The Power of the Palette: A Tool to Guide Planting Decisions

Photo © Darren Graffuis

This article takes an in-depth look at an age-old tool of landscape design: the planting palette. Traditionally, designers have built charts that help them map out the exact kinds of plants that will give them a consistent, season-long, “look” to any landscape they are designing. This article extends that effort, with help from our colleagues at the Cornell University Department of Landscape Architecture and their talented students, into the realm of habitat gardening. At the end of the article you’ll find a blank planting palette you can download, print, and use to create your own garden blueprint.

Darren Graffuis Planting Palette

Photo © Darren Graffuis

The most common use of a planting palette is to aide in the selection of flowers for a garden. People tend to like blooms in a variety of colors that last across the season. That is, they want at least some flowers adding color to their garden every month of the growing season. I’m guessing you’ve been in a neighbor’s garden where it seems like something is always in bloom. This, likely, was not a happy accident but, instead, the product of careful planning. The palette above, by Darren Graffuis, is this kind of palette. He uses actual images of the plant in bloom to convey precise color information, while the length of the bar corresponds to bloom-time information specific to that plant gleaned from online resources such as the USDA Plants Database, or You’ll notice the months listed across the top.

Alyssa Garcia Planting Palette

Photo © Alyssa Garcia

People who want gardens that paint more than a pretty picture might be interested in a planting palette that visualizes information about the value and timing of a plant’s resources for birds or other wildlife. Above, Alyssa Garcia, summarizes not only bloom time, but also when that plant is known to have seeds or fruit available for birds and other wildlife to eat. Here, the purple bar indicates when a plant is blooming and the yellow one when it may have fruit and seed (until they are eaten!).

Elizabeth Thompson Planting Palette

Photo © Elizabeth Thompson

This palette by Elizabeth Thompson is much like the one above, summarizing both bloom and fruit information, but you’ll also notice that the plant’s list is broken-up into categories for ground cover, sub-canopy (think shrubs), and canopy (think trees). She is not only balancing bloom and fruit in the garden but also structural diversity, another important aspect to consider when landscaping for wildlife since each layer of vegetation provides different niches and opportunities for foraging, hunting, nesting, resting, and breeding.

Ryosuke Takahashi Planting Palette

Photo © Ryosuke Takahashi

Ryosuke Takahashi got creative with this palette, expressing the cyclical nature of a year in this circular summary. There isn’t as much information crammed in here as on other palettes, but it is an excellent way to summarize the color in a garden around a year. You can easily see that this garden moves from an airy color palette of pinks and whites toward a fiery palette of rich oranges, reds, and golds as the summer progresses.

Lily Pan Planting Palette

Photo © Lily Pa

Lily Pan, using the same technique as Darren above, puts images to use in her wildlife garden palette: showing us not only blooms, but images of the plant’s berries, fall color, and winter berries. Looking from top to bottom gives a pretty detailed preview of what the garden will look like and provide during each month of the year. She has also snuck in information about how much sun each plant needs and its location on the property. This is a great way to get all this information in one place, although some people find it helpful to make individual palettes for each garden area, rather than one large palette. The choice is yours.

Seung Ha Song Plant Palette

Photo © Seung Ha Song

A product of student work especially focused on birds, this palette highlights bird forage plants. Seung Ha zeros in here, including not only layer information (ground, shrub, and canopy), but very specific notes about bird species known to have a relationship to these plants. This level of information typically takes a little more research to find. General resources like USDA will almost never provide species-specific info, which usually needs to be gleaned from a variety of resources. Habitat Network has a couple of resources that do this work for you:

  1. Which Bird, Which Plant: Provides a detailed plant information taken from scientific accounts of bird’s habitat published as a part of North American Birds Online. You can use this to identify specific birds you are interested in, and see a short list of plants they are associated with.
  2. Top Five Great Berries for Great Birds in Your Region: This resource reveals five great shrubs to plant in each region of the US and includes details about which birds and lepidoptera species (butterflies and moths!) are known to rely on each plant as a food source for their caterpillars.
  3. Local Resources: Here you’ll have access to a bunch of information specific to your zip code, but most importantly your Pollinator Partnership Planting guide which reveals plants specific to your ecoregion important to specific pollinators.
  4. Winter Berries: This article highlights the importance of winter-persistant fruit and gives many examples of berry-producing plants known to have fruit in fall and winter months.
Stephanie Buglione, Xiaowei Li,Yishan Zhang Planting Palette

