Home and Garden Guide

12 Key Principles For Garden Design

Make these key design decisions for a functional, aesthetically attractive outdoor space


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Good design starts with the basics in order to fashion a balanced, beautiful landscape. It’s similar to using the right ingredients and spices to prepare a sumptuous meal. The following are the most important principles:

Separate modes of transportation. Cars need driveways, and people need walkways. Your main walkway should be a minimum of five feet wide, while minor paths should be a minimum of three feet wide. Straight paths to the front door are considered bad feng shui, so try organic, curved lines, or break up long walks with a bench, tree, or plant grouping. Mix and match materials, but do so judiciously since too many different materials look disconnected, like a badly composed painting.

Bury boulders. To give your landscape more interest and a more natural appearance, bury boulders up to the soil line rather than place them on top of soil. Use enough for accent, but not too many unless you want it to look like a lunarscape. Use rocks and boulders that are indigenous to your region.

design principles

Make mounds subtle. If you mound soil for topographical interest, the slope of the mound should be gradual and not higher than 24 inches from the base. A steeply sloped, high mound is also hard to irrigate and can cause drainage problems. Water rolls off the mound rather than is absorbed, and may cause erosion.

Select uniform hardscape materials that share some similarities. Similar hardscape materials make small yards appear larger. Using mixed materials, especially for patio surfaces, will make the area look like two adjacent spaces worked on at different times rather than one large uniform area. You can use more than one material, but have a theme with repetition. For example, if you have an all-brick house and choose a gray slate patio to complement the deep red brick, reintroduce the brick into the landscape as a trim on the patio or seat wall surrounding the patio.

Design for your activities. Inside your home, you have rooms for dining, sleeping, and bathing. While developing a garden master plan, think about how you want to use your outdoors. For example, you can design distinct areas for vegetable gardening, swimming, dining, cooking, and lounging. When you plan this way, your landscape will flow and no space will be wasted. You will also have distinct areas to keep pool floaties or basketballs away from a dining area, and smoke from a barbecue away from people lazying in a hammock.

design ideas

Add in some focal points. Add a focal point, just as you have a fireplace or artwork in a living room. This is pleasing to the human eye and personalizes your garden. Focal points can be sculptures, water fountains, unusual rocks, architectural plants, or specimen trees that change color throughout the year. The number should depend on the size of your garden or number of outdoor “rooms.”

Remember that less is often best or more. Many people have a tendency to collect rocks, pots, small sculptures, and gnomes to place all around their garden. This can become distracting and chaotic looking. It’s far better to choose two or three large pots and one or two prominent sculptures, which become strong focal points rather than eyesores.

Add a level or two for interest. Hardscape for entertaining should be at one level. When you entertain people, one large level space is more conducive to intermingling and conversation. Preparing and carrying food trays is easier without having to climb stairs or steep walkways. However, changes in elevation to delineate spaces in a landscape add drama and separate outdoor activities. Looking down on a pool from a dining space above can be a beautiful vista. Take advantage of natural changes in terrain, like the way wineries terrace a hillside for growing grapes.

Add details, too. Small elements can have a profound effect on the cohesiveness, drama, and beauty of a landscape, but keep them stylistically and proportionately proper. Placing Victorian backdoor light fixtures in a contemporary yard can be jarring; better to add contemporary designs.

design ideas

Limit plants and keep them organized. When you’re at a nursery with many beautiful, colorful plants, it’s easy to want to buy one of each. However, in landscape design, plants should always be used in repetition to be effective. Formal designs use even numbers of plants, called block planting, while natural designs use odd numbers of plants with random placement. Single plants should only be used when they act as a focal point for the yard as living art and are large enough to command attention. Good examples include Japanese black pine bonsai, weeping serpentine cedar, dwarf weeping Japanese maple, gnarled multi-trunked olive, and a spiral juniper topiary. Do some research, too, when selecting plants for your yard. Find out how tall and wide they will become at full maturity for proper balance and spacing. If you want foundation plantings at the base of your house, it’s better to choose a plant that grows three to four feet high rather than having to constantly prune a 10-foot plant to that height. When planting slow-growing plants, some landscape designers will suggest overplanting for a more immediate, lush effect; however, homeowners should note that over time, they will need to remove some of the overcrowded plants.

Plant with colors and textures to incorporate different moods. When choosing plants at the nursery, think of your color palette and style. Asian-inspired gardens use green and gray plants of different textures and this promotes a relaxing effect. Wildly colorful perennials and annuals are used in English cottage gardens or cutting garden areas and inspire excitement and joy. An all-white garden looks beautiful at night when the moon is out, hence its name: moon garden. Contemporary landscapes tend to use a single bright color like red or purple to invoke drama and passion.

Views from the indoors out are important, too. When you design your landscape, consider the views of your garden from inside your house. Your garden should be a place that you love looking out from, even when you can’t be outdoors — particularly if you live in a cold or rainy climate.


Michael Glassman is the co-author of The Garden Bible: Designing your Perfect Outdoor Space (Images Publishing, 2016).

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