Water Wise Landscaping:
Principles of Landscape Design

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Principles of Landscape Design

The principles of landscape design include the elements of unity, scale, balance, simplicity, variety, emphasis, and sequence as they apply to line, form, texture, and color.  These elements are interconnected. 

Landscape design is a process of developing practical and pleasing outdoor living space.  For additional information on the process, refer to CMG GardenNotes #411, Water Wise Landscape Design.

Unity  is the Quality of Oneness.

Unity attracts and holds attention. It organizes view into orderly groups with emphasis. Unity starts with the story line developed in the family analysis, Step 2, in the design process.  For additional details on Family Analysis, refer to CMG GardenNotes #411, Water Wise Landscape Design.

Jeff de Jong's Garden of peace

Figures 1 and 2. Unity develops from the story line. Here in Jeff de Jong's garden a story line around "sacred space gardening" creates unity with the feeling of peace and tranquility.

Jeff de Jong's garden of peace

Line  Connects and Defines the Space, Creating Outdoor Rooms

Lines are a powerful design element that define rooms and connect people to the landscape.For a professional touch, use sweeping bold lines and curves rather than small zigzags and small wavy curves. Lines develop through Step 3 in the design process, With Lines, Delineate Softscape and Hardscape Area Creating Outdoor Room.  For additional details on Step 3, refer to CMG GardenNotes #411, Water Wise Landscape Design.

Sunken Garden at Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC

Figure 3. Notice the strong use of "line" here in the Japanese Garden at Butchart Gardens, Victoria BC. The path (primary line) invites you into the garden. Secondary lines form the beds.

Line in private garden defines space

Figure 4. In this private garden, the "line" formed by the edge of the pond creates an amazing space as the plants reflect in the water. The line defines the space and pulls you into the landscape.

Form  Includes the Three-Dimensional Mass.

Form is determined by the line, direction, and arrangement of branches and twigs. The resulting mass influences the scale. For unity, repeat the topography form in plant forms.

  • Horizontal and spreading forms emphasis the lateral extent and breath of space.  They are comfortable because it corresponds with the natural direction of eye movement.

  • Rounded forms are most common in plant materials.  They allow for easy eye movement and create a pleasant undulation that leads itself to plant groupings.

  • Vase-shaped trees define a comfortable “people space” beneath the canopy.

  • Weeping forms lead the eye back to the ground.  What is below the weeping form often becomes a focal point.

  • Pyramidal forms direct the eyes upward, so use sparingly.  Grouping pyramidals will soften the upward influence.  They will look more natural in the surroundings with foliage to the ground.

Tree forms
Figure 5. Plant forms.

Texture  is Fine/Coarse, Heavy/Light, Thin /Dense, and Light/Shade.

Texture can be defined as the relationship between the foliage and twig size, and the mass of the plants. Close up, texture comes from the size and shape of the leaves, the size of twigs, spacing of leaves and twigs, the colors and shading, the gloss or dullness of leaves. etc. At a distance, texture comes from the entire mass effect of plants and the qualities of light and shadows.

Texture and distance

Figure 6. Texture changes with distance. Close-up texture comes from the size and shape of leaves, twigs and branches. At a distance, texture comes from the mass and play of light.

Winter texture

Figure 7.  Four season gardening is all about texture gardening. Without the summer color, texture becomes the primary design element.

Japanese Garden at Butchart Gardens
Figure 8.  Texture rules here in the Japanese Garden at Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC. Notice how the fine texture created by the moss plays with the coarse texture of the tree trunks and lantern. In Japanese gardening, the lantern is a symbol that this is sacred space, leave your cares and worries behind.

Color  Gives Greatest Appeal, and Evokes the Greatest Response.

How Does Color Speak to You? 

Color is powerful in creating mood and feeling. "Color therapy" is a popular topic in our rapid paced modern world. What moods and feeling do various color create for you? What colors work for the landscape story line? What moods and feeling do you want in the garden? Is it a room for relaxation and healing or a room for action activities?

What do colors say?

















Color wheel
Figure 9.  Color is the most powerful of the design elements. Choose colors carefully to create the mood desired in the story line.

