As my best friend just told me, “These topics sound like they are for a different audience. I just want to know what to cut back and when to do it.” Nobody ever wants to hear rules about landscape design. We just want to keep planting stuff wherever we can find space to put it. So bear with me. We only have two more to go. Basic principles of landscape design are the most important tools gardeners will ever learn. They keep us from having a hodgepodge mess of disorganized plants. They help us to create art instead of clutter.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no landscape architect or professional designer. I do love design however and distilled my five basic design principles over many years of both visiting fine gardens and attempting to create aesthetically pleasing ones of my own. So far, we have covered repetition (the most important), dominance (the most abused), and scale (the hardest to grasp). In this article I will cover balance, thankfully a bit easier to understand.
In my opinion, all landscapes should appear visually balanced. I say “appear” because we aren’t actually going to weigh them. Just as I stated that each main view should only have one dominant focal point, I’m also of the opinion that each main view should be balanced. So what is balance?
Stand back at the road or edge of your property and look back towards your home and garden. Now find what you would consider the center axis of this image and picture your entire landscape and home sitting on a balance beam with each side being weighed. The idea is for each side to visually weigh the same.
There are two kinds of balance with one much easier to figure out than the other. Symmetrical balance essentially includes the same plants, house structure, and hardscape on either side of the axis (often the front door). Formal landscapes typically utilize a symmetrically balanced design. The other form of balance is asymmetrical, where the landscape features on either side of the central axis are completely different, but must still visually weigh the same. Picture a house with a large attached garage jutting up and out on the left side. This would generally require trees or larger plant materials on the right side of the landscape to help balance the house. Or perhaps there is a giant specimen shade tree on one side of your front yard. This means the other side would need enough trees, shrubs, and mass to appear to take up the same volume of space. In other words, it might take a medium sized tree, three small trees, and a mass of dwarf shrubs to visually weigh the same as the giant shade tree on the other side of the landscape.
Certainly the task of totaling up visual weights is complicated; more so with greater numbers of plants and larger homes and lots, but it has to be done. I like to think of my balance beam with building blocks stacked on either side, including large, medium, and small squares, circles, and triangles. To me, breaking it down into simple abstract forms makes it easier. But to others, squinting and peering with a cloudy Monet-like view is more comfortable. If picturing handfuls of colored and textured puffs on either side of the axis helps, then go with it.
I mention texture because coarse textured plants and features appear heavier than fine textured elements. Therefore a mass of fatsia would “weigh” more than a mass of gulf muhly grass while rock, stone, and brick would “weigh” more than wood and plant materials.
Also be aware that the “central axis” may not always be in the center. Perhaps the obvious dividing line in your front landscape is the door and front sidewalk that are set off to one side of the house. This creates an asymmetrical scenario. This means visual weight will need to be strung out farther to the other side to keep your landscape balanced. When landscapes aren’t balanced it calls attention to the heavier side. So remember, if your balance beam looks like it’s going to flip over into your neighbor’s yard, then you are probably “too heavy” on that side and all eyes will settle there. Once in a blue moon there might be occasion to draw the eye to an area with an out of balance landscape, but it’s rare and I don’t recommend it unless you live next to a trailer park or junk yard!
To be quite honest, really good landscaping is just as much about thought and planning than doing. Thinking the process through almost always produces a better finished product in addition to saving time and money. If you make sure you’ve incorporated repetition, dominance, scale, and balance you should wind up with unity, the subject of our final installment. So march yourselves out to the curb and see if you can find all these in your landscape. I rarely critique other people’s landscapes, but I do try to cast a discerning eye towards mine at every glance. I actually enjoy the process and hope you will too.
PS: Speaking of casting eyes. On August 23, I cast my eyes to the roadside (and to the afterlife) when I hydroplaned, took out a pine tree, and rolled my truck over on US 59. Thanks to seatbelts and airbags I was only bruised. Hopefully, after over 16 inches of rain during the last half of August, I’ll now get to drive my new truck upright on dry ground.