Understanding just what an accent plant is, and how they are best used, can help you bring eye-catching beauty to your yard.

There are many different types of plants that can be used as accent plants in the landscape. In general, each of them have a united three-part goal or purpose: 1) capture attention, 2) bring focus to an otherwise bland landscape view, and 3) help create a garden theme. Plants that fulfill these assignments are generally called accent plants.

Accent plants can accomplish their mission in several different ways. In some instances, it can be through color. A plant with fiery red or cool blue flowers, such as the red bird of paradise or the blue hibiscus, can draw the attention of passers-by and serve as the focal point of the garden. Other colors, blending well with the plants around it, can also serve this purpose.

A great example of color in an accent plant is the bougainvillea. In full bloom it almost automatically commands attention because of its vibrant colors, even if it is planted all by itself in a landscape. Incorporated with other plants into a corner niche garden, it can be particularly eye-catching.

The success of an accent plant can also be tied to the shape of the plant or its parts. Some plants may appear quite colorless, all the time or between blooms, but the shape of the plant, even it is just the leaves, can be quite spectacular. Many indoor plants are that way. What attracts the gaze is the unique shape of the plant. They tend to command our attention. Outdoors, some plant sculpture experts carve forms or faces into plants to draw the eye.

Another great example of this concept is our old friend, the saguaro. Its unusual shape makes it the ideal standard bearer plant of the Sonoran Desert and our landscapes that try to mimic the wild almost always have one included. People all over the world associate the saguaro with the Southwest. For this and other reasons, it always seems to attract attention, no matter where it is growing. Other cacti planted in a landscape often serve the same purpose.

Plant size can also create an accent plant. Because of their size, a Mediterranean or Mexican fan palm, either one, can attract the gaze. We see it all the time. Planted in a grass lawn or graveled yard, a large palm tree is the landscape’s focal point. Surrounded by other complementary plants with a tropical look, a palm can quickly give a yard a totally different feel that is separate and apart from the normal desert landscape.

As you take a walk around your neighborhood, or any area for that matter, take time to look at the various landscapes planted around homes or in business areas. Ask yourself several questions as you pause to look at each one.

“What plant in this garden first attracts my attention?” “Which plant here tells me the overall theme of the garden or yard?” “When I look at the yard and I am drawn to that first plant, is it the color, size, or shape that catches my attention?” These and other questions can help identify the accent plant in any landscape.

Let’s turn our attention towards the process used to select an accent plant, and then visit briefly about how to design a yard, or section of yard, around that accent plant. It takes a little knowledge of the plant palette, or the range of plants from which we can select, and a knowledge of some basic landscape design principles in order to do this. Let’s review those briefly.

First of all, before considering any plant at the nursery, you have to decide on a theme for the landscape, even if it is just a small section of the yard. What mood or feel would you like to project? Common themes locally usually revolve around four basic landscape types. Each provides a different perception or “feel” to an area of the yard.

The four common themes include, 1) the Sonoran Desert theme, 2) the Southwestern desert theme, 3) the tropical Mexico theme, and 4) the Mediterranean theme. We have reviewed those previously in this space so I will not belabor them here. However, I invite you to imagine in your mind the differences between the four styles by thinking about the various plants that grow in each of those geographic areas. If you would like to learn more about these themes, and the plants normally associated with them, we have a free bulletin here in the office that we would be pleased to share.

Now, hold on just a second. This next point is important. When you start assembling a plant list, and deciding where to place each one, remember to be careful about mixing non-complementary plants from two different themes in the same area. In other words, don’t stick a saguaro from the Sonoran Desert theme next to a citrus tree which is more of a Mediterranean type of plant. Not only do they require different amounts of water, which will make them hard to irrigate correctly, but they just do not belong together in the same view. Why is that?

There are many reasons, of course. One reason is that they come from different parts of the world. You never see a citrus tree growing wild out in the desert next to a saguaro. It just never happens because each are native to a totally different climate and area of the world. Putting them together is just weird.

Perhaps the most important reason why they are not complementary and should not be placed together however is due to a general landscaping rule: Never place two accent plants close together. Both citrus and saguaros, because of their size, shape, and color, can be accent plants. Placing them both together in the same area creates visual confusion. When we look at two non-complementary accent plants in the same view, our gaze keeps jumping back and forth between the two, and that creates confusion in the mind. Plants should help each other create a mood instead of clashing with each other.

Finally, when designing your garden, remember to provide a backdrop for your accent plants. Select companion plants that will help highlight the best qualities of the accent plant and not hide them. That backdrop could be made of many plants, just a few, or perhaps no plants in its general vicinity. An accent plant may also be able to do its job when it is backed by a wall or some other structure. In designing the landscape, just remember to place your accent plants in a location where they can be seen to their best advantage.

By choosing the right type of accent plant for each major location in your yard, an otherwise drab view can be turned into an attractive and eye-catching show that will bring long term value to the landscape.

If you have questions, you can reach one of our Master Gardener volunteers every week day except Saturday and Sunday between 9 am and 12 pm by calling the Master Gardener hotline at (520) 374-6263. You can also call the Cooperative Extension office, 820 E. Cottonwood Lane, Building C, in Casa Grande at (520) 836-5221, extension 204 and leave a message.

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Rick Gibson is a horticulture agent with the Cooperative Extension in Pinal County.

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