Garden Design: Theory, Pics & Ideas

Last update: April 20, 2020

Gardening involves more than simply sticking plants in the ground and hoping for the best. A well planned and laid out garden design takes into account how the colors, textures and sizes of plants all work together or how they contrast with each other. Garden design also uses features in the space, such as furniture, fences and walls, to create a well-defined, enclosed area. Good garden design results in a welcoming, comfortable and long-lasting garden.

What Is Garden Design?

A garden is more than a group of plants growing near each other. The best gardens are carefully laid out and designed, creating a firm sense of place.

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Garden design takes a number of different factors into account. It looks at how the shape, size, color and texture of a variety of plants work together or don’t work together. It also focuses on the light in the garden, the form and shape of the space, and on level of variety in the garden.

Although there are professional garden designers or landscape architects who have dedicated years of their lives to studying and mastering design principles and concepts, amateurs shouldn’t be afraid to try their hand at designing a garden. The process can seem challenging, but if you take things step by step, you’ll soon have a garden you can be proud about and can love.

There are a few reasons why you should care about garden design. According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension, a well-designed garden is environmentally sustainable, functions well and is aesthetically pleasing. Keep those three goals in mind when planning out your next garden.

We also have some friends over at Kinghorn Gardens, who do amazing work. If you want to get a feel for how the pros execute a good garden design, take a peek at their gallery.​

Garden Design Theory and Process

The process of designing a garden typically involves a between three and five steps. Understanding the limitations of your space is an essential component of garden design theory. For example, the soil in your garden will play a role in determining which plants can grow there, as will the amount of sun your yard receives, the temperature and humidity in your area, and amount of drainage in the soil.

As the Missouri Botanical Garden points out, some factors in your yard that are beyond your control can influence your garden design. The location of gas, water and electric lines under the ground can mean that you’re unable to garden in one part of your yard.

The next step in the garden design process is to actually map out your garden. This means measuring the space available to you, then making a to-scale drawing of it on a piece of paper. At this point, you can start think of the layout and shape of your garden. Draw boundaries on the paper, whether they are fences, curved edging along the sides of the garden or features such as walls or furniture.

Finally, you want to start thinking about the plants that will live in your garden. For many gardeners, this is the most fun part. You can go wild brainstorming plants to put in the space, from trees to tiny flowers and from large vegetables plants to shrubs. Knowing what plants will grow best in the conditions your garden can provide will help you pick the most appropriate ones for your space.

Garden Design Principles

Basic garden design principles can help guide you through the process of putting together your garden. One of the first principles to learn and master is the importance of establishing boundaries in a garden. P. Allen Smith calls boundaries enclosures, and notes that they are essential for actually framing the garden and defining it.

An enclosure can be the fence around your garden, the wall that runs along one edge or a row of shrubs or hedges on one side. It can be a walkway that separates the garden from a patio or swimming pool.

Lines play a big role in influencing the shape and feel of a garden’s enclosures. The principle of line can determine whether your garden has a relaxed feel or a more formal vibe. Straight lines, according to Better Homes & Gardens, tend to create a garden that is very upright and formal. Curved pathways and round enclosures usually give a garden an informal appearance.

Rachel Matthews gives us a great rundown of her principles of garden design here, which I think are really useful.​

Light, Color and Texture

Light, color and texture are three garden design principles that influence the overall mood and vibe in a garden. Although your ability to alter the light in your garden is somewhat limited, you can use color and texture to play it up or to create a different feel in the space. For example, brighter colors can make a sunny garden look even sunnier. Deeper greens can play up the somberness of a shaded garden area.

Here are some great design ideas curated by J.o.h.n. Studios.​

Too much color in the garden can create a visual disarray. For that reason, it’s usually recommended that gardeners stick with a single color scheme. The theme you choose has a big impact on the mood in your garden. For example, a garden full of white flowers tends to give off a sophisticated vibe. A garden made up of a mix of contrasting blue and yellow flowers can be warm and welcoming,

Varying textures in a garden can encourage visitors to reach out and touch the plants. A plant with thick, coarse leaves stands in sharp contrast to a plant with very fine and delicate leaves.

You don’t have to rely on plants alone to create a variety of textures in your garden. Other materials, such as fencing, stones and posts can also help you create a balance of texture in the garden.

Scale, Pattern, and Form

Three more important garden design principles are scale, pattern, and form. Scale refers to the size the plants in the garden. If all the plants are uniform in size, the result will be bland and uniform. Having some difference in size creates visual interest.

But, you still want to have some relationship between the sizes of your plants. For example, you don’t want to plant a massive tomato plant next to tiny flowers and have no other sizes of plant in between.

Form and pattern play a role in the overall rhythm of your garden. Grouping some shapes together can help define the boundaries of your garden or give it a style or theme. For example, you might group a number of rounded shrubs together to create a smooth border or use a hedge of shrubs to create a formal border for a grouping of annual flowers.

My favorite inspiration for this kind of thing is always zen gardens (although there are lots of places to look, of course).​

I’d also put functionality in this category. And that makes sense right? If a design isn’t functional, it doesn’t much matter if it looks good. If you want to see what I mean, check out this awesome, simple garden remodel.

Building Your Design Skills

The skills you need to succeed as a garden design aren’t necessarily the same as the skills you need to be a successful gardener, but there is some overlap.

For example, to a successful designer, it helps to understand which plants grow well together and which ones don’t. Some plants are companions, meaning they get along in the garden and may even be beneficial to each other when planted near each other. Other plants will compete for nutrients, space and water in a garden. They might look good together for a little while, but ultimately, their competitive nature will lead to their demise.

Garden design skills also involve having an eye of form, color and a general knowledge of basic design principles. Even if you’re a newbie to the gardening scene, there are lots of ways to develop your skills. The simplest option is to check out the work other people have done in their gardens or in professional gardens.

You can also check out the many articles we have on the topic of garden design. You’ll find lots of articles over the sidebar, which can help you out, whether you’re a beginner or more advanced.

More Gardens for Inspiration​

We’d love for you to poke around our design articles, but just in case you need it, here are a few more great gardens for inspiration…

Photo by aitoff licensed under CC0

Photo by susannP4 licensed under CC0..

All photos in the inspriation sections were found on Pixabay and licensed under CCO.

Source for the fact.

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