A Lost Art: Planting design

  • July 06, 2013
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Bade sir

When I was about 17 years old, I awoke to the real fact of what my father did for a living. Having joined the local architecture school, and with little real interest in design, I at least decided to be a responsible son, and started accompanying him on his site visits when I could.

There are something’s that one remembers vividly as images whilst growing up- it’s imprinted in your mind forever. Most vivid amongst them for me, were the days when he would do planting in a project.

We would reach the site early at dawn, I riding at the back of his white Lambretta- GJE-371. Sometimes it was a large house, at others, the yard of a factory. Waiting at the site would be many laborers. A large clearing would have many saplings stored. Typically each project would use upwards of 80-100 different species; so there would be thousands of sapling in the clearing. Most small, tender, with leaves sprouting and almost impossible to differentiate, one from the other.

Over time, my father had his favourite supervisors, and as if on cue when he walked in with a brisk pace, these would snap to attention and organize groups of workers, and wait for the theatre to commence.Taking a stick, with an unwavering action, he would point at each group of saplings and wave the stick in a general direction. He was sorting out the small shrubs, the creepers, the bigger shrubs, the trees, in neat separate groups.

Once done, he would then observe the real cataloguing that he had done to ensure that it was all in order. Then he would pull out a small plan that he had worked on a few days before, and stare at it as if to memorize it. The stick again moved in action, and he would now point at a few of these plants, a few of those plants, and then some more- there never was hesitation. These saplings would then be loaded in baskets of the laborers, in the exact order that he had sorted them. With an entourage of sapling carrying workers  behind him, walking  almost too fast for them to keep pace, he would stop at  a spot in the garden, tap on the basket with the stick for the plant he wanted and then tap the stick in the exact spot where he wanted the plant. All this was done neatly and quickly and would go on relentlessly for several hours till either all the plants were exhausted or the laborers were. This was fascinating theatre, and I was never tired of seeing it and marveled at all aspects of it, little thinking about what the results were going to be.

But many years later as my involvement in the office grew, I had a chance to visit these gardens, and then having graduated as a landscape architect, my supposed increased understanding allowed me to see these gardens with a new lens- and they were without exception flawless. The spacing was correct, the grouping was perfect and the selection of the plants for their affinity to sun, or moisture or shade was godly. In retrospect it seems like a miracle. Over time he got busier and could hire a few more people and could actually spend time drawing up detailed planting plans. This was for me was nothing less than a foray in art.

From him, I learnt that a good planting plan can take days-even weeks, and so also learnt to be bemused at what passed as planting otherwise; mindless massing of a species- without any romance or love for plants. He would take a bunch of colour pens and draw all layers of the planting; one colour for each layer. And in the drawings he would space all the plants carefully making sure they had place to grow and flourish cheek by jowl.

Once done, he would let the drawing be, and revisit it after a day and make changes as he deemed fit. Then he would ask a draftsman to scale it and draw it up. This was followed with   many ammonia prints of the drawing, and he would work on each layer in a separate drawing knitting a fabric of plants and when done would redraw it all together, and then think about it for another day or so. When finally satisfied he would dispose the drawing off his table with a flourish and throw the colour pens on the table, so they bounced and with a big smile declare the job done. These gardens turned out as well too.
And he did this, irrespective of the scale of the projects and the geographical location of the site. It was almost as if all plants were his friends, and he knew them well and shared a special camaraderie with them.

It’s a tradition that we try and uphold well. We are now many more people in the office, our methods seem more well documented; but it’s a tradition that he and perhaps his father before him started- but one that is otherwise mostly dead , or dying. All so often many of us huddle around a drawing and talk about inviting plants to be planted as if they were all guests and visitors with special characteristics. We argue about the fact that some are boorish, while others shy, and yet others bold- and we know that the magic lives.
-Aniket Bhagwat

Prof. Prabhakar B. Bhagwat is 84 and continues to do his planting plans with the same vigor.


C.Th. Sorensons original planting plan- 1934.



Planting plans draughted by pen and ink.- about 15  years back.


Planting plan for a small residence- part detail – late 70s.

Bade sir planting

Original sketch for development of a planting scheme- Prof. Prabhakar B. Bhagwat

Amby valley 1

amby 4

amby valley 2

Amby valley 3

abhishree lounge

Various developments for evolving a planting scheme for a project.


Jariwala house

More planting plans and sketches.

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