Landscaping Design Principles You Should Know – Forbes Advisor

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Landscape architects and designers use a variety of guidelines and tools to create attractive, functional outdoor living spaces. While most homeowners and weekend warriors may not have the experience of advanced professional training, the concepts that the pros follow are not totally out of reach.

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The principles of landscape design, namely proportion, order, repetition and unity, are the fundamental concepts of composition that professionals use to plan all kinds of open spaces. Homes, parks, golf courses, businesses and countless other organizations benefit from the artistic and practical application of these principles. You can learn from them too.

Landscape Design Elements vs. Landscape Design Principles

At the outset, the designer needs to have a clear vision of the project’s goals. In addition to creating an attractive space, is there a need for privacy? Is there a favorite plant collection that should be highlighted, such as a prized rose garden? After considering all of the issues at stake, the plants and hardscaping materials, or features, are organized.

Landscape features can be physically described by their visual qualities of line, form, color, texture and visual weight. These are known as the elements of design. The principles of design are the guidelines for organizing these features into a beautiful landscape.

Landscape Design Elements

The elements of landscape design are the planning tools used to compose the various garden features. Design elements help determine plant selection and placement, hardscaping layout, material finishes, water feature types and sizes and much more.

  • Line
  • Color
  • Texture
  • Form
  • Mass or Visual Weight

Landscape Design Principles

The principles of landscape design outline the ways in which the design elements should be used. They break down the ideals of beauty and functionality into four helpful guidelines or categories.

  • Proportion
  • Order
  • Repetition
  • Unity


In landscaping, proportion is the size relationship of the plants, hardscaping, buildings and other landscaping pieces to one another and to human scale. Tiny foundation plants in front of a substantial home entrance will be visually lost, but a century-old oak tree might obscure the house completely. The idea is to step back and consider how the various elements appear and work as a whole. For better proportion, install larger foundation plants and prune the oak.

Golden Ratio

In practical terms, the “divine proportion” or “golden ratio” has played a key role in design since the Egyptians built the pyramids. It states that the ratio of the short side to the long side should be equal to the ratio of the long side to the sum of both sides (a/b=b/a+b), or about 1:1.6 (for example 5 x 8, 10 x 16 or 15 x 24). Humans find this spatial arrangement pleasing. Consider using it to lay out horizontal spaces like lawns or vertical elements like gateways.

Significant Enclosure

Using the correct proportion also helps define a “garden room” or landscape enclosure such as a swimming pool deck or children’s play area. The rule of significant enclosure tells us that the vertical edge, such as a hedge or decorative fence, should be at least one-third the length of the horizontal space. So, plan on bordering your 24-foot wide patio with an eight-foot-tall hedge for a cozy effect.


The principle of order considers organization and balance within the landscape design. Spatial organization refers to the three-dimensional arrangement of the landscape, including the lay of the land as well as plants and structures. An analogy for balance is equal “visual weight.” The goal is to establish balance from side to side and front to back.

Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical Balance

Balance can be achieved symmetrically or asymmetrically. Symmetry incorporates the same plants and hardscapes as mirror images of one another as is found in traditional formal landscapes. In informal landscapes, asymmetry balances different features and elements whose forms, textures and colors carry the same visual weight.

Regulating Line

A designer takes cues from existing elements, such as the line of a wall, a particular window or the dripline of a large tree, to connect and organize the design. These imaginary lines lead the designer to incorporate elements that will either unify the whole or break up the space in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Use regulating lines to determine the effective placement of foundation plants and privacy screens, alignment of focal points and much more.


Diversity adds interest, but too many different species, colors, textures or combinations in a relatively small space leads to confusion. Repetition of familiar patterns and sequences within a landscape adds to the semblance of order and helps to build unity. At the same time, overuse of a single element becomes monotonous. Balance is the key.

Subtle Repetition

Oftentimes growing conditions will not allow the use of the same plants in all parts of the landscape. Repetition does not have to mean using the same exact things over and over to create a pattern. Repeated use of form, texture, or color throughout the landscape is an effective way to incorporate this principle where conditions change.


Use alternation as a way to create patterned or subtle repetition. In alternation, a minor change in sequence occurs on a regular basis. For instance, every fifth globe form along a line of boxwoods could be interrupted by a pyramidal form. Or, alternate inverted forms such as pyramidal plants and vase-shaped plants in an ordered sequence.


Using a gradual change in a feature’s characteristics makes repetition more interesting. A form can gradually become smaller or larger, or bloom colors could gradually become darker or lighter.


A unified landscape design leads to the sense that everything is working together to create a whole. Adopting a time tested design theme or style, such as a Formal Garden, Japanese Garden or Xeriscape style, can help but is not required. Unity, also called harmony, is achieved through effective use of dominance, interconnection, unity of three and simplicity in arranging textures, colors and forms.


Focal points are dominant features that capture attention. They draw attention to a particular location and help to move the eye through the space. These features generally contrast in color, size, form or texture against the surrounding landscape. Specimen plants with unique forms and textures, and architectural elements such as water features or garden sculptures, are often used for this purpose. Regular plants can fulfill this role, as when they are isolated in containers.


Often we think about creating “garden rooms” or enclosures that encapsulate a portion of the landscape. But a good design uses different elements to join it all together. Walkways serve as the chain that links all of the parts together. Similarly, the continuation of any regulating line helps to create unity through interconnection.
Unity of Three
Features that are grouped in threes, or other odd numbers, create visual balance while fostering landscape unity. Odd numbers are readily perceived as a group that is not easily divisible, like even numbers. They allow for alternating variations in height, providing more interest.


Eliminating non-essential features helps to avoid chaos in the landscape. For instance, rather than choosing nine different flowers for the annual flower bed, pick one primary color or type and one or two accents. Is it necessary to line the border with bricks, or would a clean, natural edge be better?

While it helps to have an understanding of the elements and principles of landscaping design, you need not reinvent the wheel. One of the best ways to create a good design is to take ideas from gardens and landscapes you have seen and find attractive. Collect inspiration for everything from plant combinations to pathway surface materials and incorporate them. Adapt them to your project, then use what you know of the four principles to fill in the gaps.

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