The Elements of Great Landscape Design

Want to make your garden more memorable? Incorporate these simple, yet critical, design elements.


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ornamental grasses
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Design for real life

    With the hustle and bustle of everyday life, recognize how much time and effort you have to devote to your landscape and select appropriate plant materials. Perennials such as daylilies, catmint, salvia, and ornamental grasses are essentially maintenance-free with little to no watering required once established.

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Find a vertical point

    Great design begins at the foundation of your home with vertical accents. Play up columns, corners of your porch, or your front entry with plant materials such as ornamental grasses or vertical evergreens.

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Pay Attention to Light

    Light makes colors and textures come alive. Place trees and shrubs with colored foliage along an east-west line so they can benefit from the backlighting of a rising or setting sun. Use artificial lighting to produce soft pools of brightness at dusk; you will be amazed at how an ordinary garden can be transformed into a magical night garden with just a few strategically placed lights.

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Let it flow

    Design style works for the interior as well as the exterior. Extend that style to your landscape. Use vintage accents such as weathered galvanized tubs for plant containers to depict an antique or cottage style. Incorporate contemporary art figures to transfer a modern, sleek interior fashion.

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Utilize Differences in Texture

    Plants are often divided into two classes: those with coarse foliage (such as these hostas) and those with fine foliage (such as the Hakone grass in this photo). Put one type of plant next to the other and -- voila! -- you're a design genius.

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Work the walk

    Carry the flow while softening your front entry by alternating groups of the same plant along your sidewalk. Three to five plants in each grouping will create the best impact without overpowering the style.

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Mix Plant Shapes

    Form is the art-school word for shape. Easily defined shapes -- the cones of these pruned trees, for example -- are very distinctive in the plant world, where so many inhabitants are jumbles of several shapes (or no shape at all). Strong forms can make a garden distinctive and memorable. If that's your aim, select a form or two and repeat it throughout your garden.

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Winter attraction

    Winter is long and dreary, so make the most of it by admiring a garden built for the winter doldrums. Using evergreens or ornamental grasses that maintain a pleasant structure through the off-season will create a landscape worth admiring

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Play with Proportions

    Proportion is the relative size of one element to another. In this photo, the hulking tree menaces the itty-bitty house. Use trees and shrubs to frame a house, not to conceal it or draw attention away from it. Another guideline: In a garden bed, limit the height of any plant to two-thirds the depth of the bed; for example, in a 25-x-6-foot perennial garden, the tallest plant should be no more than 4 feet.

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Plant your focal point

    Make a characteristic tree or large shrub the focal point of your garden.

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Keep it in Scale

    In design, scale refers to the size of items relative to gardeners (that is, to human beings). For example, a 4-x-12-foot banquet table is grossly out of scale for an intimate dinner for two. In the photo, the scale of the walkway (that is, its width) is well-suited to the modest number of people who will be using the walkway at any given time. In general, follow the Goldilocks rule: Don't build too big or too small to accommodate your needs.

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Look beyond plants

    Structures such as pergolas, trellises, and arbors add a little something extra to a landscape. In addition, they provide visual interest during winter and early spring when much of your garden hasn't flourished yet.

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Create Visual Lines

    A line can be any "skinny" element that wanders through the garden. Common lines include paths, fences, edgings, or a wall. In general, curved lines are more interesting than straight ones. Use to entice visitors to a special place (like a shady nook) or to draw their eyes to a special element (like that $200 Japanese maple you broke your piggy bank to buy).

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Create Patterns

    Humans like patterns because they take the guesswork out of a scene. If we see a latticework trellis, our mind can assume that the hidden portions of the trellis have the same checkerboard pattern. In this regard, patterns give our brains a rest. That's why it's useful to maintain the same paving pattern all along a path. On the other hand, a bold pattern can draw attention to itself. The tightly controlled pattern of an herb knot garden turns a group of mundane little plants into a work of art.

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Create Symmetry

    Balance is a general sense that the visual elements on one side of a scene are of equal weight to the elements on the other side of the scene. Balance creates a feeling of calm. The easiest (or boringest, depending on your personality) way to achieve balance is to divide the scene down the middle and create mirror images on either side. This traditional home exhibits formal balance.

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Keep Things in Balance

    Informal balance is much harder to achieve than the mirror images of formal balance. For example, in this contemporary home several small container plants on the right side of the dividing line balance a single large shrub on the other side. With informal balance, you have much more flexibility because the dividing line (or "pivot point") can be anywhere in the scene. Think about how a see-saw works and you'll be on the right track.

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Use Repetition

    When all elements of a garden seem to come from the same personality or sensibility, you have achieved unity. This Asian-inspired meditation garden achieves unity. If you were to plop in a conga-line of pink plastic flamingos, the unity would be gone, replaced by levity -- which might be just what the gardener wanted! Don't worry too much about unity in your own garden. Your gut (or your neighbor) will likely tell you when something doesn't fit.

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Play up Contrasts

    The eye loves contrast. The more dramatic the change, the better. In this case, the smooth finish of the blue wooden gate is a nice contrast to the white, rough-textured wall. Most gardeners are comfortable with using contrasting colors (blue iris and pink peonies). Look for other opportunities to use contrast in your garden.

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Go Bold with Color

    Color has many uses in garden design. Bright, warm colors create a sense of action and excitement. Cool colors and pastels lend a calmer feeling. Single-color designs create a sophisticated look, while multicolor designs engender a festive atmosphere. Color can also evoke a sense of time -- think of the rusts and oranges of fall. Don't be afraid of color: play with it in your garden, and try as many combinations as you can dream up.

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Add Visual Rhythm

    Rhythm is the regular repetition of an element in the garden; in most cases, developing a rhythm means using many repetitions, not just two or three. For example, it might be a line of trees beside a long driveway or the pickets and posts of a fence next to a 100-foot-long sidewalk. If you are planning a smaller area, simply choose smaller plants.

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Keep it Interesting

    It's the spice of life, and of gardening. Introducing variety simply means creating some breaks in the monotony -- some focal points that stick out. These little bird sculptures would be perfect in a small shady nook. A burbling fountain might be just the tonic for a bland patio. Drop some garden art in the middle of a flowerbed. You'll soon find that these little surprises can help your garden come alive.

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