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Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Horticulture, (515) 294-5075,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Garden Column for the week of June 25, 2004

Principles of Garden Design

By Ann Marie VanDerZanden
Extension Horticulturist
Iowa State University

Looking at landscapes, or even pictures of landscapes, can be a real source of design inspiration for many homeowners. (Having recently visited some glorious gardens in northern France, I returned with all kinds of inspiration!) Being able to break that landscape down into identifiable pieces or characteristics so you can emulate them in your own landscape, can be difficult if you aren't sure what you are looking at. Depending on what garden design book you read or which television show you watch, experts will describe anywhere from three to twelve landscape design principles. These principles represent the overriding concepts that influence garden design.
Over the years I have developed a list of five design principles which I think cover the basics. My list includes:

* Simplicity
* Rhythm and Line
* Balance
* Proportion
* Focal point

Simplicity in a landscape can be created physically, and or visually. Physical simplicity refers to a design where the actual shapes are simple. For example bedlines are either straight or gently curved, but not complex geometric shapes or patterns. The plant forms are also simple, such as rounded or oval, as opposed to severely pruned topiary. Visual simplicity is achieved when plants are grouped or massed. These masses usually consist of an odd number of plants, and often plants are grouped by color. This creates one visual mass rather than a series of individual plants. Repetition can then be seen when these masses are repeated throughout the garden. Landscapes that lack simplicity can look chaotic.

Rhythm and Line
This is the one principle that when it is done right, you don't even notice it, but when it isn't done right, it is obvious something is 'wrong' with the landscape. Basically this principle addresses continuity within a landscape and how the various elements that make up a landscape are integrated into the overall design. This principle can be related to simplicity since repetition is an important part of creating continuity.

The two common types of balance in landscapes are symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is most common in formal landscapes. These landscapes have an obvious central axis, and everything on one side is duplicated or mirrored on the other side. The rigid and clear rules of a symmetrical landscape make it easy to design, but the formality of this type of design doesn't blend well with most homes.
Asymmetrical balance uses different objects on each side of a discrete axis, but the end result is still a similar visual mass on either side. The bedlines tend to be curvy and the overall feel of the landscape is more informal. This type of balance is well suited for the home landscape.

This principle refers to the size relationship between different elements within the landscape. The major relationships to consider are: plants to buildings, plants to other plants, and plants to people. Proportion is something that changes over time as the landscape grows.

To achieve correct proportion, always design your landscape based on the mature height and spread of the plants. Although proportion may be a little out of scale when the plants are young, ultimately they will grow into proportion with other objects in the landscape. Avoid the temptation to over plant an area. Ultimately you will have to remove a lot of those plants to prevent overcrowding.

Focal Point
Focal points give the eye a place to rest when viewing the landscape as a whole. A focal point may be a specimen plant, garden accessory or water feature. Each major area in a landscape (i.e. front yard and back yard) should have a focal point, or multiple focal points if the area is large and divided into a number of smaller spaces. The front door is an example of a focal point in the front yard.

Understanding what these five principles are and how they are exemplified in the landscape can help you evaluate a landscape, including your own, in a whole new way. How you incorporate these principles can be as unique as the garden itself, but they can still provide the basis for the overall design.


ml: isugarden

Editors: Two color photos, suitable for publication, are available at right. Click on each thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The top picture's fullsize photo is 152K and the bottom picture's fullsize photo is 328K.

Caption: Simplicity as illustrated by straight or gently curving bedlines, and masses of plants.

Caption: Symmetrical landscape layout

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