The Ten Principles of Good Garden or Landscape Design

Posted on February 16, 2012 03:23 AM, in Landscaping

Whether you are tasked with thinking about creating some new flowerbeds in your cottage garden, or if your job is considering creating a large public space for a city council – believe it or not, the principles involved in each scenario are much the same. Get them right and the garden design or landscape architecture you are undertaking should work perfectly.

Obviously, as with any kind of design, much of garden design or landscape architecture is down to personal style and taste. Some garden designers may favour geometric shapes and modern, minimal garden design. Others may specialise in natural ‘wild’ planting and cottage style spaces. It is worth remembering then, that while the principles of landscape design are very much worth following, they are not necessarily ‘rules’ of design. Creativity and individuality are very important too!

1. Unity

Unity is crucial in all garden design, landscape design and landscape architecture. Essentially, ‘unity’ in design is brought about by consistency. Consistency creates garden design unity by the very nature of its elements – the size, height, texture and colour schemes of planting for example.

Unity can be created in a million different ways – perhaps a consistent theme (oriental or coastal), perhaps the consistent appearance of rocks and boulders (in similar sizes and colours of course), or consistency in planting (say using grasses across the entire garden for example).

2. Simplicity

Simplicity is a crucial element in all design and art, not just garden design or landscape architecture. In gardens and landscapes though, simplicity creates a real sense of flow and cohesiveness. For example, simplicity in colour in garden design would be choosing three or four colours of plants and then repeating those colours throughout the garden design or landscape. Keeping other garden features to a minimum (such as water features or hardscapes) will also create simplicity and make the planting itself more noticeable.

3. Balance

Balance in any kind of design essentially means equality, and in garden design in particular it manifests itself in two types of balance - symmetrical and asymmetrical.

Symmetrical balance is when elements of the garden design are equally spaced, left and right, front and back, up and down. The garden may, for example, be split down the middle by a path or walkway, but on each side of that walkway, the garden design or landscape design is identical – beds in the same places, planting identical, and shapes and colours matching too.

Asymmetrical balance is a far more complex concept to understand, simply by virtue of the fact that it is much more abstract. With asymmetrical balance, the balance is much more subjective, and is often a case of personal taste. Perhaps one garden designer may see balance in using very different sizes of trees, but with all trees exhibiting similar foliage. Another designer may see balance in using rocks alongside water features.

4. Contrast

Contrast is crucial in garden design and landscape architecture and can be created in a number of ways. Curved beds for example, combined with straight lines of tree planting, can look incredible.Contrast can also be achieved with planting. Fine foliage versus coarse foliage, round leaves versus spiked leaves, and of course contrasting plant colours and heights.

5. Colour

Colour adds real interest to a landscape design. It draws the eye to certain areas and away from others, it creates senses of space or enclosure and it can change the feel of a garden instantly. Bright colours such as reds, yellows and oranges really change our understanding of a garden’s space as they can in fact appear to be closer to us (drawing us in). More natural landscape-based colours such as greens and blues always seem further away and thus create the illusion of MORE space.

6. Transition

Transition in garden design or landscape design is essentially a sense of gradual or natural change and is most often demonstrated with plant height or colour. In other types of garden though, transition can be shown with gradually ascending tree heights, stepped or multileveled gardens, and sculptural features such as ornamental stone or glass.

Transition also helps to create optical illusions in landscape and garden design. For example a transition from taller to shorter plants can give a sense of depth and distance, making the garden seem larger than it really is.

7. Line

Line is one of the more structural principles of landscape design. It usually refers to flowers beds, walkways, paths and paving. It is crucially related to the way we travel through a garden’s space and can really dictate the feel and useage of the garden in question. Straight lines within a garden design are very direct and strong for example, whilst curvy lines have a more natural and flowing effect. One style might perhaps encourage you to walk quickly through the space to get to another area; another style might be designed to get you to amble at a slow pace and take in the view!

8. Proportion

Proportion simply refers to the size of different elements in relation to each other. Much of proportion in garden design is obvious – a small cottage garden doesn’t need enormous modern statues, and a huge municipal garden wouldn’t work with a tiny stepping stone pathway! That having been said, it doesn’t mean that large gardens can’t include smaller features - they can. Just remember though that proportion is relative and elements can be scaled to fit by creating different ‘rooms’ within a garden design. What a good landscape designer strives for is to create the right relationships between and within the three dimensions of length, breadth, and depth (or height).


Repetition in garden design means repeating similar landscape design elements such as box hedges, square or rectagonal raised beds, identical edging styles, or overall landscape colour and tone. Its good to have a variety of elements and forms in the garden but repeating these elements gives that variety expression. Too many unrelated objects can make the garden look cluttered and unplanned – but remember, it’s a fine line between good use of repetition and a boring garden design!

10. Character

And finally, our last principle. Good garden design must exhibit character – be it the owner’s character, the designer’s character, or the character of the property that it surrounds. Character is impossible to define, but it is in fact what makes the very best garden designers and landscape designers stand out. Designers such as Andrew Fisher Tomlin, Cleve West, Randle Siddeley and Lisa Cox all enjoy reputations for bringing great character to their garden designs and landscape architecture, and their clients often recommend them on this basis furthering their success in the industry.

Tags: landscape, architecture, garden, design

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