What Color Schemes Work for the Design Theme?

Cool Colors
green, blue, purple

Less conspicuous
Suggest distance
Low scale

Warm Collars
red, yellow, orange

Come forward
High Scale

Scale  Evokes Emotional Connection and is Closely Related to Color.

  • Absolute scale relates the comparative value of landscape elements to a fixed structure (house).
Absolute scale

Figure 10.  In absolute scale, the small trees on the left drawing give the feeling that the house is large. On the right drawing, the large trees give the feeling that the house is small. Both houses are the same size.

  • Relative scale relates to comparative relative sizes or "values" of objects in the landscape.  Relative scale is very emotionally charged and closely linked to color.  It may create a feeling of relaxation and peacefulness or one of energy and action.

Relative scale

Figure 11.  Relative scale compares the size or "value" of the landscape elements. Perception of tree size is based on the relative size of the person. Being emotionally charged, relative scale can create feelings of action or relaxation.

  • Low scale is relaxing and calming. It is used in the home landscape to give a feeling of peace and relaxation. [Figure 12]

Peaceful, relaxing feeling of low scale
Figure 12.  In this private garden in Steamboat Springs, CO, the low scale creates a relaxing, renewing atmosphere.

  • High scale promotes action. It is used around large buildings and in large spaces to fill the space. Use of high scale in small spaces makes the space feel smaller. [Figure 13]

Fountain at Butchart Gardens
Figure 13. Here in the fountain area at Butchart Gardens, scale is high with the brightly colored flowers. The action feeling of high scale helps move people through.

Balance  is Equilibrium on Left and Right Sides.

  • Formal balance repeats the same left and right, giving stability, stateliness, and dignity. It is high maintenance keep both side similar. [Figures 14 and 15]
  • Informal balance differs from left to right giving curiosity, movement, and feels alive. Total mass of plants need to balance left and right. [Figures 14 and 16]
  • Which gives the “feeling” desired by the story line and design?

Formal and informal balanceFigure 14.  Formal balance (left) and informal balance (right).

Italian Garden at Hatley Park, Victoria, BC
Figure 15.  The stately Italian Garden at Hatley Park, Victoria, BC, is a great example of formal balance.

Herb Garden at Government House, Victoria, BC

Figure 16.  The Herb Garden at Government House, Victoria, BC is an excellent example of informal balance being relaxing and free flowing.

Simplicity and Variety

Simplicity and variety work together to balance each other. Simplicity is a degrees of repetition rather than constant change, creating unity.  Variety is diversity and contrast in form, texture, and color preventing monotony.  [Figures 17 to 20]

  • For simplicity, repeat some plant materials in sweeps and groupings.
  • For variety, fill in with other plants.
  • Avoid creating a horticultural zoo! (two of each)
  • Zipper plantings (repeating the same pattern over and over again like red-white-red-white) lack simplicity and variety, rather creating monotony. [Figure 21]

Simplicity and variety Figure 17.  In this simple drawing, simplicity is gained with the shrub row repeating the same plant materials. Variety is added with the tree.

simplicity and variety

Figure 18.  For simplicity, repeat some plant materials in sweeps and groupings.  Fill in with other plants for variety.

Simplicity and variety

Figure 19.  Simplicity is created by several hundred Hosta in this large bed. Variety is created by placing some in clusters of pots. - Innis Gardens, Columbus, Ohio

Abkhazi Garden, Victoria, BC

Figure 20. At Abkhazi Garden, Victoria, BC, simplicity is created with the row of purple heather and the lawn (the "Yangtze River"). Variety is created with an assortment of plant materials on the rocky hillside.

Zipper planting

Figure 21.  In this park, people enjoyed taking pictures of the various flowerbeds. However, they didn't take pictures of this zipper planting (same elements repeated over and over again) finding it monotonous.

Emphasis  is Dominance and Subordination of Elements.

The human mind looks for dominance and subordination in life. As we look at a landscape from any direction, we need to see dominance and subordination of various elements. If we don't find it, we withdraw from the landscape. Some gardens lack the dominant element. Others suffer with too many dominate elements screaming to be the focal point. [Figure 22-24]

Emphasis can be achieved through different sizes, bold shapes, groupings, and the unusual or unexpected. What is the focal point?

