Garden Design for Non-Designers – Principles for a Great Home Landscape
You don’t have to be a professional landscape designer to have a gorgeous landscape at home. But, if you’re not a designer, a lot of the information online is a bit more technical than what home owners really need. In this post, I’ll cover some basic garden design principles that you in can use in a your home landscape. They’re all broken down into easy-to-understand tips rather than straight theory… so that you can implement them in your home landscape even if you can’t draw a stick figure and have never studied design before!
Let’s learn how to design a swoon-worthy landscape that will make your neighbors green with envy!
1- Repeat Plants and/or Colors to Create Unity and Flow
The absolute easiest way to make your landscape more “magazine-worthy” is repetition. Repetition is an easy garden design principle that anyone can try at home.
The most common frustration I hear from home owners is that their garden doesn’t feel “put together” or unified. This can often be fixed by repeating a plant or color in your garden.
Instead of purchasing one single plant when you go to the garden center, consider purchasing at least 3 of the same plant. Placing the same “anchor” plant throughout your landscape can tie it all together.
You can also repeat the same color through your landscape to achieve a similar unity and flow. By adding pops of the same color or the same plant throughout your landscape, it feels harmonious and put together.
2- Arrange Plants in Masses, or Groupings
Using masses or groupings of plants is a very common way to create impact in landscape design.
When designing on a large scale, like a full landscape, one small plant is simply not enough to create an impact. But, if you create a mass or grouping of 3, 5 or even 7 of the same plant, your landscape will really shine.
And, as we learned in the first tip, this type of repetition is also great for developing more unity and flow in your landscape.
So, don’t be afraid to plant multiples of the same plant in your garden. Choose a plant that speaks to you. If you like that one plant, you’ll love a group of them even more!
3- Hide Pieces of Your Garden From View
Hiding parts of your garden from the viewer is a super ninja garden design trick that you can easily try at home! It can be difficult for non-designers to visualize this (more on this later). Just know that blocking the view to parts of your landscape is simply more interesting.
Hiding pieces of your garden from plain view does a few important things:
- Invokes a sense of curiosity: we are wired to “wonder” what’s around the corner.
- It makes a space feel larger: our brains tend to think the space is a lot larger than it actually is because we can’t see from the front to the back.
- It creates privacy: blocking parts of your landscape from view makes your yard feel cozier and more private than if you could see it all in one go.
I know this may sound difficult to do, but it’s really not. I filmed a video showing how I did this in one of my garden pathways that you can watch. Basically, if you have some kind of curving pathway in your landscape, even a front walkway, you can do this!
Stand at the beginning of the walkway and look towards the end of the walkway. Try to spot a point in the walkway that you could potentially “hide” with landscaping. Then, just place a beautiful shrub or some ornamental grasses at the point where the path starts to curve so you can’t see the end.
If you’re nervous about trying this with a permanent structure, try grabbing a large planter or even a bucket. Place it where you think the shrub should go, then look again from the beginning of the walkway and see how it looks.
Another way you can hide parts of your garden from view is through a structure like a fence, an arbor or even a gate. Using an arbor as an “entrance” to a back garden is a wonderful way to welcome people into your landscape and also create curiosity. A passerby will instinctively think… I wonder what’s on the other side?
4- Connect Your Spaces With Paths
One easy way to hide parts of your garden from view is lay out your garden spaces and design pathways that connect them. Two common approaches I use are circuit pathways and hub and spoke pathways. These aren’t technical terms but it makes the most sense to me.
Learn more about pathways in my article about Backyard Landscape Design.
5- Create a Focal Point
Ahhh… focal points are another fantastic garden design principle that is so easy to try at home.
Placing focal points in your landscape gives the viewer’s eyes a place to focus and rest upon.
You can see how this works so well in this photo. The rusty reddish-brown planter is a place to rest your eyes in a sea of green foliage. It’s such a beautiful and simple execution of a garden focal point.
Obviously, you can use a large planter as shown in the photo. Some other focal point ideas are garden sculptures, benches, arbors, walls, water features, fire pits… even a unique plant in a bright color can serve as a focal point! The sky’s the limit!
Garden designers also use focal points to lead a viewer around or through a landscape. If your focal point is interesting and unique, it will also help to guide the viewer further into your landscape to explore!
6- Do Plant Research First for an Amazing Garden
I know it’s tempting to just run to the garden center and grab some pretty plants, but this is exactly the OPPOSITE of what a professional designer would do. Landscape designers do a lot of research and planning before they purchase a single plant, especially if they’re starting from complete scratch.
They’ll probably start by brainstorming some ideas. Then, they’ll get a wish list from the home owner and pinpoint their needs and their personal style. They may even take a stroll around the neighborhood to see what the landscaping at other homes looks like. Then, they measure the space and start to draw concepts. Then they’ll probably do even more research.
I know it’s hard to believe, but if you work with a designer you’ll probably approve the first concept before there’s mention of a SINGLE plant!
This is always the case for my design projects.* First, I share a concept drawing with some “blobs” that indicate masses of plants. It shows that there will be vegetation in the area, but it doesn’t provide any specific plants or plant names to the home owner. I try not to think about the specifics until the home owner approves the concept.
*Note: This article is for educational purposes. Unless you live local to me (Northeast PA), I cannot design your landscape.
If you talk to any experience designer, they will tell you that it’s a mistake to run to the garden center without a plan or idea. I guess that’s why one of Stephen R. Covey’s most popular quotes from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is, “Begin with the end in mind.”
The point here is that the planning process is something that you can also do as a home owner. Research, create a wish list, measure your yard, draw some blobs… that’s totally doable, right?
