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Design Principles

The following design principles will help you establish the visual character you want out of your design.

  1. Order – Order provides the underlying visual structure of your design.  Your functional diagram is one level of order.  Coordinating forms and materials in your design is another level of order.  Order also provides a style and a strong visual sense to your garden through:
    • Symmetry – A balanced or mirror image on either side of an axis.  It is used in formal gardens and often directs viewers to a focal point.
    • Asymmetry – A balance through feeling, not a mirror image.  It is more informal, invites movement through the garden, and may have multiple focal points.
    • Massing – A grouping of elements, such as organizing masses of plant materials together.
  2. Unity – Unity is accomplished by connecting major features on your property both physically and aesthetically.  Unity provides an internal feeling of harmony within the design.  It influences how the size, shape, color, and texture of any element of your design will appear next to other elements of your design. Other “unity” concepts include:
    • Dominance – One element or a group of elements are more prominent in a design than other elements.  This often becomes a focal point.
    • Repetition – The same element or elements with similar characteristics are repeated throughout a design.  Too much repetition can be boring, while too little is confusing.
    • Interconnection – Physical links allow the eye to move smoothly from one element to another (example: windows, doors, gates, paths, decks).
    • Unity of Three – grouping three or odd numbers (3, 5, 7, 9) of the same elements together almost always results in unity.
  3. Rhythm – Rhythm addresses time and movement in design and occurs through:
    • Repetition – Repeating elements in a design where it creates an obvious sequence.  The spacing of these elements will create a pace for the rhythm.
    • Alternation – Sequencing of repeating elements is varied, providing more visual interest and a sense of surprise or relief.
    • Gradation – Gradual change in one or more characteristics of a repeated element.
  4. Simplicity – Design for your basic needs with a simple, coordinated palette of form, texture, and color (see below).  Provide variety in materials and plants, but don’t use too many different plants.  Let your house and features you like set the tone for the garden.
  5. Scale – Scale, or proportion, refers to the size of elements on your property in relation to each other.  Scale provides visual balance and brings the size and height of garden features down in relation to the human body.  For example, a fence or wall at eye level generally causes the eye to follow the top line of the structure, making the structure a dominant feature.  This takes the attention away from the rest of the garden which you don’t want to do.  If you plant a shrub next to the house that obscures windows and doors at maturity, the plant’s size is out of scale with the house.

Design Detail

There are limitless combinations of plants and materials available for use in the garden.  You want a garden that appears natural, balanced, and ordered, and is comfortable to be in.  The details to coordinate are color, line, form, volume, texture, and transition.


Color scheme should be determined by what exists on your property (house, fences, paths, plant material) and by the colors you like.  Garden design should compliment the design of the house, and help the house fit into the surrounding landscape.

  1. Warm Colors – Warm colors fall within the range of red, orange, and yellow.
    • Warm colors are energizing, visually bringing things forward in your landscape.
    • To soften warm colors, place them in filtered light or against a dark background.
  2. Cool Colors – Cool colors fall within the range of green, blue and violet.
    • Cool colors are calming, visually making things recede, although they may disappear in shade.
    • To highlight cool colors, combine with white. This is useful to lighten up a shaded area.
  3. Complementary Colors – Complimentary colors are those directly opposite on a color wheel. Examples include green and red, orange and blue, and yellow and purple.
  4. Monochromatic Color – Monochromatic color schemes combine shades, tints, and pure color of any one color.
  5. Color and Rhythm – Color schemes can be repeated (or create rhythm) to move the eye through, around, and beyond the landscape.  See Smart From The Start program regarding rhythm in design.


Choose plants that reflect and mimic the vertical or horizontal lines of your house and major shapes that occur in your landscape to help unify the garden.

  1. Scale – Plant height, width, and mass should be appropriate for the house size and location.
  2. Building Edges – Overhead canopy plants soften building edges and provide shade.
  3. Focal Points – Focal points give visual relief.  Draw the eye to them by using the overhead (sky/trees), vertical (shrubs/fences), and horizontal (paving/lawn/groundcovers) planes.
  4. Axis Lines – Straight lines visually force the eye to a focal point in formal gardens.
  5. Curvilinear Lines – Curving lines create a flowing, relaxed garden, particularly if your house is informal and asymmetrical. Curved lines are stronger when curved toward each other.


Dominant forms on your property include structures, trees, large shrubs, and hardscapes (decks, patios, paths, walkways, etc.).  Select plants and materials that complement or mimic dominant forms.  Here are some tips on form:

  1. Upright – Upright plants, structures, and water features can command attention.
  2. Oval and Curvilinear – Oval and curvilinear pathways, pools and fountains, and patios and other shapes can be tranquil, dramatic, or both, due to soft lines your eye easily follows.
  3. Columnar – Columnar plants and structures are essential for the formal garden, as they create living walls and boundaries to your garden spaces.
  4. Spreading – Trees with a spreading canopy can soften building edges.  They can also obscure the view as the plant matures, so be sure to know the dimensions of mature plants.
  5. Weeping – Weeping shapes are best used as a focal point.


A living garden has three dimensions.  Your garden may appear spacious on paper, but plants and people take up space (volume) and the installed garden will feel smaller than what the drawing depicts.  Know a plant’s mature width and height before including it in your plan.

  1. Avoid Overcrowding Plants in Your Garden – Represent the mature size and shape of plants in your design Layout. That way, you will avoid buying too many plants and reduce maintenance Landscape Care.
  2. Be Generous with Hardscape Dimensions in Your Garden – Patios and pathways visually make a garden seem larger.  Even small gardens appear spacious if pathways are five feet or more in width. Once constructed, they provide safety, stability, and a frame for your garden.


Texture is the surface quality of an item that can be seen or felt.  Surfaces in the landscape include structures, walks, patios, groundcovers, and plants.  Texture range from coarse to smooth.  Dominant or favorite textures should be used as a guideline to unify your garden with your house and property.

  1. Coarse Textures – Some pavers and flagstone, stucco and wood structures, stucco walls and fencing, bold foliaged plants, terracotta, and outdoor furniture made of canvas or wood.
  2. Medium Textures – Weathered brick, some flagstone and wood, fieldstone walls, post and rail fencing, wood furniture, mulch, gravel, and plants that have medium to small-sized, dull leaves, as well as fruit, seed pods, and interesting bark.
  3. Fine Textures – Hard-fired brick, traditional, Mediterranean and modern structures, wrought iron, decomposed granite, plants with medium-sized shiny leaves, and ornamental grasses.
  4. Smooth Textures – Tile and slate, galvanized wrought iron fencing/furniture/ornamental arches, small-leaf groundcover, smooth-foliaged plants, hard-fired clay pots, and stone containers.


Transition is the change from one area of your garden to the next.  Make sure transitions are gradual and smooth, and move the eye along the path.

  1. Create Distance – Transitions can create distance both visually and physically.  This is accomplished by using:
    • Tall plants near the viewer with shorter plants along a pathway or view.
    • Darker colors near the viewer with paler colors along a pathway or view.
    • Coarse textures near the viewer with finer textures along a pathway or view.
  2. Shorten Distance – Transitions can shorten the distances both visually and physically.
    • Short plants near the viewer with taller plants along a pathway or view.
    • Pale colors near the viewer with darker colors along a pathway or view.
    • Fine textures near the viewer with more coarse textures along a pathway or view.