Tools of the Trade: Understanding the Principles and Elements of Garden Design

Photos courtesy of Scott Endres
Photos courtesy of Scott Endres

Photos courtesy of Scott Endres

A well designed garden is a composition of art, similar to sculpture, where all components work together while honoring the principles and elements of design. In my garden, I seek out the unusual. Interesting combinations begin with unusual plants. The principles and elements of design allow me, as a designer, to accentuate the visual beauty of these plants by the companions I choose for them, and their placement within the landscape. Once understood, the plants become the building blocks, with the following principles and elements being the tools for all the designs I create.

Scale. Scale refers to how a plant, piece of garden art, or container’s size relates to its placement in the landscape. Size matters in the garden world. Step back and try to visualize how your choices will be viewed along with the scale of your home. Plants, pots, and garden art often look a lot bigger on a cart at the garden center. Nothing looks sillier than a couple of puny pots in front of even a modest-sized home. Try to group tiny plants in bigger numbers (5,7,9,23…), whereas bigger plants can make the right impact with smaller quantities (1, 2, 3).

Proportion. Proportion measures the ratio of overall plant or garden height in relation to the height of the un-planted container or structures in the surrounding landscape. In general, the height of the plants in a container should be 1 to 2 times the height of a container in order to be visually pleasing to our eyes. If the container happens to be wider than it is tall, then the proportion of plant height should be 1 to 2 times the diameter of the container. Bigger houses need bigger plants in order to look right to the eye.

Form. The easiest way to look at form is to think of the overall shape your design takes on. When grouping plants and containers, contrasting forms make very complementary neighbors. For instance, you might pair a tall, narrow container, next to a lower, rounded design.

Texture. Texture describes the surface quality of the materials used in a design. Coarse, fine, hard, soft, glossy, fuzzy. Simply stated, the greater the contrast in texture, the more dramatic the plant combination will be. It would be hard for me to choose between only coarse textured plants which demand attention with their dramatic foliage or fine textured plants with their seductive, almost “touch-me” qualities. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to, as the totally opposite attributes of each make for perfect companions in my plant choices. The softer, finer textured plants make the course textured leaves more dramatic and vice versa—the way perfect partnerships should be.

Focal Point. A focal point gives the viewer’s eye a place to rest in a garden and is the area of the design in which the eye is first attracted. They’re generally necessary in order for your eye to be able to appreciate the other parts of the landscape. Often the star of the show, the focal point is comprised of the most dramatic plant(s) that catches the most attention among the full cast of botanical characters. On a bigger scale, perhaps a container garden or piece of garden art can become the focal point in the landscape it is a part of—a restful place that draws you in for a awhile before being led off to enjoy other parts of a landscape.

Line. Line is the visual path the eye follows between different points in a garden. The plants themselves can create line by the edges of their shapes and forms. For instance, a vase shaped like grass will direct the eye toward a planting at its base. Likewise, the edges of a container’s shape or patterns within the containers design can create lines of direction. Whether directing the eye through a design or offering an escape route, line gives a garden structure, movement, and excitement.

Color. Color, albeit the most recognized design element, is still a mystery to many. The color wheel is considered the key to understanding the relationship of all colors of the rainbow. Color, unlike other design elements, evokes a sense of human emotion and thought. Cooler colors, like blues and violets, tend to be soothing and evoke a sense of calmness, while warm colors, like reds, oranges, and yellows seem to grab people’s attention and bring emphasis to those areas of the design.

Shape. The easiest way to look at shape is to think of the shape created by each plant’s silhouette within your landscape. Like a lot of principles of plant pairing, opposites attract. Likewise, opposite shapes make great companions. Upright, vase shapes paired with mounding shapes, and mounding shapes next to trailing shapes, etc.

Balance is the equal distribution of weight, either physical or visual, in a landscape. This balance can be achieved either symmetrically (2 identical urn arrangements flanking the entry to a home), or asymmetrically (one larger plant on one side and a group of smaller plants on the other side). In either case, balance is achieved.

Harmony. A harmonious relationship between the plants, containers, pathways, garden art, and seating areas of your design in the landscape is the result successful gardeners strive to achieve. This visually pleasing accomplishment is created through the careful blending of textures, shapes, colors, and forms, while honoring the principles of scale, proportion, balance, and focal interest—the tools of the trade.

Scott Endres is co-owner of Tangletown Gardens and Tangletown’s Wise Acre Eatery on 54th and Nicollet in South Minneapolis.

Lavender Magazine

5100 Eden Ave, Suite 107 • Edina, MN 55436 • 612.436.4660

©2022 Lavender Media, Inc.