Basic Principles of Landscape Design


Posted by Julien Stern | Posted in landscaping | Posted on 07-02-2013

principles of landscapingLandscape design is based on the understanding of how the various shapes can be combined. The best way to draw a landscaping plan is to view it as a series of abstract shapes that will take on a more practical form after the final synthesis of the organic and inorganic materials that comprise a garden: soil, plants, water, bricks, stones, etc.

A balanced garden should convey harmony of all the materials involved and create a smooth sensation to the eye. Abrupt changes, sharp separations of its various sections must be avoided – with the exception of the area dedicated to growing vegetables, which must be isolated.

On the other hand, we may wish to make a specific spot or feature stand out from its environment, and this we can accomplish by using contrast.

There are various methods of creating contrast in a garden, namely:


Lines give a sense of continuity within a given space. As they unfold through areas of various uses, our eye must be able to follow along without generating a feeling of disconnectedness. Paths, pavements, corners, flower beds’ or leisure areas’ boundaries, walls, frames – all these are horizontal or vertical lines that guide our attention to a certain spot and determine the ‘flow’ of a garden.

When drawing a pavement, for example, we should consider it as something more than a hard surface to walk on: a border made of a natural material, such as an edging strip of colorful bushes or an architectural feature to either side, will generate a lively sense of direction in a landscape design.

This sense of direction can also be created by sequence, i.e. the repetitive use of elements that produces an optical rhythm, thus directing the eye along a line — whether this line is straight, curved, or a diagonal.

The ultimate goal of using direction is to grasp the visitor’s attention and to lead it with accuracy to a few select, predetermined spots. A successful landscape design will display a series of images under a desired perspective: visitors will notice the various elements of the garden (whether plants or decorative items) in a specific order while touring the area.

In the instance when our garden space does not allow for the creation of long, open lines and of multiple points of reference without making them look rather congested and jumbled, garden design is made much simpler. In this case, we will designate one to two reference points (in direct relation with the size and the shape of our garden or backyard), and then we will enhance the desired effect by a well-chosen, personal style of planting. Urban gardens, with their restricted space, are the ones most frequently affected by this specific problem.


Color is by no means a separate element, independent from all other considerations; it rather functions as a means of complementing the entire plan of the garden.

Plant color selection may be based on the colors of hard materials used in the garden: that of a fence or of a wall standing behind a series of bushes or trees; of the material with which the house is built; of your own favorite range of colors. The house’s interior may very well set the standard for the colors to be used outdoors, as well as for the color and type of paving, for the style and kind of the pots you will use, etc.

The size of our garden plays an important role to color selection: vivid, intense colors, applied over a large area, will definitely have the effect of making that area look smaller in size.

One more thing to take into consideration when it comes to color is light. Light intensity differs greatly from place to place. In general, intense light makes colors more clear and sharp, and we can recall this from our school days, when we learned that “color is light” and that light influences to a great extent the way we perceive color.

Finally, seasonal changes are another factor in selecting the right colors, as there seems to exist a sort of “cycle” in the way they alternate (at least, in moderate climates). Cream or light yellows mostly appear at the beginning of the year; blues pop up in the summer; the fall is characterized by warm orange and copper hues.

Unity and harmony

Unity is accomplished when the transition from one section of the garden to another is smooth. Visually strong lines, the repetition of geometrical shapes and of dominant design elements, e.g. water, contribute to the unity of the landscape.

In order for us to create an aesthetically appealing effect, contrasts must follow some proportions: lack of proportion means lack of harmony in the design. There must also be a harmonious relationship between the various natural and structural elements, which should be related according to a specific scale.

An all-important factor to consider is time: when selecting plants, we must know how these will develop and which size they will finally reach, or their sheer volume will bring about aesthetical and practical problems.

In a small garden, a single handsome tree may function as a central focal point around which to set the rest of the composition. Finally, the use of a single hardscaping material can act as a factor that will link together the whole landscape.

Unity and harmony are not evident during the initial stages of garden creation, when plants are not yet grown enough to cover the area and to soften up rigid lines and hard surfaces.


Balance does not necessarily mean symmetry. An asymmetrical composition may be well-balanced and agreeable to the eye.


  • The volume, color, or form of a planted area may be taken as a measure for the creation of a visually equivalent area on the other side of a focal point.
  • A concentration of a certain color on one side may be counterbalanced by a larger and more spread-out mass of verdure.



A multicolored tree or bush protruding from amidst a green turf or an opening to a beautiful view can be pleasing and welcome surprises.

Variety in colors, shapes, textures or shadings makes a garden more interesting; nevertheless, caution is advised, as the excessive use of varied materials risks causing a feeling of dizziness and confusion.


These are the basic principles that will guide us in drawing our landscape design. Then, after elaborating on the details, we’ll start implementing it, bit by bit or all at once, depending on our garden space, our budget, and the time we can allot to gardening and landscaping.

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Photo Credit: Bogdan Migulski via Compfight cc

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