There isn’t a specific manual to a perfect landscape, but certain principles of good landscape design guide beginners and experienced professionals alike.
Landscaping is an art based on creativity and function. A creatively designed landscape that doesn’t function well for the occupants is no better than a very functional space with little creativity. You need to create the perfect blend of the two, realizing that not only must you create a visually appealing picture, it must also be comfortable and inviting to the user.
This article will discuss various principles of effective landscape design that I hope will help guide you to the landscape of your dreams.
Table of Contents
The principle of unity emphasizes harmony across the landscape. There must be a smooth interconnection of all elements of the landscape. To achieve a unified landscape, make sure your patios, walkways, and sidewalks are all planned and positioned in a way that both complement and are complemented by the plantings.
Repetition is a common way to achieve unity. Repeating various elements throughout the landscape in such a way that instills a sense of familiarity while not an obvious sense of repetition. There is comfort in familiarity, but too much comfort creates boredom and a lack of desire to explore further.
Consistency unites all aspects of the design to achieve the desired theme. Observe the color, texture, height, and shapes of all the elements used to create the design. Strive to create a design consistent enough to not appear fragmented while varied enough to provide a continual sense of interest from one end to the other.
Balance is another essential principle of landscaping. It improves the landscape’s aesthetics by stabilizing all aspects incorporated in a landscape. A balanced landscape unifies all elements into one seamless lot. Balance gives us comfort and calm. The feeling that it is done completely and properly but not overdone.
I believe this to be the overall most important aspect of all landscape design. Balance is about a feeling more than it is about specific weights and measures. To feel the balance of a property, you must almost squint as you enter to take in the entirety and judge its completeness without being distracted by any one element.
Having said that, there are specific elements of balance that can be very important in certain portions of the landscape. They are as follows.
Symmetrical Landscape Balance
To create symmetric balance, you should have two sides with similar elements and designs—for instance, the same type of flowers or shrubs with the same shapes and sizes. In short, one side of the landscape should be a mirror image of the other/opposite side. Purely symmetrical balance is mainly used in a more formal design, while a combination of symmetric and asymmetric balance is a more common approach to creating a visually appealing landscape.
You must be aware that symmetry is only realized from one or two viewpoints, and you mustn’t strive to create complete symmetry even in the most formal designs; there are apt to be viewpoints from which symmetry is lost.
Asymmetrical Landscape Balance
The balance is achieved using various elements and components of a landscape with a unifying factor like the shape, size, or texture. While the landscape is not a mirror image as it is in the symmetrical design, it does appear to be equally weighted while using differing components.
Revisit the notion of consistency to be sure that you don’t create a jumbled mess.
Simplicity means different things to different people, and the same landscape will be interpreted differently depending on a persons’ personality. While one person might see a big garden of mixed flowers as simple because it is merely one big bed, another might see it as complex due to the many varieties of plants within the bed.
Simplicity can be hard to pin down, but you will know it when it is no longer there.
Simplicity in a landscape will have a calming effect. For a simple landscape design, avoid too many colors, textures, and shapes. Simple does not mean monotonous.
The colors present set the mood and feel of the landscape. Bright colors make objects seem closer, while cool colors make an object seem farther from you. A combination of the bright and cool colors brings out a striking look that is more appealing and satisfying. Keep in mind simplicity and balance. A jumble of too many colors is typically unappealing but can be fun and exciting in small doses.
Different plants will have different textures; some will be thick while others will be thin, some will be very coarse while others smooth. You must also consider that different textures will be apparent from different viewpoints and distances. While the bark of an oak may not register from across the yard, and a bed of small flowers may appear smooth at a distance, it will be a different feel up close.
Textures create interest in a similar way that colors do; it’s usually just a bit more subtle. Always keep in mind how the most prominent aspects of the yard, such as outcroppings, walls, or even the house, create a sort of textured appearance from a distance.
The form or shape of the plants used in a landscape can heavily influence a design. Consider how a bed full of pyramidal evergreen shrubs would give an entirely different feel than a bed full of mounded shrubs. One would look jagged and sharp, while the other more flowing and smooth. Use the forms of the elements to create interest within the landscape. Having too many similar forms will appear boring, while too many differences might again seem cluttered. Once again, it is about balance.
