Strike the Symmetry

Symmetry is a popular design technique in residential landscapes – to be fair, perhaps more so with do-it-yourselfers than with professional designers. Symmetry is the act of balancing the left and the right so that they are equal. The definition from The Free Dictionary is: “Exact correspondence of form and constituent configuration on opposite sides of a dividing line or plane or about a center or an axis.”

2894 house3I think that symmetry limits your plant palette, however, and I advocate that we set ourselves free from it. Most of us don’t have unlimited space in the yard, so why limit yourself to matching plants?

Why have two pruned hollies when you could have one weeping yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’) opposite a wax myrtle (Morella cerifera)? Both are evergreen and both have small leaves, but the shades of green are different, the forms are different and they attract and support different birds and critters.

Fothergilla 2011a

Fothergilla major


One side might be sunnier than other – another perfect opportunity to plant different things. Use the sunny side to plant a showy flowering shrub such as Fothergilla major. Or plant a collection of flowering perennials, choosing a half dozen species staged to bloom in succession from spring to fall. Just imagine all the choices you could make!

Where would you start? First of all, evaluate your landscape. Do you have matching plants at the end of the driveway or even, gasp, lawn?

2890 driveway

Junipers flank the driveway with little flare.



The driveway is perfect place to start. Often one of the sunniest areas, imagine how it would look if you could steal just one of the sides. Is it hot and dry?

Think of Penstemon for spring, coneflowers (Echinacea, Rubeckia) for summer and clumping goldenrods (Solidago) and asters (Symphyotrichum) for fall. If I had a choice I’d change the side with the mailbox so you don’t have to mow around it.


Mailbox spring

My mailbox in spring – behind these plants are Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ plants for fall blooms.



Ready to tackle something bigger? Transform one side of the front door while you leave the other one unchanged. If one side is not thriving, choose that one.



2889 house1





Evaluate anew the conditions that side has now (it may have changed since your initial planting): sunny, shady, dry, moist? Now the fun begins – research new plants!



If you are looking to transition into more using native plants in your landscape, I also think that maintaining the formal look that symmetry evokes is a plan that works against the concept. Native plants are most often at their best when they are not sheared, are arranged in loose groups, and are mixed up with different plants.

right azalea 2008

Native azaleas have a loose habit that mixes well with native perennials.


Some of my best-blooming native azaleas are in my foundation planting because of the perfect morning sun conditions there. Around their feet are ferns, arching Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and dainty foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia).

So set yourself free from symmetry and expand your choices. I think you’ll have a lot of fun with it.

© 2013, Ellen Honeycutt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    You have posted some very good design considerations here. I especially agree symmetry and native plantings don’t mix well. Although symmetry appears in many natural structures (crystals, animal and plant bodies), I have never seen it in groups of individuals in the wild (schools of fish, plant communities, flocks of birds). Groups of individual in domesticated scenes–yes: Busby Berkeley dances, Lippizaners, synchronized swimming and other movement forms that tend to strain credulity.

    I do not live in a house with a formal symmetrical design, and I have to say that I think designing native plantings that went with the architectural plan might be challenging. The path of least resistance is certainly the symmetrical path in those cases. However, one thing comes to mind — Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s old home). I have not been there since I was 8 years old, but I seem to remember some wildish gardens around the place, the architecture of which had a very formal symmetry.

  2. says

    You make some great points. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I’m fortunate that my house happens to be asymmetric. Otherwise I’d agonize over how symmetric to make my plantings. As is, there’s no way to make them symmetric even if I tried, so I don’t worry about it.
    Leah recently posted..A native shade garden

  3. Joey says

    I have gardened for 50 years now, realize texture, free form, and good balance is what I enjoy. Do you remember a garden where everything matches, etc? No, its the garden with great seasons of color, texture and form.

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