Using Specimen, Key, and Accent Plants in Your Landscape Design

When designing your landscape for maximum curb appeal, one element to keep in mind is that of emphasis. Simply put, emphasis is how you draw attention toward or away from a design element. Specimen plants, key plants, and accent plants are all used for this purpose. In this post, we’ll explain what each of these are and give examples of common plants used for each.

Every plant decision should be based upon your personal tastes (your favorite flower colors, for example) and what will complement your home and landscape. There are no right or wrong specimen, key, and accent plants. Some plants listed here are interchangeable, especially when it comes to specimen and key plants; which one depends somewhat on the other plantings.

Specimen Plants

Specimen plants are the largest plants in a landscape. They should be planted alone so they can stand out. These plants in particular are chosen for their unique shape, foliage, or color. They can be used to draw attention to a feature like a front door, or can be used as a focal point all on their own. Homeowners commonly choose trees or large shrubs that are showy in some way for use as a specimen plant. “Showy” can mean that they flower, that they have interesting leaves or bark, or even that they have an interesting shape.

  • Crabapples provide flowers in the spring and small berries are present throughout the rest of the year, providing food for birds and other wildlife.
  • Weeping Higan cherry trees provide pink or white flowers in the spring. Their “weeping” branches provide interest throughout the year.
  • Flowering dogwoods will not only give you spring flowers and bright red leaves in autumn, but their horizontal branches provide visual interest even in winter.

Flowering dogwood

Key Plants

Key plants are the next largest plants. They are generally planted either alone or in groups of three or more. They’re used to soften the look of architectural features such as steps, fences, and building corners, or to screen them from view altogether. These plants aid the transition between the house and the rest of the landscape, helping the home fit in more naturally with its surroundings.

  • Karl Foerster grass has a distinct feathery look that provides interest all year long—just be sure to prune back the grass before the new shoots come up in spring.
  • Isanti dogwoods provide greenery throughout the summer, and their distinctive red twigs provide visual interest into winter.
  • Weeping pussy willows’ flowers are actually the super-soft “catkins” that appear in spring, which can be cut and dried for use in flower arrangements. The “weeping” nature of the branches otherwise provides interest throughout the year.

Weeping pussy willow

Accent Plants

Accent plants are the smallest of the plant groupings, but they are no less important. These will help anchor the remaining garden beds. Like key plants, these are planted either alone or in groupings of three. And like specimen plants, accent plants should provide interest through the seasons. This can be achieved through choosing flowering plants, or those that have unique foliage or textures.

  • “Tor” spirea produces small white flowers in clusters in spring, and turns a beautiful red in fall.
  • Boxwoods are a classic look, remaining green even in winter, and can be planted to form a hedge or shaped into individual spheres.
  • “Champlain” roses bloom throughout the summer and into fall, and require less maintenance than other rose varieties.

“Champlain” roses


Does your front yard curb appeal need some work? The experts at KG Landscape are ready to help. Give us a call at 763-568-7251 or use our quick quote system to contact us today.