Principles of Garden Design

A garden is whatever you want it to be; a child’s play area, a pet’s run, a vegetable patch, a sanctuary or an entertainment area, or even a mix of all of these. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to garden design.  Gardening is known as a living art form, which constantly changes and evolves. Because of that, the more short and long-term planning that goes into the design, the more you will ensure better results. You may have heard about starting your garden with good bones. That basically means creating an outline, a foundation with trees, structures, paths and such, for the rest of the garden to build off of. A favorite and easily incorporated technique for creating garden bones is to use evergreens. Remember the plans we did in my previous articles? That’s how you get good bones to begin with!

A clump of plants will not make a garden but a skilled arrangement of plants over an area which incorporates form and function, is the beginning of a true garden.  Gardening design requires knowledge of the science of plant growing and an artistic eye on the part of the designer. With so much information at our fingertips these days, one does not need to study, but to research. Theoretically, we would all like to have a perfect plot of land, but in practice the land available in most cases, will not be in a good site or the shape and size will not be ideal. A good designer however will make the best use of the land, either working with the slopes and undulations, or by levelling it while keeping his design and drainage in mind. The principles used in landscape design are guidelines and are known by various names such as;

Axis :

This is an imaginary (longest) line in any garden around which the garden is created.  Whether the style you choose is formal or informal the central line is the axis at the end of which there will/should be a focal point.

Focal Point:

Every garden, no matter what its size, benefits from a focal point. Without a main feature, the viewer’s eye is more likely to flit from plant to plant, section to section, without zeroing in to examine and appreciate the harmony of the composition.

A focal point is one of the elements of good landscape design. Once you have the axis of your garden, it will lead your eye … to where or to what? Whatever you choose to use as your focal point, (a tree, bench, statue…) it is usually at the farthest point along the axis. The reason for this is very similar to painting a picture – you frame the subject which tells the story. You have a background which grounds the subject and the periphery is related to that same subject.

Mass Effect:

The use of one form of plant material in large numbers in one area creates a mass effect. To avoid monotony, the sizes of masses should be varied. Today not many gardens are large enough for mass plantings, but if kept in proportion it is still possible on a smaller scale.


Keeping one style throughout a garden creates harmony within the whole.  Harmony can be created through the use of colours and the plants themselves. Harmony between the house and the garden can also make a huge difference to the overall effect. Layer your planting beds in 3 rows: a back row (facing north, preferably) with the tallest plants, a middle row with the next tallest, and a front row composed of your shortest plants. Use repetition, both in the planting bed and elsewhere in your garden, to provide unity. When creating repetition, uneven numbers work better than even numbers. Strange, but true.  Try it and see for yourself.


In theory, it is said that the aim of every garden design should be to make the garden appear larger than its actual size. One way of achieving this is to keep vast open spaces, preferably under lawn, restricting the plantings in the periphery and avoiding any planting in the centre. However, styles have changed and with smaller gardens today, they very often don’t have a lawn. Homeowners want beautiful gardens, but they also want low maintenance, so lawns are often the first to be excluded in design. Some people love over-grown, mysterious gardens and there is nothing wrong with that.  Space is not only at ground level. Create height, depth and interest by using hanging baskets, wall mounted pots and more at eye-level, too.

Proportion and Scale:

Proportion in a garden may be defined as a definite relationship between masses or areas. For example a rectangle having a ratio of 5:8 is considered to be of pleasing proportion. A double-story house, for example will look more in proportion to its small stand if you plant some tall, thin trees next to it. A single-story house often looks smaller than it is when it has fully grown oak trees around it.  Proportion should be seen at all levels. At ground level a very wide pathway in a narrow strip will make one feel uncomfortable because of the unbalanced proportions.


The surface character (first visual) of a garden is referred to as texture. The texture of the ground, the leaves of a tree or shrub will all determine the overall effect of the garden.  A stone wall can be softened by planting a fine creeper over it, for example. One wants to increase or introduce differing textures into a garden, not remove it. Different textures give a lot of depth to an area. Perhaps the most overlooked tool in garden design is the use of texture. Plants are so varied in texture you could have an entirely green garden and still have plenty of interest, if you varied textures. As you start to become more discerning about the texture of foliage, you’ll also begin to notice the interplay of plant forms. New gardeners are frequently attracted to the same type of plant over and over again. Perhaps it’s feathery foliage or spiky leaves. Too much of a good thing can make your garden looked chaotic and blurred.

Time and Light:

In a garden the time factor is very important to your plant choices. During the course of the day different quantities and qualities of light will move around the garden, which needs to be taken into account when designing the different areas and plantings. Evening and night time should also be considered in an entertainment area for example.  Incorporating lighting into a garden for night-time use can completely change its character from that in the day.

Tone and Colour:

Amateur gardeners often create a riot of colours by indiscriminately planting flowering annuals of all shades. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a riot of colour in a natural looking garden, but it does detract from a formal garden, for example. Using the permanent backdrop of green tones of the various trees and shrubs, it is possible to lay out a garden with a colour scheme to create unity and to change that scheme from season to season.


In a temperate country, the garden changes colour from one season to another.  Potted plants can be taken into the house or moved from one area to another to take advantage of the moving sun and to protect plants from frost or snow.



There are so many styles one can choose from. The point here is that once you have chosen a style, stick with it. It is possible to have a contemporary garden with oriental influences, for example. Styles can be mixed, but keep the balance and the tone throughout.

Garden design is not an exact science and the principles used may be called by various names. When combined, they constitute the generally accepted version of good garden design. Gardens get better over time, with plants filling in, mingling and growing. But there will probably come a time when more is just too much and you’ll want to think about a redesign, or realigning your garden. That starts with taking a good hard look at what exactly is bothering you about your garden, as it is and making small changes until its back to where you want. Don’t know where to begin? Why not pick a theme and a garden design plan and just jump in.