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Landscaping pictures are worth a thousand words. Sometimes you can get ideas for landscape design by looking at images of other people’s DIY projects or by simply strolling through a neighborhood with nicely maintained yards. And, of course, nature itself is abound with inspiring views. To complement this hands-on (or eyes-on) education, it helps to learn about the basic concepts of landscape design so you can understand the strategies behind your favorite landscapes, and perhaps apply those strategies to your own outdoor spaces.
What Is Landscape Design?
Landscape design is the art of arranging the features of an area of land for aesthetic and/or practical reasons. It is often divided into two major components: hardscape (the nonliving elements, such as pavers) and softscape (the living elements, such as flowers).
The primary concepts, or principles, of landscape design include:
Unity, or harmony, describes a design that is cohesive. A unified landscape has a consistent, recognizable theme, and its various elements and spaces are tied together visually (with paths, plantings, walls, or other features).
Balance describes the distribution of visual weight. A front yard that has a large tree on opposite sides of a house (creating a mirrored effect) has more balance than a yard with a overbearing tree on one side and a smattering of low shrubs on the other. Landscapes do not always have to be in perfect balance, but a pleasing or natural distribution of visual weight is an important goal.
Proportion relates to scale, or size. Landscapes made up of elements of various heights and widths that blend harmoniously are in proportion. By contrast, a tiny yard dominated by a massive, towering pine tree that shades the rest of the landscape lacks proper proportion.
Transition is the gradual change represented by color, scale, line, form, or texture. In general, it’s best to avoid abrupt transitions. For example, if the color of your flowers is repeated as you go from one part of the yard to another, there is a sense of a cohesive whole, providing a smooth transition.
Lupine Flowers for Wild Beauty
If you want to cover a large area but don't want a lot of maintenance and watering, consider wildflowers, such as native lupine flowers. After all, wildflowers couldn't survive in the wild if they relied on someone to water them just right or to fertilize them on schedule!
Landscape Edging Creates a Focal Point
Here, a landscape island is established with landscape edging. The edging sets off one area of the lawn from the rest. After plants and a lawn ornament are added, the result in the landscape design is a focal point.
Remember to show some restraint in the number of focal points you create. Having too many focal points defeats the purpose: Rather than focusing the eye on a landscaping highlight, they confuse the viewer. Also, each additional focal point within sight dilutes the impact of the others.
Solution for a Side Yard
Side yards can be particularly tricky areas for landscaping. In this example, the grass area is quite extensive, and the expanse of lawn needs to be broken up. To break it up visually and invite the viewer to the backyard, the fencing and garden arbor serve as a transition. The arbor frames the view to the backyard as if beckoning the viewer to enter and see what’s out back.
Fences and Shrubs Along Roads
A fence serves as a border and can have strong visual impact. In this landscape area along a road, the eye is unconsciously led down the length of the attractive post-and-rail fence, accentuating this impressive span of road frontage. Its length is accentuated while, at the same time, the fence and the shrub planting fill up the space, giving the eye a rest from what otherwise would be an open expanse of lawn.
Planting With Fences
Fences don’t have to create a hard line. Here, the plants spill over from the back of the fence to the front, softening the look of the fence and giving the landscape border a more natural feel. The lawn behind is nicely punctuated with a couple of focal points that lend visual interest without cluttering the lawn.
White Picket Fences
A white picket fence is a landscaping classic, but it doesn’t have to be a standard straight style. This fence undulates, rather than running evenly across the top, and helps to soften the hard lines of the clapboard house in the background.
Despite the fact that this landscape is an urban area, it exudes a charm evocative of a country cottage. The white picket fence is partly responsible, but so are the black-eyed Susans peeking out through the pickets. Another idea would be hollyhocks, which are often used to grace white picket fences in the cottage garden style.
Wood Picket Fence on a Wall
These homeowners have improved upon their lovely natural setting by combining the rugged beauty of a stone wall with the elegance of a wood picket fence, complete with nicely detailed finials. Wood and stone complement a country setting so well that sometimes it’s hard to choose between them when selecting materials. Here the landscape design obviated this difficult choice simply by using both.
Using Line in Landscape Design
The line is an essential concept in landscape design because nothing controls eye movement more readily than a straight line. In this landscape, the eye is directed along the line of the wall and straight driveway to an ocean vista. Such a view is well worth framing.
The objective of utilizing line is to direct eye movement, unconsciously, in a manner that is most conducive to appreciating the landscape in question. The masonry wall is not only attractive in its own right; it also channels eye movement right down to the sparkling waters dotted with sailboats.
Stone Wall Borders
Stone walls can range from massive barriers to modest landscape edges. This low cast stone wall serves primarily as a border for a planting. But the influence is not all one way. As much as the flowers benefit from the hardscape, the latter benefits from the planting, which softens what would otherwise be a harsh edge.
Ornamental Grasses in Roadside Plantings
Ornamental grasses can be effective at filling in that odd area on the landscape that you’re not sure what to do with. This roadside nook is greatly improved with ornamental grass, along with other plants, and a liberal dose of mulch. The unusual color of the blue fescue grass is striking enough to allow this landscape design to remain rather minimalistic. Many ornamental grasses are also a low-maintenance alternative, not requiring the deadheading that flowers do.
Using Mulch on Hillsides
This little nook is on a hillside, just off the street. A common challenge in such spots is controlling hillside erosion. Mulching helps to do this. Not only that, but mulching will keep weeds in check, making for low-maintenance landscaping. As if these benefits weren’t enough, mulching around the ornamental grasses will help the soil beneath remain cool, meaning you’ll have to water less. And when you do water, the mulch will aid the soil in retaining that water longer.
Wooden Wishing Wells
A wooden wishing well makes a great lawn accent. This charming well is in scale with the surrounding yard area so it serves effectively as a focal point. Not even the tall trees around it can take away from its prominence. The vines growing up the well only enhance its appearance.
Landscape Bridges and Water Features
Landscape bridges are garden accents that are indispensable for designs with garden ponds, but they can also work in yards that have only a trickle of water, or they can be purely decorative. If you don’t have a natural water feature on your property, consider building a small garden pond.
Rose Arbors and Trellises
The structure of this rose arbor is attractive in itself and, in addition, it acts as a trellis for the roses. Climbing plants such as roses need the support provided by trellises or other structures in order to be displayed properly. If roses are planted against a building, the support may not be a freestanding rose arbor but rather a two-dimensional trellis, or perhaps even just latticework.
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