7- Choose a Garden Color Palette
Another tempting mistake to make is to run to the garden center and choose all of the pretty plants, without thinking of the colors that you want in your landscape. But, today we are thinking like a garden designer and resisting the urge, right?
Color plays such an important role in the way we feel. Different colors can evoke different emotions. So, when choosing colors for your garden, you want to be thoughtful about this. Choosing the “right” colors sounds intimidating but it’s really not. In fact, I wrote an entire post about color schemes explaining how to do it right… along with several examples that you can copy in your own landscape.
In my Design Your 4-Season Garden course, I find that a limited color palette makes it a lot easier for my students to research and choose the right plants… because you’re able to eliminate so many options. By eliminating options, you eliminate overwhelm and make designing a garden a lot easier and way more fun!
8- Add Several Layers of Plants
Creating landscape layers is an advanced garden design principle… I’ll admit that this one is on the more difficult side. Landscape layering is using a wide variety of plants arranged into a staggered foreground, middle-ground and background creating casual, mixed border planting. It takes a lot of thought and planning to layer your landscape with multiple types of plants, shrubs, trees and other foliage in a way that doesn’t look disorganized or messy.
There’s an entire post about landscape layering that you can read next. But, a few of my best tips for creating this layered look are as follows:
- Include a wide range of plants: Layered landscapes look best when they include, trees, evergreens, deciduous shrubs, plants, flowers, grasses, vines, groundcovers and even bulbs. Use my Garden Pyramid to learn more!
- Use the correct size plants: Make sure that you know the mature size of your plants and leave enough room for each one.
- Vary the sizes of your plants: Make sure you choose tall, medium and low-growing plants to create that layered effect.
- Make your garden beds much deeper: I’m talking WAY deeper than you are thinking. Most home landscapes have foundation plantings that are about 3-4 feet deep. To create a layered look, pull your beds out to at least 6 feet; 12 feet if you have the space!
9- Use Plant Texture and Foliage to Add Interest
When you’re designing a landscape that you want to look professional, using plant texture can be your secret weapon to keeping things interesting! Texture is a wonderful and VERY overlooked design principle in the home landscape.
The truth is that most home gardeners rely on the color of blooming flowers WAY too much. But, when the blooms are done, what does the landscape look like? This is where texture is your best friend. Placing plants with opposite textures next to each other in a landscape makes your garden beds look interesting and beautiful, even when they aren’t in bloom.
A simple rule of thumb when choosing texture is to pair opposite textures together. If you have a plant with big, bold large leaves, pair it with a plant with tiny, delicate leaves. If you have a plant with dark shiny leaves, pair it with a plant that has a matte finish in a slightly different color. This is the easiest way to start introducing texture into your home landscape!
What Blooms with What?
Never know what to plant together? Find out with this FREE Plant Pairing Guide and become a pro at combining plants for the best garden design possible!
10- Balance Your Landscape Using Plant Weight
Another garden design principle that you can try at home is balance; specifically branching away from symmetry. A lot of times, home gardeners will opt for a symmetrical landscape; planting the same plants on either side of a walkway or foundation planting. Symmetry has its place, but I find it can often be “overdone” simply because home owners don’t understand how else to balance their design.
I’ll admit that balance in the landscape can be a bit tricky. I find that it’s more of a “gut” feeling than anything else. But, with a little thought you can use the color and sizes of the plants and shrubs you like to “balance” your landscape on either side. It’s kind of like a teeter totter!
11- Match Your Hardscape To Your Garden Style
Choosing the hardscape materials for your landscape can be just as overwhelming as choosing plants. But, did you know that you could have just about the same design for a landscape and it can look like a COMPLETELY different style just based on the chosen materials. Yep, it’s true.
I talk about garden styles a lot because I find this to be one of the most fun and exciting ways to finally feel like you have a “handle” on what you actually want in your outdoor space.
A rule of thumb for choosing hardscape materials is that the more bumpy and uneven the landscape material, the more naturalistic or cottagey your style will be. Hardscape materials that are in defined patterns that are more smooth and sleek lend themselves to more traditional or modern/contemporary garden styles.
12- Choose Plants for Blooms Every Season
Creating a 4-season landscape isn’t a garden design principle, per say, but it certainly should be. When creating a professional-looking landscape, you want to think about choosing plants that will have interest in different seasons of the year.
An easier way to incorporate multi-season interest into your landscape is to create seasonal flower and plant groupings. In this concept, the goal is to group plants that bloom at similar times or sequentially (one after another).
A four-season landscape doesn’t mean that each area of your landscape needs to be in bloom every single season! There will be peaks and lulls to each seasonal grouping that will move the interest in your garden from one area to another.
Bonus points go to plants that have multiple-seasons of interest. These are always my go-to choices because I have a smaller yard. Every plant has to earn their place in my small garden — so if a particular plant has interest in not just spring, but spring, summer and fall — it’s worthy!
By the way, I have a course that teaches my full framework for this… it’s called Design Your 4-Season Garden.
I find this multi-season concept particularly helpful when choosing trees… because I can only have a few and they take up so much space. So, I created a list of my favorite 4-season ornamental trees for you.
You don’t have to be a professional landscape designer to have a gorgeous landscape at home. But, there are some rules that are helpful to follow that will make your garden look a lot more like the pros and a lot less thrown together. Even using just a few of these landscape design principles will significantly improve the way that your home landscape looks and functions.
Be sure to check out my online garden design courses if you’re looking for a step-by-step solution to creating a garden that’s uniquely you.
Shop my Amazon storefront for my essential gardening books & tool recommendations!
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