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Designing Your Landscape with Motion in Mind

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

field of flowers


“Movement is tranquility”

                                                                                                                                 - Stirling Moss


Odd how things happen, isn’t it? 


I ran across the quote on a random Google search, and it piqued my interest. Looking him up, I learned that Stirling Moss was a British Formula One race car driver who has been described as one of the greatest race car drivers ever. At first it made no sense to me to equate movement with what, on the surface, seemed to be a polar opposite -- tranquility. I have been conditioned to believe that being tranquil always implies being still. But does it?  A race car driver could certainly be tranquil -- “free from or unaffected by disturbing emotions; unagitated” -- being in the midst of what he loves best, racing.

race car

Strangely enough, running across the words of a race car driver made me, a gardener, understand something about a design question I have been grappling with -- How do I bring more life  --more vitality --  into my gardens but have them be a sanctuary of quiet and peace, a place of tranquility? Realizing the total stillness of my yard and thinking about the Stirling Moss quote, I began to wonder if movement was the answer I was looking for.

formal landscape

If you stop and think about it, movement is inherent in nature. Rarely, if ever, is nature completely still. Waves crash onto the shore and roll back again. Clouds float past. The breeze blows and leaves rustle. A bird perches on a bush and the branch bends to the weight. A beetle scurries by and the soil scatters. Every motion, no matter how big or how small, adds its thread to the tapestry that is our environment. 

waves roll in

Although designers carefully consider how the eye will move through the landscape or where the pathways will lead people, they often neglect to think about intentionally incorporating the natural, spontaneous movement of individual plants and groups of plants into their designs. Pete Oudolf, the famed Dutch designer, in his book designing with plants, contends that a garden that “responds to nature feels alive, whereas one that is still seems almost dead.”


natural landscape

In order to introduce nature’s movement into the landscape, Oudolf fills his designs with beds of perennials and grasses. Perennials with long, swaying stems like Pincushion plants (Scabiosa) react to the slightest puff of air giving movement even on a crushingly still day. Those with tempting blooms and seed heads, for example Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), bring motion to the garden as birds, butterflies and other insects pause to rest and feed. 


Almost all ornamental grasses with wispy seed heads and slim, linear leaves like Little Bluestem gracefully bend back and forth in the breeze, not just drawing the eye, but holding it too. Many grasses with sturdier heads, like Maiden Grass, seem to be giving a well-choreographed performance as they bow their heads in unison and lean away from the wind. 


Shrubs too can bring liveliness to the garden through movement. The soft branches of Butterfly bush (Buddleia) or Blue Mist spirea (Caryopteris) sway in gentle arcs when butterflies and bees flock to drink the nectar of their blooms or as winds sweep through the landscape.


Purposely adding motion to the garden links a designed landscape back to the natural environment in the most meaningful way.  A landscape that is allowed to have motion reassures us that we are in the midst of a thriving, living landscape that  offers a place of  tranquility in a chaotic world.


Looking to add the magic of motion to your garden this spring? Join us next time as we share some of the plants that move us.