The proportions and scale of your landscape components and how they relate to each other will significantly impact how the final design is perceived. Scale is hard to pin down, as it changes with time. Differences in scale is why so many landscapes get planted too tightly and end up as one big mass over time.
The designer may not have accounted for growth when considering scale.
It is a very hard concept to embrace because when planting a new landscape, especially one on a tight budget, the small plants will leave you wanting more and feeling unsatisfied with your design. This will often lead to crowding to achieve a better initial look.
You need to be able to project your vision into the future to ensure that your plantings will be in scale with each other and the surrounding hard structures long term. The alternative to this would be to over plant to achieve the desired scale now with the intention to remove certain plantings over time to reset the scale as things grow.
Creating a sequence of the elements used in your landscape can result in visual rhythm. The rows, lines, and columns of the landscape can be presented to create a sequence that achieves harmony, interest, and a desire to continue on to see the next element.
There is often one part of the yard, one prize plant, one area of the patio, or one corner of the house that needs some emphasis. The feature can be emphasized by allowing the design to lead the eye to it or perhaps by framing it in such a way as to make it stand out.
On the opposite side, sometimes there is one feature that overwhelms the view and needs to be hidden or softened a bit to allow the design to feel complete. This is often the case when the home is new and “sticks out like a sore thumb” because there are no plantings around it. It is often the landscape that will de-emphasize the house to bring the view into balance.
Too many similar elements in a landscape can be boring while using too many different varieties can lead to clutter. A big part of your struggle is to provide enough variety to keep the viewer interested while not making it appear so cluttered that it distracts from the yard’s overall feel. Combine elements that complement each other and their surroundings.
Lines can be straight, curved, horizontal, or vertical. Choose the ideal lines to use, taking into consideration the theme of the landscape and the flow of the yard. The lines used will create different effects from different perspectives. Straight lines are formal and direct, while curved lines are more adventurous with a flowing effect.
Once again, variety can be attractive when lines are appropriately used but distracting when varied too much. One thing that I see over and over again is the use of too many small-radius turns or using a curve, then straight, then curve in the same view.
In my opinion, this is the most important yet often overlooked factor that can make or break a great landscape design. I believe that far too many designers have their style or their favorite ways of doing things, and they apply them repeatedly to landscape after landscape which results in more of a one size fits all concept of landscaping.
While this approach may be efficient and may be a good start for many homeowners, I believe that, first and foremost, useability must be considered. A comfortable and useable landscape for one person may stymie and irritate another.
Your landscape should meet and blend with your life and your routine. Creating a pretty design on paper is far from creating an outdoor living space that makes the occupants feel comfortable and fulfilled. This is why I firmly believe that a person who enjoys spending a good deal of time in their yard should design their own landscape or at least have a critical role in the design.
At the very least, the ebb and flow of the driveway, walkways, patios, gardens, and lawn areas should be outlined and reviewed by the property owner prior to many of the design elements being added.
Whether you are starting from scratch or refreshing an old design, try to keep some of the above concepts in mind while building your landscape. While vague and hard to envision, to be sure, the principles discussed above should help guide you to a landscape that will suit your lifestyle.
It will always be easier for a new designer to take a portion of an existing landscape and redesign it rather than starting with a blank slate. Going from the blank slate to the finished product is always the most challenging design unless, of course, you are simply dropping in a cookie-cutter design similar to others with the assumption that we all like approximately the same elements in our landscapes.
If you are a homeowner trying to design your landscape, I feel that a few rough sketches of the overall concepts are likely helpful, but I wouldn’t waste too much time on detailed drawings.
While a landscape architect may be able to envision a landscape from a paper drawing, it is very difficult for a homeowner to do the same. Countless times a homeowner has paid a landscape architect to create a pretty plan and then, once it was getting installed, decided to make changes and revisions on site where they could actually understand what it would look and feel like.
This is the value of the new digital renderings and video walk-throughs that are possible with today’s technology. While not true to life, they are often very accurate and can give the inexperienced homeowner an authentic feel for what it will be like to interact with their landscape.
If you are doing your design, spending more time walking the property and viewing areas from varying angles will be better than spending a good deal of time on detailed drawings.
Spend time doing research, pic out a bunch of pictures of things that you like the look of, then walk your property and take the time to envision how to make these desired elements work in your yard. Feel free to stake it or paint it out and live with it so that you can get the feel of your ideas before you actually install them.