Every garden showcases individual expression and personal style. Each site also presents opportunities for unique applications of design principles and elements to create beautiful, functional, and ecologically healthy spaces.
Designing a thriving landscape relies on the same principles that apply to art. These principles offer guidelines for any creation, including a garden space. These guidelines work on multiple levels.
Design Principles and Elements
Use the eight basic design principles to guide your design.
Landscape design principles are standards by which gardens can be created, measured, evaluated, and discussed. These include proportion, order, simplicity, variety, focalization, repetition, and unity. Each applies to line, form, texture, and color. All of these elements are interconnected.
These principles aren’t hard and fast rules but recommendations. Examining these determines how we feel, use, and experience the space. They also inform how the space fulfills its intended purpose.
Let creativity abound before the first plant goes into the soil. Here, we’ll explore the basic specifications to inspire a beautiful garden, touching on design principles and elements through tangible applications.
Garden design begins with envisioning goals, style, and function to shape a cohesive landscape plan.
Landscape design requires plenty of imagination, combined with planning and research. The first step is to explore your goals and priorities for the space. What role does the garden play, and what needs should it fulfill? What’s the desired style or theme of the space?
The answers inform the concept – the driving force behind future design decisions. The concept evolves into the landscape plan. Through the design process, rely on these landscape principles and design elements to form your foundational plan.
Make notes of features from other gardens that you find attractive. Plant compositions, walkway materials, trellises and arbors, stone walls, or an overall layout of beds and paths – these are your inspiration. Use design principles as your guide to incorporate these style preferences into your own space.
Think About Proportion
Use scale and proportion to harmonize the elements in the landscape.
Size and scope are among the first considerations for designing a space. Scale and proportion determine how we experience a place. They also inform the selection and placement of other elements.
A proportionate garden feels harmonious and balanced. To achieve a well-balanced look, consider these questions:
- Does the landscape complement a prominent feature, like a house?
Anchor the building with foundation plantings or taller specimens, tying the house seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. We don’t want plants so large that they overshadow the structure (making it appear dwarfed) or so small that they don’t offer enough visual weight.
- Is the space intimate or vast?
Intimate spaces, at a low scale, allow us to relish in the details. Incorporate a range of plant sizes, being careful not to crowd the area with oversized specimens. Use trees and shrubs as focal points in small areas to add variety while focusing on details. These smaller elements include lower-growing shrubs, perennials, and ground covers, along with low walls, as well as pots and containers, seating, and hardscape embellishments.
If you’re working with a large area or high scale, consider adding bigger elements like trees and shrubs to punctuate the space and add vertical forms. They’ll also bring visual interest through their structure and pattern, all while appreciating the room to grow. Think of an allée of trees, a bosque, a small grouping, or use a single large tree to dominate the space.
If you’ve got the room, plant en masse for a stunning effect, and go big if your space allows it. From mass plantings to container sizes, bigger can be better in making an impact.
Highlight the Entrance
Enhance entrances with distinct features to guide visitors while harmonizing the home with its surroundings.
Showcase the entrance with a gate, ornamental containers, or flanked plantings – whatever best reflects the home’s style.
The entrance visually announces a transition between spaces and draws attention to the opening area and beyond. This gives us directional indicators of welcome and where to head next.
Emphasizing the entrance is particularly useful in front of the house. Highlight the front walk, porch, or doorway with a verdant first impression. This unifies the home with the natural surroundings.
Incorporate Focal Points
Sculptures, fountains, and unique plants create order and scale.
Focalization relies on landscape features to capture attention. Emphasizing focal points draws the eye in a specific direction and punctuates the space. These punctuations contribute to the order of the overall garden and should reflect the garden’s scale. These points could be sculptures, a pond, a unique plant, a cluster of containers, a stately tree, a well-situated bed of blooms, or a striking overlook.
When working with focal points, it’s also useful to consider framing the view. This framing opens the sightline to the focal point, directing the gaze to the intended feature. I love incorporating keyhole views, where a particular scene is framed by arching branches, for instance. Prominent plants or structures (like pillars or arbors) also surround an opening to direct the intended view.
Focal points draw the eye outside of the garden or into the space itself. If your view is from inside the house out into the garden, windows serve to frame the desired view. Consider all viewpoints when deciding what to emphasize. Ensure there aren’t too many focal points, which confuse or clutter the eye as it tries to find the intended landing spot.
Repeat Plant Groupings
Using repetition in landscape design creates cohesion through elements like color or structures.
Repetition in landscape design refers to intentionally repeating garden elements that create cohesiveness, rhythm, and order. Repetition comes from the array of columns on an arbor or the consistent use of materials in hardscaped patios. You can also achieve rhythm through walkways, walls, or the repetition of plant material.
Repeating plants and plant characteristics is one of the easiest ways to create unity in the landscape. Recurring plant sequences impact the visual appeal of a space. They organize the overall experience and lend a sense of balance.
Arrange plants in odd numbers for asymmetrical balance. The number in each group varies depending on bed size and garden layout. For example, plant three hydrangeas in one bed and five in another for an interesting array.