Photo © Stephanie Buglione, Xiaowei Li,Yishan Zhang

Stephanie Buglione, Xiaowei Li, and Yishan Zhang put all of this info together into one palette summarizing structure, bloom time, moisture and sun requirements, hardiness zone, and whether it has been identified as of benefit to birds, bees, or butterflies. This palette also introduces two new ideas: functional redundancy and plasticity. Plasticity is a concept that becomes important in a garden when you want to take-steps to future-proof your work. As the climate changes, the kinds of plants that grow well in one place may start to have a difficult time because of increasing temperatures or changing moisture levels. Changing weather patterns that result from overall atmospheric warming can result in very different outcomes dependent on location. Some places may see more rain, others may be cooler, while still others could see environments with greater annual extremes (longer, hotter, hot periods, and longer, colder, cold periods). Taking plasticity into account simply means choosing plants that have higher tolerance for a greater range of conditions. The student designers who produced this palette used USDA planting zone (which is mostly about minimum average temperature), moisture needs, and preferred light type. The more conditions a plant tolerates, the more plastic it is. Choosing such plants hedges a gardener’s bets on future weather.

Xiaowei Li Plant Palatte

Photo © Xiaowei Li

Xiaowei Li’s palette does a great job of summarizing “functional redundancy,” which is pretty much what it sounds like–redundant functions of plants. In particular, bloom and berry availability to pollinators, and berry-eating wildlife. At the bottom of this chart you’ll notice a string of numbers 7-9-12-13-12-11-10-9. The numbers count the plants blooming and producing berries each month of the year. So, in January and February, that number is 0, but in June it is 13. Thus, in June, there are 13 plant species in this garden providing resources for wildlife. You might say there are redundant resources making it far more likely that if one or more of those plants fails to thrive, there will be another there to play its functional role in a garden.

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Photo ©
Download Palette

We’ve provided a basic printable palette to get you started on doing this kind of work in your own garden. Modeled on Li’s palette, this one has space for you to assess your existing plantings, and to add new ones as you identify holes in your garden’s functional redundancy.

Parts of our Palette

Scientific Name. It is always a good idea to include scientific name of any plants you are working with since common names are often applied to more than one species of plant. For instance, Star Gooseberry, which is the common name for two radically different plants. One of which is a small shrub, while the other a 30 foot tall tree.

Common Name. This one can be helpful to you, because common names are easier to remember, and sometimes make casual conversations about your garden easier. Need help with plant ID? Check out

USDA Plant info

Photo © USDA

Bloom and Berry Month. This is where you’ll need to do your research. There are MANY examples in the palettes above, but the students who created them were working exclusively in New York state and the plants they selected won’t be applicable everywhere. To find this information we recommend the following resources:

  • USDA Plants Database: a single source of standardized information about plants found in the US. The information you are interested in on these pages is quite buried. On the “general” tab of any plant profile look for links to pdf documents called “Fact Sheet” or “Plant Guide.” In these documents you will find narrative text like, Flowering and Fruiting: The greenish-white dioecious or polygamo-dioecious, inconspicuous flowers appear in May and June, after the leaves, and are borne in terminal racemose clusters. The fruit is a tardily dehiscent, flat, thick, woody legume that ripens in September or October and usually persists unopened on the tree until late winter or early spring.
  • a robust database of native plants found in the US. On a species profile page you will find information about relevant features like “Autumn foliage,” “fruit,” “bloom time,” “bloom color,” and general info like native distribution and growing conditions.

Color. Many people enjoy putting together garden beds with a certain palette. If this is you, this information is available at the sources discussed above, and can be added to the palette using the little circles and some colored pencils.

Berry Distribution. Use these boxes after filling out your palette in its entirely. The goal is to “count” the berry sources available each month of the year. Simply start at the top of the column for each month and count downwards noting how many plants in total produce berries in each month.

Bloom Distribution. Use these boxes after filling out your palette in its entirely. The goal is to “count” the flower sources available each month of the year. Simply start at the top of the column for each month and count downwards noting how many plants in total produce flowers in each month. Flowers are not only important sources of food for pollinators but, also, a joy for you and those who visit your garden.