The Odd Rule of Landscaping

  • Sumo

If you’re like me, when you walk into a plant sale or nursery it’s like you’re a kid in a candy store! “I’ll have one of each, please!” My eyes light up and I can’t wait to get my hands on, well, everything.

When we first moved into our current home we discovered that the former owners must have had the same mentality. The yard was more lushly landscaped than any home I’d yet lived in. There were 250 plants, and very few repeats. In other words, close to 250 different kinds of plants in the yard.

While it’s fun to have lots of different kinds of plants, just getting one of everything violates one of the cardinal rules of good landscaping. I call this the Odd Rule of Landscaping. Sometimes it is referred to as the “Rule of Three”, though that is a misnomer.

An Odd Rule

The problem with buying one of everything and planting them all in the yard is that the landscape becomes very random, disorganized and unnatural. There’s no theme or continuity, no focus or passion.

Psychologists who study such things have found that things that appear in odd numbers of at least three are the most visually appealing to us. This satisfies a desire for variance but also repetition. This is not confined only to landscaping. Music forms rhythms of repeated patterns, as do all forms of art. In landscaping it’s not just multiplicity that counts, but it is an odd number of multiples that strikes the chord most fervently with us.

Planting in Odd QuantitiesIt seems to matter most when the numbers are between three and seven. That’s why I say that the rule of three is a misnomer. Three, five and seven all have very strong visual appeal to us. Once you get over seven, though, the mind isn’t really able to discern the difference between odd and even at a glance anymore. If you’re planting a hedge, for example, you don’t need to plant twenty three Arborvitae when twenty two will do, just to get an odd number in.

So, next time you’re buying plants, instead of buying ten “onesies”, consider buying three triplets, or two quintuplets of plants. While you won’t have quite as much variety, what you plant will make an overall bigger impression on the eyeballs.

One Simple Landscape Trick

All plants have beauty, but some are particularly impressive and are known as specimen plants. These are usually fairly large and also visually striking. Dogwoods, Lilacs, a Japanese Maple or a beautiful hydrangea are some examples of specimen plants.

A specimen plant can be planted singly, rather than in clusters. However, by for added eye-candy, surround the specimen with an arc of 3 or 5 smaller plants in front of it. By adding the Odd Rule to the Specimen Rule the smaller plants will both accent the specimen and draw attention to it. For an added bonus try this combination:

Start with a specimen that reaches 6-8 feet in height and spread. Surround it with three smaller plants that reach 3-4 feet in height, and then add another arc of seven plants that are only 1-2 feet tall.

Happy Gardening!

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7 Responses to The Odd Rule of Landscaping

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  3. marvin says:

    on a flagpole, wouldn’t the odd number of lights still be in effect? We can put up to five, but to me the three we put in looks great but I’m being told that it would look better if one was taken out or to add one which means 2 or 4. Don’t think that the even number of lights is right.

  4. marvin says:

    I meant lights shining on and up to a flag pole, shouldn’t they still be in odd numbers when the most you could add is 5?

    • Scott says:

      That sounds right. I don’t know for sure, but the effect of our minds preferring odd numbers to even in design is still true, whether talking about plants, flag pole lights or fence posts.

  5. Joseph says:

    Does it matter if the three plants are the same, but different color?

    • Scott says:

      Good question! It depends on the plant, but if they three plants look similar, so it is obvious to the eye that they are the same plant, just with different colored flowers, then I think that would work just as well. For example, 3 kinds of creeping phlox. They all grow the same size and shape and have similar foliage. They just have different flower colors. The effect won’t be quite the same as if they were all the same color, too, but will still look orderly and will “make sense” to the mind.

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