Spatial Design in Landscaping Plans

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Lisa Orgler
Lecturer in Horticulture
Iowa State University

The idea of creating a landscape plan can often seem overwhelming, especially for larger properties.  The placement of trees, planting beds and lawns can feel like an unachievable puzzle. The good news is that there is a landscape design process to sift through these components and help place them into a cohesive landscape. By using bubble (or functional) diagrams and form composition studies a comprehensive spatial design can be achieved that will miraculously reveal garden rooms surrounded by planting beds…all ready for the homeowner to fill with lovely plants.  

To begin it’s important to define spatial design vs. planting design.

Spatial design is the overall spatial arrangement (or structure) of your garden.  Spaces (or rooms) are defined then arranged so they relate to each other in the appropriate way for a client.  To figure out spatial design one would go through a series of bubble diagrams and concept drawings.

Once the spatial design is finalized, plants and other hardscape elements are used to define those spaces. Planting beds are formed to reinforce the spaces you created. It is within these beds that the magic of planting design occurs. Planting areas should not be placed willy-nilly, but always with purpose.

spatial design

Most of us want to jump in and start planning the planting beds, but always start with the spatial design of your property. Creating bubble diagrams is the first step in this process. The purpose of a functional diagram is to study the relationship of spaces and the movement or visual connections between them.  These are a wonderful way to organize the list of items you want included in a design, without getting too detailed.  Make a bubble for each item on your list. These may include elements such as a lawn space, vegetable garden, shed, compost area, cutting garden, patio and planting beds.  Experiment and try different combinations. Sometimes your third or fourth drawing ends up being the best one. Below are two examples of bubble diagrams using the list of items above.

spatial design

Once you like the relationship of these spaces, it’s time to define your garden rooms by creating a drawing called a form composition study.  Start by giving your garden rooms (like the lawn, patio and vegetable garden) a strong shape. Maybe your lawn is an oval or kidney bean shape, while your vegetable garden and patio spaces are square.  Be inspired by the architecture of your house or a particular garden style.  

Once these garden rooms are structured, planting beds should be used to define them (plants are the walls of these spaces).  The mistake we often make is defining the bed areas first, then allowing what is leftover to become the lawn.  This needs to switch.  Below are four options of form composition studies created from both bubble diagrams above. 
bubble design 1

bubble design 2
Now you have a spatial design for your property, that includes strong garden rooms and bed areas defined for plantings.  The next step is to visit your local nursery and fill those beds with your favorite plants!

Additional references to aid in this process

Designing your Garden: Bubble Diagrams.

Designing your Garden: Defining Space

Date of Publication: 
April, 2015