storage structure. Some are annual, some are perennial, some naturalize over time, some decrease in tenacity.
- Hyacinth - Incredibly scented, densely packed chubby flower spikes. It’s not quite an annual bulb, but loses strength every year, but it packs a punch visually.
- Tulip - There are some naturalizing varieties. These are indigeounous to the mountains of Turkey but have been bred and loved for hundreds of years. They are a common, fantastic sign of spring.
- Daffodil - Daffodils are typically yellow or white. If planted in a sunny, well drained location this bulb will only get better and stronger over time. Another great ‘first sign of spring.’
Annuals have to be planted every year so consider your budget and time commitment when planting annuals. Some plants that are annuals in one region are perennial in another, so you’ll need to do your research.
- Begonia - The begonia is a classic bedding plant. These are particularly good in pots and planters. Some favorites include tuberous, dragon wing, or angel wing.
- Geranium - This is actually a pelargonium that has clusters of vibrant colored flowers with round lobed leaves. It will bloom for many months if dead headed regularly.
- Coleus - These are a great tropical look with beautiful leaves of all colors from purple to lime green.
- Cosmos - A whimsical wildflower that comes in pinks, whites, and purples. This is another flower that looks great in masses.
- Zinnia - Zinnias are long blooming flowers that come in many colors. They are very easy to grow and a wonderful pop of color!
Biennials are not plants that bloom for two years, but those that have a two year life cycle. The first year they look one way, the second they look completely different. Typically the first year these plants are just a small rosette of leaves and the second year they send up a larger flower spike.
- Hollyhock - This is a fantastic look for a cottage garden. It’s a tall biennial with large flower spikes that come in many different colors!
- Foxglove - These are whimsical cones of bell shaped flowers. These flowers are also available in a great variety of colors from white, lavender, ink, purple, lavender, yellow, red and more!
Tilly loves talking about plants - what other varieties would you want to hear about?
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