All good things must end, as will this series on my five basic principles of landscape design. In past installments we’ve covered repetition, dominance, scale, and balance. We’ll wrap up with unity. The first four were the easiest to digest and understand. Unity, however, is a bit trickier for most gardeners to comprehend. The good news is if you implement the other four, unity will happen on its own. That’s handy.
Unity can also be described as “harmony.” A landscape design achieves unity when all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle with nothing out of place or failing to relate to the other parts or the whole.
One of the best ways to determine if a landscape has unity is by walking through it fully conscience of the “big picture.” You should never turn a corner and feel like you’ve just stepped onto another planet or into another home. No matter what part of a well-designed landscape you enter, you should still feel like it is a part of the whole design concept. This can be a bit tricky.
For years, especially in European designs, landscape “rooms” have been fashioned similar to rooms in a house. In gardens we are able to construct walls with fences, hedges, and assorted barriers. We can add furniture and artwork in outdoor landscapes and create ceilings with arbors, pergolas, vines, and trees. And just like in our homes, our outdoor rooms can have completely different personalities, color schemes, and furnishings. The danger is having such a drastically different personality that a room seems like it belongs in another house.
So how do we avoid this common mistake? Repetition is generally the answer. This is why I consider repetition the most important design principle of all (the principal principle!). Notice when you go in most rooms of a well-designed house that the walls, ceiling, floor, and trim are generally the same throughout. In addition, the level of housekeeping and other personal preferences are often continued throughout the home.
This same process should be repeated in the landscape. No matter what style or theme you have in your front or back garden, you should repeat some unifying elements throughout the entire property. One of the simplest is to use the same type of edging throughout the landscape. This is very much the same as using the same trim and woodwork throughout a house or the same continuous frame around a picture.
Repeating the same type of lawn or groundcover throughout also helps provide unity, much the same way that repeating a type of flooring in a home does. If every room in a house has a different color of carpet or tile, it is disruptive just like too many types of groundcovers or flowerbeds in a yard. Repeating similarly shaped beds throughout a design also helps achieve unity. If part of a design features formal rectilinear shapes and others more natural free form ones, it will be hard to think of them as belonging to the same landscape. This is why picking a general design theme from the very beginning is such a good idea. I think every garden should have a named, well-considered theme. Write it down…formal garden, cottage garden, native garden, woodland garden, etc. Mine at the farm is an “old fashioned cottage garden.” Having a named theme helps you decide whether future or even past additions even belong at all.
There is no right or wrong here. The important thing is to have a plan and stick with it as often as possible. The more you do this the more unity you will achieve. There’s nothing wrong with changing your theme, but it often requires changing the entire landscape to make it fit. The last thing you want to do is come home from the nursery with a different theme in hand each time. I know for a fact that it doesn’t take long to muck up a landscape with assorted and unrelated plants, garden art, and new beds.
Landscape design is not complicated. It just requires some thought, planning, and discipline. There’s really no difference in interior design, fashion design, floral design, and landscape design because the principles are exactly the same. Never forget them as they’ve united designers since the art began.
PS: Just so you’ll know, I now work for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service as the county horticulturist in Tyler. Yep, back to being an Aggie. I will be taking over my friend Keith Hansen’s successful program in a county long known for its horticulture. More on this next month. Wish me luck! -Greg