What Are Landscape Design Principles?

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Walking around the area where I live, I’ve seen garden after garden filled with drought-tolerant plants that look ugly and others that look gorgeous. The difference is in the design. To create an attractive, sustainable yard, you must not only embrace the local wild landscape to minimise the extra care that is needed but also put your plants and hardscape features together in a way that attracts and holds the eye.

Local wild landscape features include the general shape of the land (flat, hilly, mountainous), the weather, water availability, and local native plants––whatever you find naturally existing in your area. An attractive, natural-looking landscape matches these and is relatively easy to maintain.

Design elements include colour, texture, scale, line and more. Using design elements in your plan is what makes a natural garden attractive.

“Landscape design” sounds rather imposing. To be sure, one could spend years studying all the ideas in this field. But what about the DIY’er who wants to give a front yard a makeover or wishes to tinker with designing a garden? Do you need to spruce up the yard of a house you’re selling? Do you want to enjoy an enhanced beauty in the privacy of your backyard?

Then you could profit from a straightforward look at the ideas behind designing a garden, supplemented with hands-on project guides. Let’s begin with the former:

Landscape Design Explained Through Pictures

Ever wonder about the secrets underlying the magic art of the landscape designer? Well, the resource linked to above translates that “magic,” making it understandable for the do-it-yourselfer. Study these photos illustrating landscape design ideas and learn about the concepts the pros employ.

Or perhaps you’d rather skip the concepts and get right down to some projects that will beautify your yard? The following resources will allow you to do just that, providing precise instructions and lots of pictures:

  • How to Build Garden Fountains
  • How to Build Rock Gardens
  • How to Plant Flower Beds
  • How to Plant Hedges

Understanding the Language of Landscape Design

Whenever you put something together yourself, you are engaged in designing, however, humble the project. Sometimes we take our designing skills for granted because what we’re putting together is so commonplace for us that we are no longer conscious of the designing process. For instance, you are employing designing techniques when you compose a letter to send to somebody. Your basic “elements” to accomplish such a task include vocabulary, spelling and grammar. Somewhat more complex elements, or “principles,” build directly on the basic elements. Letter-writing principles include conveying your ideas clearly and coming across as a courteous, intelligent individual. Your success with these principles will largely determine whether or not your letter achieves its ultimate objective.

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And so it is with landscape design. Do-it-yourselfers must first learn the basic designing elements that underlie the discipline of landscape design. These fundamental elements will then serve as building blocks for learning and implementing the more advanced principles for designing a garden in the backyard. These tried and true principles are the cornerstones of the world’s picture-perfect gardens.

The basic elements of landscape design are:

Colour, as defined by colour theory.





These five elements must be considered in designing both the hardscape and softscape of your property, the latter consisting mainly of gardens, lawns, shrubs and trees. I discuss form, line and texture in this article. I explain the use of colour in my article on colour theory. As for scale, it is simply the size of one component relative to adjacent components.

You may wonder what seemingly abstract terms like “form” have to do with backyard landscape designs. You may object that you’re not painting a landscape, after all; you’re just putting plants in the ground. Yet it is not coincidental that backyard landscape design shares some terminology with the world of art. The backyard is your canvas; your landscape design skills will determine the beauty of the resulting picture.

The element of the form is defined as the shape of a plant and the structure of its branching pattern. Trees come in many shapes (especially if pruned), including columnar and spherical shapes. Likewise, tree forms range structurally from having the stiffly upright branches of Lombardy poplar trees to the droopy quality of a weeping willow. The form of individual components of a plant also needs to be considered. For example, the leaf form of one type of tree can be very different from that of another type of tree. Relative leaf size, meanwhile, helps determine plant texture.

Since the texture is primarily a visual matter in landscape design, we often rely on the relative size of a plant’s leaves to draw conclusions about its perceived texture. Yes, plant texture is highly relative: it refers to how the surface of the object is perceived, relative to the objects around it. Thus the plant texture of one bedding plant, for example, might be considered more or less coarse than that of an adjacent plant, due to differences in leaf size.

The line refers to the fact that the viewer’s eye movement or flow can be governed by the arrangement of plants and their borders. Eye movement is unconsciously influenced by the way plant groupings fit or flow together, both on the horizontal and vertical planes. 

Enough about the basic elements, you say? Good: let’s move on to the principles you’ll apply to your backyard landscape design. Because the effective application of these principles in your backyard can raise the value of your real estate significantly. MJS Construction Group has the best range of dual occupancy builder services to help you create your dream house.

With the basic elements defined, it is time to put them to practical use. In planning a landscape design, it is necessary to work with the “principles” that stem directly from the basic elements. How effectively you implement these principles will determine the impact of your landscaping upon the viewer — be it yourself or a prospective buyer.