Reiterating the same plant anchors the landscape, creating a clear backdrop for embellishments. It’s also a dynamic way to include the same plant but in a different form. Try groups of different hydrangea varieties. Or plant a vase-shaped cherry tree in one garden corner and a weeping cherry in another, offset in a garden bed.
Repetition occurs through form, texture, and color, too. To avoid planting the same plant over and over, or if your ability to repeat is limited, opt for plants or objects in the same color scheme with similar foliage textures and growth habits. Different plants cohere through overlapping form, texture, or color.
Add Variety, Strive for Simplicity
Landscape design needs replication for cohesion and variety for interest.
The principle of repetition is linked to principles of simplicity and variety. Variety reflects diversity and contrast in form, texture, and color, preventing monotony. As recurrence creates a cohesive foundation, variety brings visual interest. Use plants with different growth habits, foliage types, or flower colors to create a standout planting arrangement. Layer plants (repeated groupings with varying forms, textures, and colors) to add richness.
The goal is to achieve abundance without excess or distraction. This reaches simplicity, the overall effect of streamlining a design by eliminating non-necessary features. This principle also ties into curating color, plant selections, and accessories. Simplicity is achieved through rhythmic colors, textures, materials, plants, shapes, curves, and angles.
The garden may be very complex, but defining it with repetition and focal points keeps it readable to the visitor rather than just a jumble of beautiful plants (which is okay, too, if that’s your style!). Simplicity makes a space comfortable and pleasing to those who experience it.
Create a Sense of Enclosure
Enclose a garden design with varied materials, elements, and boundaries to create distinct spaces.
Enclosure is one of my favorite design concepts because it captures the essence of a garden room. It involves creating a distinct space that relates to other areas (I’m conjuring The Secret Garden here).
Enclosure provides a sense of intimacy (a courtyard, for example, or a pocket garden), distinguishing of a new zone (e.g., a vegetable garden), and inspires wonder. Coming upon an enclosed garden is like finding a jewelry box of discoveries in the landscape.
Enclosed gardens incorporate a variety of materials to create defined borders. Various design elements like plant forms, structures, and implied boundaries create enclosure. Trees and hedges create enclosure by screening a space. Walls and gates physically enclose a space, and low-planted borders implicate a space as its own.
A garden doesn’t have to be bound on all sides or cut off from the rest of the landscape to evoke a sense of enclosure; using these materials partially or in combination denotes a distinct garden room. Each “room” should connect to the larger landscape through consistent successive elements, plantings, and pathways.
Use Strong Lines
Garden lines offer both visual and physical frameworks for landscapes.
Line is another key design element. Garden lines are made with paths, bed edges, walls, patios, pond edges – basically, any feature with a linear aspect that creates an edge between two materials. These lines determine how we move through the landscape, both visually and physically. They are the framework of the landscape layout.
Paths and walkways make it easy to create powerful lines. A sweeping curve lets us meander naturally through an area with an element of mystery as to what’s around the curve. Mystery and wonder are important in inviting exploration and the delight of surprise.
A bold straight line or multiple linear paths meeting at a central point move us sharply from one zone to another, creating a dynamic approach. Straight lines tend to be more formal, structural, and stable.
Whether curved or straight, opt for strong lines rather than small movements in zigzags or waves. They’ll define the space cohesively. Pay special attention to bed lines and how their shapes relate to one another. Line is also defined vertically in space by tree trunks and branching, upright shrubs, and fences, so remember to think upward as well as outward.
Add Impact with Color
Garden hues unify landscapes, setting the mood with palettes and thematic aesthetic choices.
Color is one of the most exciting parts of garden-making. It’s also one of the most impactful tools for creating the aesthetic mood and unifying the landscape. It’s the icing on the cake of a garden’s foundation. Using a consistent color palette of complementary or contrasting hues links plantings and objects through repetition and variety.
Vibrant colors, like reds, oranges, and yellows, energize and activate a space. Pastels and whites, on the other hand, are serene and peaceful. There’s nothing like pure white blooms and foliage tones to cool down a hot summer’s day or brighten an evening.
There’s a lot to color theory (a topic all its own), and attention to the colors you choose is important. It’s the first thing to draw in the eye. Choose those based on your concept or theme and what you want the garden to convey. Pick only one color theme per garden room, and use it in sweeping arrangements rather than bits and pieces.
For all-season appeal, include plants that display color at varying times of year. Spring and summer abound with options; look to foliage color and late-season bloomers for fall interest. Then, pick fruits, berries, and winter bloomers for cool-season color.
Anyone is capable of designing a beautiful garden. Consider your garden’s purpose and incorporate the key design elements to carry it through. Observe what you love in other spaces and use them as guides, from specific plants and features to materials and the overall layout.
Incorporating landscape principles helps you harness unity in the garden. A garden is unified when the overall look is cohesive and all other components create a collective design and experience.
And here’s my plug: hire a professional for those special gardens and prominent landscapes. They’ve worked to understand design aspects, and they know what succeeds in a given space. Not to mention they understand the plants and their related cultural conditions. Professionals know how to make the garden thrive through the years. Chances are, they love their work, and you’ll both happily create your dream garden.