Plant Purpose

Making your plants work for you

A large leafy wide tree in a grassy area with other trees, a parklike setting
Hophornbeam is a native deciduous shade tree. Photo: Paul Wray, Iowa State University,

In a previous article, Ten Important Things to Consider When Planning Your Landscape Design, we shared tips on developing a plan and creating a beautiful, cohesive, and thriving landscape. Considering what function the plants in your landscape will serve is right in the middle of the list.

Plants can be used in a number of ways; they can provide you with fresh food, beautiful scenery, lovely aromas, and much more.

Shading, cooling, and energy saving

Trees and large shrubs provide cooling shade, something that can be a great service in Florida. When choosing plants, consider where you’d like a little extra shade. Thoughtful planting that keeps your AC unit out of the sun can help keep the energy bill down. Shrubs can shade windows that get intense sunlight, like those facing south and west. Read more in Planting Trees for Energy Savings.


Turf is often used to provide a recreational space, but it also works, filtering water, stabilizing soil, and preventing erosion. Did you know that turfgrass also keeps your landscape cool? Surface temperatures above an area of turf can be 10 to 14 degrees cooler than temperatures over concrete or asphalt. With the heat of a Florida summer, those 10 degrees really matter. Read more in Turf Types.

Gopher apple is a native groundcover. Photo by Scott Zona. Some rights reserved.


Groundcovers can be a low-maintenance alternative to turf while providing many of the same benefits. While they may not hold up to heavy traffic as well as turf, groundcovers have their own benefits. For example, groundcovers can increase biodiversity and wildlife habitats, reduce water use, and add visual interest to your landscape. Plus, they’re often a better choice for areas of shade than traditional turfgrasses. Read more in Alternatives to Turfgrass.


Plants like trees and dense shrubs can provide a barrier to create privacy and block unsightly views of utilities or roads, while also providing protection from sound, dust, or cold wind. Trees can be used to define space and provide a feeling of enclosure. Strategically placed trees and shrubs can organize your yard and create outdoor “rooms” for different activities. Choose evergreens with dense foliage and low branches. Remember it may take several years before they’ll be large enough to provide protection. Read more in Outdoor Living Spaces.


Having a diverse range of native plants in your landscape provides wildlife with food and habitats — and gives you the opportunity to watch creatures enjoy your garden just as you do. While pollinator gardens are great for specifically attracting bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, wild visitors of all types can enjoy the shelter and bounty of your garden. Vertical layers (plants of different heights) are important to attract both ground and tree dwellers. Learn more in our Gardening with Wildlife articles.


Beyond food for wildlife, plants can also provide food for the gardener. Fruiting trees like citrus, persimmon, mango, avocados, figs, or olives, and shrubs like pineapple guava or blueberry, can provide bounty year after year. Herbs like thyme, oregano, lemongrass, basil, or rosemary can add flavors to small or large areas of a garden. And annual edibles give gardeners the option to grow their own food and change it up as seasons and tastes change. Read more in our Edible Gardening articles.


Garden bed with plants that are all cool colors, with a wooden sign that reads Silver Black Blue Garden
This garden takes the color theme very seriously. Photo: Kim Taylor, UF/IFAS.

Not to be forgotten are the aesthetics. When thinking about the look of your landscape, don’t just think about how it looks when you’re in the middle of it. Take a step back and consider how your landscape will look when viewed out of the windows in your home, you want it to be visually appealing from all angles and locations.

The plants you choose will work together as a whole to create a mood or theme for your landscape. Color can have a significant effect on mood. Cool blue hues can help your garden become a calming and tranquil place. Purple can be inspiring and even give space a regal feel. Red is a bold and exciting addition to the landscape. The plants in your garden can be used to excite senses beyond just the visual as well, with fragrance, pleasant sounds, and touchable plants with interesting textures. Read more in Sensory Gardens.

Of course, there’s more to plants than meets the eye; it’s important that they be selected in the early stages of planning so that their future purpose and required space can be considered at the same time. Factoring in how a plant will be used as part of your design plan from the very beginning will create a more functional, energy-efficient landscape, and perhaps more importantly, a pleasurable experience.

Also on Gardening Solutions