Since this introduction to backyard landscape design is meant as a practical guide, the goal is not to provide abstract definitions, but examples that the do-it-yourselfer can implement immediately in a backyard landscape design. 

Three principles of garden design apply to the overall “feel” of the landscape: namely, proportion, transition and unity. Landscape plants should be arranged so as to conform to these principles. Proportion is the sense that the size of the individual components (the landscape plants) or groups of components in a landscape is consistent with the landscape as a whole. In other words, the idea behind proportion is very similar to that behind the basic element, scale. But the difference is that, while “scale” is a neutral term, “proportion” is based on the premise that something is either “in proportion” or “out of proportion.” A garden design that is out of proportion is one that is marred by abrupt transitions or by the lack of transition. For instance, a five-foot-high stone wall might elegantly set off a large home but would make a small home look all the smaller. The landscaping of the latter suffers from a lack of transition: the height of the wall is too close to that of the house. Transition, put, refers to gradual change.

Conforming to a sense of proportion is, in turn, one characteristic of a landscape or garden design that exhibits unity. Unity, or “harmony,” has been achieved when the viewer senses that all the landscape plants in a garden design complement each other and have been chosen with one overarching theme in mind. The placement of landscape plants in a thoughtful manner regarding their form is one method for promoting a unified feel. For instance, small trees flanking a driveway or an entrance should have the same form. Repetition also promotes unity. Like all good things, however, unity can be pushed too far. Introduce some variety, or “contrast” into a landscape, too. One way is through the use of landscape plants that vary in texture. The element, texture, is subtle enough that it can be employed to inject variety into a garden design without destroying unity.

The next triad of principles for home landscape design, like proportion, transition, and unity, are interrelated: namely, rhythm, balance, and focalisation. They all pertain to controlling a viewer’s eye movement. Rhythm, in general, is the patterned repetition of a motif. In your home landscape design, the motif could consist of the landscaping plants used, for instance. Landscaping plants of one type could be planted in a row or hedge, effectively channelling the viewer’s gaze in one direction, rather than another. The essential element here is a line since nothing controls eye movement more readily than a straight line.

The objective of utilising such a motif is to direct eye movement, unconsciously, in a manner that is most conducive to appreciating the home landscape design in question. For instance, perhaps the situation of your land holds the potential for a magnificent vista, but your current home landscape design does not take full advantage of it. Or perhaps you have a piece of statuary in your front yard that you want to show off. But if your front yard is full of other interesting items, it might be too “busy” for that item to receive sufficient focus. These and other problems of rhythm can be solved through an understanding of balance and focalisation.

Balance refers to the consistency of visual attraction and applies to all five of the basic elements: consistency with form, with texture, etc. Understanding balance is, in turn, important for an understanding of focalisation. Focalisation is the forcing of the viewer’s perspective to a focal point. While it can be achieved through various means, more intense focalisation is created through the use of balanced, consistent arrangements of elements.

Let’s return, then, to the two problems of home landscape design introjected above. The first is a problem of framing and can be solved by using bold, straight lines. In the photo on Page 3, for instance, a wall serves this purpose (a row of trees could also have been used). The second, a problem of drawing attention to one component in a busy front yard could be solved by reducing clutter, opting instead for a minimalist style; and through the use either of colour or line. The statue could be surrounded by the colour that would direct the viewer’s eye (focalisation) unconsciously to that area. Using landscaping plants with flowers that are red or yellow en masse would do the trick nicely. So would appropriate use of line. For instance, a straight path of paving stones leading up to the statuary, or bedding plants arranged to form a straight edging that will focus the viewer’s gaze in the intended direction.

It will be seen from the foregoing discussion that the principles of home landscape design refer to nothing more ethereal than simply arranging the landscaping plants selected in combinations that bespeak a well-reasoned plan. While not pretending to be an exhaustive discussion, the above examples should nonetheless serve to allay the do-it-yourselfers fears that home landscape design is the exclusive province of wizards with unfathomable powers. Home landscape design is the province not of witchcraft, but planning, problem-solving and a “principled” approach.

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Basic Landscape Design Principles

Apply the “Law” of Significant Enclosure

The etymology of the word garden comes from ‘enclosure’. Meaning that in your garden you should be able to feel close to nature, even though your house is most probably in a town full of concrete buildings. Your yard can turn into a small enclosed escape from the world, bringing you closer to the great wild outdoors. To create this feeling, it is essential to follow the law of significant enclosure. It states that the vertical edge of space should be at least one-third the length of the total horizontal length of that space. By applying this principle, you would be able to create the sense of a true nature enclosure and openness at the same time in your garden.        

