Designing a Landscape

Design your landscape and gardens with annuals, perennials, shrubs, ornamental trees and structural elements

Before you can design a landscape for any large area or for your entire property you need to decide how you want to use the space.  No matter how well designed and beautiful a landscape design is, if it the space does not work for you and your family you will not use and enjoy it.  Look over your property and think about how you would like to use it, do you want a space to sit with friends and enjoy cocktails on a beautiful summer evening?  a space for the kids to play?  A quiet spot to relax and read?  A space for barbecuing and dining?  Perennial gardens or vegetable gardens?  Open lawn space for badminton, horseshoes or croquet?  Or maybe all of those things.  Many of us either have children, have had them, or will have them.  So often our landscape needs to accommodate a large open space for running, baseball or soccer, and an area for a playset.  It is difficult to imagine how we can apply a beautiful design to these requirements.


The backyard design above is an excellent example of applying basic design principles to landscape elements that accommodate both children and adults. On the left is a large open space for kids to run and play, and just out of camera view a small space to read and relax or enjoy a beverage with friends.  On the right is a playset, a shed will go into the corner, and a basketball court with a planting area.  The deck above provides dining space and a bird’s eye view of it all to keep an eye on the kids.  It is easy to see that the structure of this design is well on it’s way to becoming a beautiful and relaxing landscape while providing space for both children and adults.  Read on to learn how planning and basic design principals make that all happen.

First decide what should go where and the amount of space you will need.    Functional placement of the spaces is just as important.  A dining area placed in a far corner would not be convenient for shuttling food and beverage from the kitchen, but would be a good spot for the playset.  When designing a large area or your whole property, it really is best to lay out a map on graph paper.  Start with your property plat map if you have it, to make the initial boundary and structure measurement and layouts easier.  If you can’t find your plat map, you need to do some measuring.  Start with all the permanent structures, including house and garage, and driveway.  Measure from those to the street, to property lines and fences, light poles, established trees, and any other permanent items in your property.  It’s a bit time consuming, but after a couple of “drafts” to get everything laid out properly, you now have a “master” layout of your property.  Make some copies for planning and editing in pencil, but only alter your original master when you have added permanent or “semi-permanent” items to the property.  The semi-permanent might be done in pencil so that if a shrub or tree fails to thrive and you need to attempt to move it or it dies, its’ place on the master plan can easily be changed.

When you are ready to start experimenting with a plan, you can either pencil things in on your working copy, or use cut out pieces that you can move around and eventually either paste down or trace onto the plan  Make sure you plan for the full grown size of a plant you are considering, as well as a little buffer space between plants, unless you are planning a dense screen or hedge.  A little overlap would be appropriate, but not enough to inhibit good growth.  Allow enough space between a shrub and a permanent structure to be able to walk between to accommodate pruning to the plant, and maintenance to the structure.  Note overhead limitations such as decks, awnings, even power lines, as well as windows, so that the ultimate height of a shrub does not become a problem.  The first year or two of a shrub or tree’s life will be spent establishing a strong root system and adapting to the soil.  Then it will begin to grow quite quickly.  Most shrubs reach their full size in 5-10 years, and you will be amazed at how quickly that time passes.  Very fast growing shrubs and trees generally have a shorter life, and limbs are not as strong as the slow growers.

Before you start laying out your design, there a few basic landscape design principles to consider.  None of these are hard and fast rules, but rather good guidelines to keep in mind when planning.  They will help you to design landscape and garden elements that are balanced and flow well together.  For the front landscape you will want to frame the home and create interest leading to the entry.  The backyard landscape needs to also be useful, creating a little more of a design challenge to coordinate the elements.


The relation and relative size between elements should not be too equal, but should also not be too unequal.  Think roughly in thirds or fifths, uneven numbers are generally most pleasing even for slightly formal designs.  For example you may be planning a quiet reading bench on on side of your property and perhaps a hot tub patio on the other side.  Between them you would like an expanse of lawn for recreation.  The lawn space you need may be quite large, perhaps as much as 60% or more of the entire space.  However this space is visually empty, and can be balanced visually with the other elements.  The  space required for a garden bench may be quite small, but it is a perfect area to expand with a planting area.  Using perennials, shrubs and ornamental trees will add height and interest, and will also create visual balance with a hot tub or dining area.


Plantings and structures should provide necessary or desired privacy but not create a feeling of being closed in, defeating the purpose of being in the outdoors.  For example, the hot tub mentioned above, or a dining area, may need screening from the street or from the neighbors.  Large shrubs planted directly adjoining may overwhelm the area and give the feeling of being crowded by encroaching branches.  They may also give visual “weight” to the area, putting it out of balance with other elements.  Plantings of large shrubs or evergreens should be nearer the property lines to provide privacy.


When organizing your space, geometric shapes are most pleasing.  Use rectangles, squares, circles and triangles.  Rectangles and squares are often used for more formal landscapes, often with perfect symmetry and precisely pruned bushes and hedges.  This type of design is not commonly found in suburban residences.  Generally a combination of rectangles and circles is most pleasing in a casual setting.  When using a strong shape such as a triangle, the shape should be repeated more dominateley creating a clear theme. A triangle shape can be used in the layout of pavers in a patio and in the planting and garden areas, creating straight clean lines with edging.  The lines can be softened with the plants themselves and with an occasional circular shape such as an ornamental tree, but the theme should remain clear.


To create a unified design, repeat a dominant shape throughout the landscape.  Rectangle spaces can be combined with circles, ovals or curves to create transitions, and add variation and interest.  A long hedge or row of shrubs creates a rectangle, but may seem out of proportion with other elements of the design due to it long linear appearance.  Breaking up that line with circles such as ornamental trees planted just behind or in front of the hedge will add variation and height while reducing monotony.  Or create a curving perennial garden in front of the hedge to add low interest and added dimension to the hedge row.  A large square or rectangle expanse of lawn can be more interesting if another element is added.  Don’t be tempted to place a planting area or other element dead center in the space unless it somehow makes perfect sense, a more pleasing alternative is for something to flow out into the space.  A sidewalk or path that extends from a patio or rear entrance of your home to a sitting area or firepit is a functional and pleasing arrangement that will help balance the open lawn area.


Unify your element spaces by joining or overlapping them.  A rectangle perennial bed can “cut into” a rectangle patio area, both repeating your shape and joining the areas.  Or a curved perennial bed or planting area can flow from the patio to another element such as a garden bench.  Elements can be joined with paths or stepping stones set into the lawn.  This method works well to direct traffic flow and draw attention to what might otherwise be a disjointed and unnoticed element.

With your basic structure laid out and some ideas about applying design principals to those elements, you are ready to start planning the space elements and planting areas.

Sharon DwyerComment