Figure 22.  Emphasis is achieved with the tree being dominant and the shrub grouping being subordinate.


Figure 23.  In this private garden, emphasis is added with the blooming Astelbe.


Figure 24.  Ornamental grass often adds emphasis to a garden spot.

Sequence  is the Change or Flow in Form, Color, Texture, and Size Giving Movement or Life.

Sequence with Texture

Change leaf size of adjacent different plants by at least one-half. Use proportionally larger numbers of fine textured plants. [Figure 25]

Texture sequence
Figure 25.  In texture sequence, change leaf size of adjacent different types of plants by at least one-half. Use more of the finer textured plant.

  • In a flower/shrub bed, use coarser texture, larger plants in the back; sequencing to finer textured, smaller plants in the front inside-curve. [Figure 26]

Texture sequence
Figure 26.  In texture sequence, place the fine texture plants in the inside curve and the coarse texture plants opposite. This is the way Mother Nature would do it. Look at the river. The sand bank is on the inside curve and the cliff opposite.

  • Texture and distance – Texture becomes finer with distance.  In a distant corner, place finer textures in the corner, sequencing to coarser textures on the arms.

Texture sequenceFigure 27.  Textures get finer with distance. Place the fine textured plants in the distant corner with coarser textured plants toward the viewer.

Sequence with Color

  • There are few basic rules on how much warm and cool colors to use.  However, watch that the scale does not become too commanding.  More is NOT better.  As a rule-of-thumb, the designs needs 90% green to set off the 10% color.

  • Darkest shades and the purest intensity dominate and should be used at the focal point.

  • Warm colors work best in sequence. Using cool colors in contrast is more effective than sequences.
Color Sequence
  1. Decide what color(s) will be used.
  2. Decide if light or dark will dominate. – The darker or more intense (pure) the color, the more it will show up and dominate the scene.
  3. Calculate the number of plants of each color using this rule-of-thumb.
  1. Establish the largest amount of dark/dominant color that will be used.
  2. Select the next lighter shade and increase the number of plants by one-third.
  3. Select the next lighter shade and increase the number of plants by one-third.
  4. Continue the ratio to the lightest color. [Figure 28]

color sequence
Figure 28. In color sequence, select which color will dominate (darkest or purest color) and use proportionally more of the other colors as it works out.

  • Grouping for best effect – Kidney or crescent shaped groupings create a natural flowing design. [Figure 29]

color sequence
Figure 29.  For a natural looking effect, place colors in interlocking kidney shapes. This is the way Mother Nature plants giving the bed the the feeling that it is alive and breathing!

Color contrasts
  • Monochrome light/dark color contrasts – Use one-third one shade and two-thirds the other shade. [Figure 30]
  • Complementary color contrasts – Use one-third one color and two-thirds the complementary color.

color contrast
Figure 30.  In color contrasts, use two-third one color (for dominance) and one-thirds of the other color (for subordination), rather than half and half.

Create effective plant combinations by paring opposites

  • To create plant combinations with pizzazz, pair opposites. [Figure 31]

  • Fine/Course
  • Short/Tall
  • Round/Upright
  • Thugs/Dainty
  • Small/Large
  • Color contrasts

Pairing opposites

Figure 31-34. Examples of paring opposites for pizzazz!

pairing opposites

Host and ferns paired

Ice plant, cacit and yucca paired

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Authors: David Whiting, Extension Consumer Horticulture Specialist (retired), Department of Horticulture & LA, Colorado State University and Jeff de Jong, Horticulturist, Victoria, BC. Artwork by David Whiting; used by permission.

  • CMG GardenNotes are available online at www.cmg.colostate.edu
  • Colorado Master Gardener/Colorado Gardener Certificate Training is made possible by a grant from the Colorado Garden Show, Inc.
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  • Copyright. 2010-14. Colorado Master Gardener Program, Colorado State University Extension. All Rights Reserved. CMG GardenNotes may be reproduced without change or additions, for nonprofit educational use.

Revised October 2014

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