Landscape architects and designers use a variety of guidelines and tools to create attractive and functional outdoor living spaces. While most owners and weekend warriors may not have experience with advanced professional training, the concepts followed by the pros aren’t entirely out of reach.
The principles of landscaping – proportion, order, repetition, and unity – are the fundamental compositional concepts that professionals use to plan all kinds of open spaces. Homes, parks, golf courses, businesses and countless other organizations benefit from the artistic and practical application of these principles. You can also learn from them.
Landscaping elements versus landscaping principles
At the outset, the designer should have a clear vision of the objectives of the project. Besides creating an attractive space, is there a need for privacy? Is there a collection of favorite plants to showcase, such as a prized rose garden? After considering all of the issues involved, the plants and landscaping materials, or features, are organized.
Landscape features can be physically described by their visual qualities of line, shape, color, texture and visual weight. These are known as the design elements. The design principles are the guidelines for organizing these elements in a beautiful landscape.
Landscape design elements
The elements of landscaping are the planning tools used to compose the various features of the garden. Design elements help determine plant selection and placement, landscaping layout, material finishes, types and sizes of water bodies and much more.
- Visual mass or weight
Principles of landscaping
The principles of landscaping describe the ways in which design elements should be used. They break down the ideals of beauty and functionality into four useful guidelines or categories.
In landscaping, proportion is the size relationship of plants, landscaping, buildings and other landscaping elements to each other and on a human scale. Small foundation plants in front of a substantial house entrance will be visually lost, but a century-old oak tree could completely obscure the house. The idea is to take a step back and consider how the different elements appear and work as a whole. For a better proportion, install larger foundation plants and prune the oak tree.
Concretely, the “divine proportion” or “golden ratio” has played a key role in the design since the Egyptians built the pyramids. It states that the ratio of the short side to the long side should be equal to the ratio of the long side to the sum of the two sides (a / b = b / a + b), which is approximately 1: 1.6 (e.g. 5 x 8, 10 x 16 or 15 x 24). Humans find this spatial arrangement pleasing. Consider using it to arrange horizontal spaces like lawns or vertical elements like walkways.
Using the right proportion also helps define a “garden room” or landscaped enclosure such as a pool deck or children’s play area. The meaningful fence rule tells us that the vertical edge, like a hedge or decorative fence, should be at least one-third the length of the horizontal space. So plan to border your 24-foot-wide patio with an eight-foot-high hedge for a cozy effect.
The principle of order considers the organization and balance within the landscaping. Spatial organization refers to the three-dimensional arrangement of the landscape, including the configuration of the land as well as plants and structures. An analogy for balance is equal “visual weight”. The goal is to establish balance from side to side and front to back.
Symmetric vs asymmetric balance
The balance can be obtained symmetrically or asymmetrically. Symmetry incorporates the same plants and landscapes as mirror images of each other that are found in traditional formal landscapes. In informal landscapes, asymmetry balances different features and elements whose shapes, textures and colors have the same visual weight.
A designer takes inspiration from existing elements, such as the line of a wall, a particular window, or the drip line of a large tree, to connect and organize the design. These imaginary lines lead the designer to incorporate elements that will unify the whole or divide the space in an aesthetic way.
Use regulation lines to determine the effective placement of foundation plants and privacy screens, alignment of focal points and more.
Diversity adds interest, but too many different species, colors, textures or combinations in a relatively small space is confusing. The repetition of familiar patterns and sequences in a landscape adds a semblance of order and helps build unity. At the same time, the abuse of a single element becomes monotonous. Balance is the key.
Often the growing conditions will not allow the use of the same plants in all parts of the landscape. Repetition doesn’t necessarily mean using the exact same things over and over again to create a pattern. Repeated use of shape, texture or color throughout the landscape is an effective way to incorporate this principle as conditions change.
Use the alternation as a way to create a patterned or subtle repeat. Alternately, a minor change in sequence occurs regularly. For example, every fifth globe shape along a boxwood line might be interrupted by a pyramid shape. Or alternate inverted shapes such as pyramid plants and vase-shaped plants in an orderly sequence.
Using a gradual change in the characteristics of a characteristic makes repeating more interesting. A shape may gradually become smaller or larger, or the colors of the bloom may gradually become darker or lighter.
Unified landscaping gives the impression that everything comes together to create a whole. Adopting a proven theme or design style, such as French Garden, Japanese Garden, or Xeriscape Style, can help but is not required. Unity, also called harmony, is achieved through the effective use of domination, interconnection, the unity of the three, and simplicity in the arrangement of textures, colors and shapes.
Focal points are dominant features that capture attention. They draw attention to a particular place and help move the eye through space. These features typically contrast in color, size, shape, or texture with the surrounding landscape. Specimens of plants with unique shapes and textures, and architectural elements such as water features or garden sculptures, are often used for this purpose. Ordinary plants can fulfill this role, such as when isolated in containers.
We often think of creating “garden furniture” or enclosures that encapsulate part of the landscape. But a good design uses different elements to put everything together. The catwalks serve as a chain that connects all the rooms together. Likewise, the maintenance of any regulatory line helps to create unity through interconnection.
Unit of three
The elements grouped in threes, or other odd numbers, create a visual balance while promoting the unity of the landscape. Odd numbers are easily seen as a group that is not easily divisible, like even numbers. They allow to alternate height variations, offering more interest.
Eliminating non-essentials helps prevent chaos in the landscape. For example, rather than choosing nine different flowers for the annual flower bed, choose a primary color or type and one or two accents. Is it necessary to cover the border with bricks, or would a clean, natural edge be better?
While it’s helpful to understand the elements and principles of landscaping, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. One of the best ways to create a good design is to take inspiration from the gardens and landscapes that you have seen and find attractive. Take inspiration from everything from plant combinations to trail surface materials and incorporate them. Adapt them to your project, then use what you know about the four principles to fill in the gaps.
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