Guide Yourself by the Regulating Line

The regulating line concepts assert that an imaginary line can be drawn between any element of architecture and landscaping feature. This principle helps to connect and organising the components in your garden. It creates a sense of unity and cohesiveness, so everything looks as it belongs there. For instance, while planning your garden, you should project the lines of your building into the garden. Then, align the wooden walkways or swimming pool with those lines. The architect and theoretician Le Corbusier once wrote: “A regulating line, is an assurance against capriciousness…It confers on the work the quality of rhythm…The choice of a regulating line fixes the fundamental geometry of the work….” This touches on two slightly paradoxical features. First, this principle lies in the fundamental order. Even though a garden is a natural and wild part of your home, it should follow strict rules. Second, applying regulating lines is subjective, and a landscaping designer can use a lot of creativity. It does sound contradictory. However, finding the fine line between the rules and the creative process would separate you as a professional designer next to an amateur one. Finding the right duplex build  is an important decision. Check out our range of the best home design constructions at MJS Construction Group.

Remember the Golden Rectangle and Golden Ratio to Get the Proportions Precise

Math is applicable in anything we do, including landscape design. The Golden Rectangle and Golden Ratio can be observed almost anywhere in nature as well as in architecture.

Golden Rectangle in Landscaping

You might remember this rule from high school. If not, we are here to help. The Golden Rectangle states that ratio of the short side to the long side of the rectangle is equal to the ratio of the long side to the sum of both sides (a/b = b/a+b). It sounds a little confusing when you first read it, but we promise you it is extremely helpful when creating your landscape plan. If you are laying out terraces, patios, arbours, lawns, etc., you can use the Golden Rectangle ratio, which numerically is closed to 1: 1.6.

Golden Ratio in Landscaping

You can apply the Golden ratio, especially when planting flowers in your garden. You probably have heard of the Fibonacci sequence, which is an aspect of the Golden ratio. It goes like this 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8… Planting flowers in groups of 3, 5 and 8, for example, would create a relaxing and visually appealing environment. Not coincidentally, in garden catalogues and stores they package the flowers in groups of 3,5, 8 and so on.

When Designing Steps, Follow Thomas D. Church’s Rule.

Stairs and decking help create a different mood in your garden. They can be designed in different manners – elegant, symmetrical, curving, minimalistic, etc. Stairs form a focal point, suggest movements and help to unfold different perspectives of the garden. Therefore, it is challenging to implement all of your garden landscape ideas, but there are some rules that can help you.

If you want to put steps in your garden landscape design, you would want to follow Thomas D. Church’s ratio. He was a prominent and novel landscape architect in the 20th century based in California. He is most known for being a pioneer in the landscape design of Modernism and creating the ‘California Style.’ In his work Gardens Are for People he states that twice the height of the riser plus the tread should equal 26 inches (66.04 cm). The riser is the vertical area of the stair, and the tread is the horizontal one that people step on. For example, if the riser is 7 inches, the tread should be 12 inches. Another helpful principle is that the number of steps is usually calculated to be the change of level in the garden divided by 15 cm.

Start Planting Big to Small

After you have laid down your landscaping plan, it is time to think about planting your plants. Those are the elements that would turn your yard into an actual garden. Smart planting is the pinnacle of a garden. You should start with planting trees, then shrubs, then perennials, and finally ground cover. This principle is important in terms of composition but also practicality. Being able to see the bigger forms first gives a better understanding of the overall landscape. And on the other side, planting a tree usually require machinery or several gardeners that would need plenty of space to move and work on the soil. If there are smaller plants already planted, they would be damaged. Resisting to plant your newly bought flower seeds might seem hard at first. However, if you want to save time and money and have a beautiful garden, you should be patient.

Between the actual principles of landscape design and all the components that make these principles work, designing your plan can be a daunting task. Instead of tackling a grand master plan for your entire landscape by yourself, calling on professional landscape designers and landscape architects may be a step in the right direction.

You can contract some designers to only make recommendations without an actual diagrammed plan or drawings so that you can do the actual work yourself. In contrast, others may offer a design plan, which includes recommended plant selections and proper placement of plant materials as well as garden structures. Many landscape designers will do all the work for you — drawing up plans, choosing plants and other materials and installing their design. At MJS Construction Group, we have the best dual occupancy selection to make your house a dream come true.

For those who want to give their garden, a face-lift have some options available to them. These options range from simply adding new plants and other garden accessories to your garden to hire landscaping businesses. You could look into some landscape ideas before beginning any major general changes to your garden.

Looking at these landscaping ideas first, you have the ability to see what items you might like to have in your garden. These ideas will also allow you to see how you can reasonably change your garden, regardless of whether it is large or small, is one that reflects your personality.

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