A Quick Look at Basic Landscape Design Principles

Principles of Landscape Design for Northeast Florida, Jacksonville and St. Augustine area Gardens

Here is a quick look at some of the principles used by landscape architects and designers to create their harmonious outdoor masterpieces. If you pick up any landscape design book it will inevitably attempt to explain landscape design principles and elements of art and how they can best be applied in our home landscapes. They may very well be explained and named differently from one author to the next, some grouping concepts together and some separating them with slightly different descriptions but the substance will be the same.

I like to think of design principles not as a set of rules that need to be follow but rather as helpful descriptions that explain how we view our surroundings that when applied allow us to manipulate the space to the desired outcome.

To put it quite simply these are the tools that help us sculpt the view around us as we garden. Most of us instinctively know and already apply some of these principles on a daily basis in and outside our homes whether or not we are able to put words to the constructs, we often know we just like it or we don’t. A quick study of these design principles can help us avoid costly mistakes, figure out what it is that we perceive that is making us feel the way we do and give us the tools to change our surroundings to our liking.

I have endeavored below to however briefly shine a light on some of those basics that have stayed with me through the years.

Proportion / Scale & Size as a Landscape Design Principle

Scale and size are often often grouped together in proportion but it remains easier for me to think of them as separate constructs that fall under the same umbrella if you will. Scale is relative proportion. It is the size of an object in relation to the objects surrounding it.

So its an objects size? Not exactly, size is absolute proportion differs from scale in that size is a given set of measures and scale varies depending on the objects’ adjacent surroundings.

Hardscape areas, entertainment spaces, garden structures, and plantings must be considered in relationship to one another and in relationship to the human body size to achieve a balanced feeling in the landscape. This relationship between areas of the landscape is referred to in terms of their proportion when compared to the size of each other and the size of the entire landscape as a whole.

This concept is perhaps explained simply in our minds with something we all have on our homes. The size of an entry way in relation to the size of the house itself. The entry way steps and landing area will look out of balance if not in scale or proportion with the size of the home.

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Other examples of proportion as it relates to landscape design in the Northeast Florida area.

Grass or Turf areas to Planted Areas, balance can be achieved with equal portions of planted space to open space.

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 Fountain or landscape ornament out of proportion with the size and scale of a home landscape

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Benches, firepits and their seating area, and pathways need to be both in relative proportion to their surrounding landscape and to the human body size so they can be used comfortably and create a harmonious picture in the landscape.

Image here of firepit seating area to small for chair space and leg room

Image here of walkway with two people walking comfortably side by side or with a dog. ( preferably a dog 🙂 )

Image here of a seating wall with a person on it fitting comfortably at knee bend height or a grill top at countertop height, a bar top at standing / leaning chest height etc.

 Unity / Harmony as a Landscape Design Principle

Unity in landscape design is the use of the physical elements within the design to create a harmonious theme within the landscape.

Unity can be achieved when each of the areas within the landscape go together as one beautiful composition.

The use of the basic principles of dominance, repetition, interconnection, simplicity, the rule of three, transition or flow, and proportion as well as some of the elements of art like color, texture and line all work together to create unity in a design.

Unity through dominance can be explained in simple terms of focal points. Focal points are used to draw attention to a specific area of the landscape, guide the eye through a space and move traffic through and area. Landscape designers utilize contrast in size, color, form and texture to achieve dominance. Think of a brightly colored ceramic pot amid a green hedge placed at the front of the walkway to attract your attention and move you through that space and into the home.

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Unity through the rule of three can most easily be explained in that odd numbers are normally perceived as a group as a can not be easily visually divided as even numbers. Our eyes seem to love to find the middle of even numbered spacings. With odd numbered spacing our eyes seem to fall on a desirable object of our choosing and view them as a grouping rather than on the void between the landscape items and split them into two.

Image here 4 plants in a row

Image here 5 plants in a row

The best example to help understand the construct of unity for the landscape as a whole that I have ever read was a description of unity in terms of a tree with a clearly dominant trunk that blends gradually and seamlessly into it’s branch structure and is adorned with the repetition of the color, size, pattern and texture of its leaves. All of the individual elements of the tree viewed together, forming one beautiful and natural composition. Similarly in the landscape, all of the elements the turf area, hardscape and planting beds etc. should when viewed together blend gradually and seamlessly together as a harmonious space.

Repetition as a Landscape Design Principle

Repetition in the landscape is used to help achieve unity. Landscape designers may create unity with the repetition of the elements of art  that we mentioned before. Line, form, texture, and color may be repeated in sequence or alternated strategically to unify a landscape design.

Obtaining a balance between the variety of items in the garden and how frequently those  items are repeated is key to making a landscape setting both interesting and pleasing to the eye. 

Excessive repetition of the same pattern with just a few items, while easy on the eye, may appear as a boring or uninteresting landscape for the viewer.

enter photo here

Lack of repetition with too many unrelated items in the landscape can appear confusing to the eye of the viewer. A landscape that lacks repetition of items with similar forms, color, leaf texture and shape can lead to a feeling of clutter in the landscape. 

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Example of Repetition with Varied  Gradation

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Example of Repetition with an Alternated Pattern or Sequence 

Balance as a Landscape Design Principle

When we refer to balance, as it pertains to landscape design, we are referring to the state of equilibrium between the right and left portions of a landscape.

Formal or symmetrical balance in the landscape will repeat the same forms, lines, colors, and textures on both sides of the view creating a mirror image in both portions. Using formal balance in the landscape adds a sense of stateliness and stability.

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Informal balance or asymmetrical balance will differ from left to right adding both interest and movement to the landscape. In informal balance, the visual weight of the items is balanced using different items on both sides of the center.  

Transition as a Landscape Design Principle

In landscape design, transition can be used to describe a gradual change in color or a gradual change in the arrangement of items with different textures, forms, and sizes.  

 A transition in color could be the use of a monochromatic color scheme  being utilized within the landscape or a gradual increase in color intensity.

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An example of transition in plants within the landscape could be the arrangement of  plants from those with the most visual weight and scale placed in the foreground; with a gradual transition towards finer textures, forms, and scale of the plants placed at a distance. This can be used in landscape designs to enhance a specific view or to enlarge a space visually.