Landscape design is not accepting what you see, but creating what you want to see instead. -GG
I promised you my five basic principles of landscape design, so here we go. Most landscape experts command longer lists of basic design principles. But, I don’t consider myself an expert. I am, and will always be, a student of landscape design. As a student, I like short lists that are easy to remember. My abbreviated handful of basic design principles is made up of balance, unity, repetition, dominance, and scale. I’m fully convinced that no artistically pleasing landscape can be created without using all of them. I boiled the lists down to five so that you could remember them on one hand. And I remember them in that order so that its acronym reminds me that all landscapes need BURDS in them. Yes, it’s hokey but it works.
I could start with any of the five, but I’m going to begin with the one I consider the most important of all: repetition. If you can only remember one, this is it. It’s the one most gardeners and plant collectors fight the most; however, it’s the one most likely to make you appear to know what you are doing. So fight the urge and repeat after me. I WILL use the same lines, shapes, colors, containers, plants, and materials throughout the landscape. You have to or the landscape won’t visually hold together.
Let’s look at two analogies that might help a bit. First of all, design is design. It doesn’t matter if it is interior design, floral design, or fashion design. The principles are the same. Most people do a pretty fair job with interior design, and many do an acceptable job of dressing themselves in the morning without getting laughed at when they arrive at work. That’s because they are aware of matching furniture, frames, fabric, sweaters, skirts, socks, etc. But, unfortunately, these same individuals tend to scatter one of everything in the landscape and not realize they should have used the exact same thought processes.
Look inside a home or business and note the repeating shapes and lines in the floor and ceiling tiles, the door and window shapes, the furniture types, the trim and wall colors, the room shapes, the curtain colors and materials. These all artistically hold the vision together to accommodate the addition of more eye catching items.
I own a large collection of heirloom quilts. These amazing pieces of folk art were fashioned from bits and pieces of materials mostly saved from making clothes. Think of these bits and pieces of colored cloth as plants and yard art in the landscape. The image created would be way too chaotic and busy on the eye if it wasn’t for the repeated patterns the quilter used putting them together along with the same border and backing. The final glue that holds them together is the repetitious quilted stitch running throughout them. This stitching might be likened to the border running along the edge of your landscape beds.
Being repetitive in landscaping isn’t hard. It’s all about having a plan and sticking with it. Repetition can be accomplished by using similar bed shapes, by maintaining the same edging, by sticking with the same type and color of pots, by repeating similar pruned and natural plant shapes, and by using the same colors over again. These are known as “color echoes” and help hold the landscape together as a whole, instead of a bunch of parts. The colors don’t always have to be exact, as even related colors share a common bond. Green foliage counts as well. Be careful about using too many of the new burgundy and “black” shrubs and trees in your landscape. Hedges weren’t made to be purple!
I suggest keeping your bed edging simple and uniform throughout the landscape, just as a frame remains the same around a painting. We all know in a long term project it’s easy to start a different border based on the materials or cash on hand. Resist this urge and continue what you’ve already started. My general rule of thumb on hardscaping is no more than three different kinds of materials in a landscape. The background is way too busy when there’s a dizzying combination of concrete, asphalt, brick, stone, wood, metal, and plastic. Any time you place something new in your landscape, at least ponder the thought, “Am I repeating a material, color, or shape I already have?” Repetition is a good thing. Unfortunately, our natural tendency is just the opposite.
My own old-fashioned landscape in the country is far from the typical suburban one, but the design principles I work with are the same. I repeat the rectilinear shapes established by my old dogtrot house in my plantings. I use the same fencing material with the same kind of posts throughout. My barns and outbuildings are painted the same color. I used 13 (one side is longer than the other) of the exact same lilac-purple crapemyrtles in an allée leading to my house and 6,000 of the same dark green loblolly pines as a backdrop behind it. I limit my color palette to a portion of the color wheel containing assorted pinks, whites, blues, and purples and repeat those as well. I have galvanized fire ring planters and a galvanized cistern in the back yard. The silver of the rings and cistern repeats that of the tin roof, the double loop wire fence repeats that of the front border and nearby vegetable garden, and the antique brick paths repeat that of the front walk and the chimney.
There’s plenty of diversity and show as might be expected from a plant lover. But, without some repetition any landscape would be too carnival-like, too busy on the eye. The goal of a fine landscape is to provide pleasing visual stimulation without tiring the mind and eye. It’s generally also about fitting in, not leaping out and forcing an issue. One final word of advice when it comes to repetition: better too much than too little. Some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, both manmade and natural, are very simple and rhythmic. Just remember that repetition is the common thread.