The principles of landscape design |

The principles of landscape design

special to the daily
Special to the Daily/John Longhill

The principles of design that make a garden functional and beautiful are very much akin to principles in life. Remember, principles are those concepts or “rules” that we follow to organize certain elements and make them work for us. We may follow the principles of loyalty, friendship, compassion, work, balance and love, in life, to design what we want to have. Unity, balance, transition, proportion, rhythm, focalization, repetition and simplicity are the principles we follow in landscape design to create the landscape or garden we want to have. You do not have to apply every principle to every part of your plan, but having an understanding of these principles will help generate ideas and increase your creative output.

Unity is the first to consider, and is your main goal in designing a garden. To better understand this concept, think of it as consistency through repetition. Repetition creates unity, by repeating the same elements throughout the landscape. This is accomplished by using specific plants, plant groupings, and landscape elements more than once, or many times. By repeating components in a design that support a main idea, it unifies the design and creates an order that is psychologically pleasing to the observer.

If you have ever walked through a space and felt uncomfortable, look at what made you feel that way. It might be because there are too many different elements and not enough repetition. Unconsciously, this type of design fosters confusion – maybe because there are to many things to look at, or they were put together in a haphazard way.

Nature is a good example, because each ecosystem supports a limited number of plant species that are then repeated throughout. This repetition creates unity resulting in a natural design that is harmonious and relaxing.

Unity occurs when all parts of a composition or landscape fit together. When your entire landscape has a sense of connection, because you have used similar plants throughout, or the same stone walkway weaves throughout each part, a relaxed and natural feeling is the result. Remember the adage – “Less is More” when selecting your materials palette, and remember that everything you select for your landscape should complement your central idea and serve a functional purpose.

Balance in landscape design is just what it implies. It is a sense of equilibrium and equality in visual appearance. This can occur through symmetry – when one side of a garden is a mirror image of the other side. Or, it can occur with asymmetrical balance, which occurs when different shapes or the layout are used to obtain visual balance. Symmetrical balance is usually associated with formal gardens, where strong rectilinear lines are used to create balance and symmetry. Asymmetrical balance is more often associated with informal or naturalistic gardens, where curvilinear walkways and bed-lines are used to divide a space that might be balanced with masses of plant material against open space. Nature provides examples of asymmetrical balance all the time. Trees and plants create their own growing space, resulting in a balanced and beautiful environment through natural competition.

Transition is the gradual visual and tactile changes that occur as you view or walk through a garden. The best transitions are done slowly, almost imperceptibly. Transition can also refer to a three-dimensional perspective, like a grouping of shrubs that start low in height then medium and then higher. Transition can also be accomplished by the arrangement of shrubs with varying textures, forms or sizes in a logical, sequential order. Arranging plants with specific textures, shapes and sizes like coarse to medium to fine; round to oval to upright; or cylindrical to globular to prostrate all are examples of transition.

Next week I will discuss the design principles of proportion, rhythm, focalization and their importance in the landscape.

John Longhill is the owner of: John Longhill – Landscape Architect ( A site planning and landscape design office located in Silverthorne. John can be reached by phone at (970) 468-0924 or email at

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