Plants

Components that enable the parametric control of plant selection, distribution, performance, and visualisation.

The associated model and definition that demonstrating the use of these components can be downloaded here. You will need to have installed the Groundhog plugin for the definition to work properly.

If considered just in terms of its CAD representation, planting design appears to be an exercise in arranging circles. Some circles are smaller or larger, brighter or duller; more round or more frayed. But, removing the metadata that are the sprites, colours, and labels, we start and end with a representation of a particular species’ dimensions at maturity: a disc.

It is regrettable that in both digital and analogue mediums the typical representations used poorly reflect their subject matter. Depictions of vegetation are rarely spatially explicit, and often rely on fixed and idealised averages that do not reflect the general nature, or the actual reality, of specific species.12 A plan, once planted, will reach the ‘mature’ state it depicts after years if not decades. This mature state is itself an abstraction, as each plant’s dimensions vary according to the localised conditions that propel or constrain individual growth and are typically altered through ongoing maintenance regimes.

Parametric methods of planting design can manage vast quantities of individual species distributed across a site and evaluate how they change over time.

Parametric methods of planting design can manage vast quantities of individual species distributed across a site and evaluate how they change over time.

Philip Belesky, for http://groundhog.la

While many options exist for visualising planting plans with a high degree of fidelity (presuming the correct models for a given species are available) these are typically deployed after the concept design stage, given that they are difficult to implement and modify. As a result they are often ill-suited to design exploration, but useful for evaluating aesthetics.

However the lack of ‘accurate’ models restricts those earlier stages of the design process, if working in orthographic projections, to the most abstracted versions of a planting plan. This constricts the design potential for vegetated elements in a design, both in terms of their broad visual character, but also in terms of any performance metrics available. Particularly important is the nature of plants as one of the most clearly-evolving elements of a landscape, where growth heavily effects the aesthetics of a space, and so must be planned across different time periods if the space is to be successful before each plant reaches maturity.

Several components in the Groundhog plugin work in conjunction to explore how some aspects of planting design can be eased, or approached differently, using parametric methods. To do so, it augments traditional forms of representations (points and circles) with metadata that describes the spatial and performance characteristics of a particular species. These attributes can then be used to inform both the locations of the plants in an automated manner, or be used as analytic tools for better understand how a given plant distribution performs according to specific criteria or over a particular time period.

Its primary input in establishing species attributes is as a spreadsheet; namely namely a CSV file with tables of information that are then read-in to Grasshopper. It contains a number of ‘core’ and optional parameters for each species that are needed to (later) produce a minimum-viable depiction of species typical geometry. These values (and example species) are available in the Groundhog - Plants Examples.csv file within the demo files attached to this post. This spreadsheet also provides an option for extensibility, where arbitrary values can be added according to particular design intents, such as a value representing phytoremediation potential, or wind breaking potential, etc.

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A second component contains predefined values for generic forms of vegetation, such as ‘grass’ or ‘shrub’ that enable rapid design prototyping without the need to specify detailed planting characteristics. Similarly, a component is provided for constructing one-off species representations in Grasshopper using explicit parameters, such as for defining canopy radii.

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Regardless of which component is used the result is a simple textual representation of the species list, where characteristics use a simple key:value format. This allows the list of species to interact with standard list management tools in Grasshopper for adding/removing/combining species depending on a given logic.

The next step is related to how plants are distributed across space. This process can proceed using a number of different methods, given the varying relationships between spatial condition and species attributes that drive different patterns of distribution. At its most simple, the distributor can take a given series of spatial points, developed in Rhinoceros or in Grasshopper, where pre-existing tools allow for common patterns such as grid or radial patterns, as well as more complex options, such as where planter elements are defined elsewhere in the design and planting locations depend directly on these geometries.

Once a location (in the form of a Point) has been generated for each instance of a species (in the form of the list) these can be fed into the Appearance component. This then allows for key geometric features of each individual plant to be projected at a particular point in time. At present these visualisation methods are limited to basic circular depictions for criteria such as heights or trunks, root, and canopy radii. While offered as flat linework, many existing grasshopper tools can be used to give them volume by filling-in interior values. For instance, the circles that represent canopies can be transformed into spheres that can then test simple shading effects.

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While the components are relatively simple here in their calculations, (especially given the currently-released set of components available) their value is in enabling quantitative criteria to be more easily used in designing and assessing vegetation distributions. The tripartite attribute/placement/simulation stages have emerged from extensive iteration in testing how to best support planting design workflows by best allowing each task to easily interface with the existing methods of generation and analysis available in Grasshopper.

Grasshopper definition demonstrating how to select particular species, place them, and simulate basic growth characteristics.

Grasshopper definition demonstrating how to select particular species, place them, and simulate basic growth characteristics.

Philip Belesky, for http://groundhog.la

Coming Soon: further components that allow for more naturalistic or performance-based planting distribution and 3D visualisation methods.


  1. Rosetta S Elkin, “Live Matter: Towards a Theory of Plant Life,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 12, no. 2 (2017): 60–61.

  2. Julian Raxworthy, “Novelty in the Entropic Landscape” (Doctoral Thesis, The University of Queensland, 2013), 113.