Breaking the rules

Consider the gardens and landscapes that inspire you — the ones you think of when someone asks you which are the most remarkable you've ever seen. It is likely that the designs on your list demonstrate all of the basic principles of design. But it is also likely that one of those principles is a little out of control. That is often what makes a landscape unique and memorable. You can create a good landscape by assessing the site, considering the design's function, using appropriate plants and following all of the principles of design … but you can create an unforgettable landscape by breaking just one of the rules, or at least letting it dominate some views.

Let's look at five basic principles of design, and scenes from some great English gardens that demonstrate effective application of those principles. Simply copying one of these plantings into another landscape would create an artificial or stilted feeling. But if you study the planting, evaluate how the design principle makes it special and then apply that principle in a similar fashion, but in a new site with new materials, you can make your design memorable in its own way.


A view demonstrates balance if the objects in it are sited so that their visual weight is evenly distributed. Formal designs often display symmetrical balance, with the left and right sides of the view being quite identical. Informal designs generally display asymmetrical balance, in which the visual weight is evenly distributed but the objects and spacing are not identical. To achieve asymmetrical balance, a designer must develop a sense of visual weight: three fine-textured plants on one side of a view might be equal to a coarse textured plant on the opposite side, or a tall plant might be equal in visual weight to a horizontal plant of similar color and texture.

The Courts is one of Wiltshire's best-kept garden secrets, known to visitors for its water features with surrounding topiary and its imaginative use of color and texture. The formal water garden is a favorite area of The Courts (see photo, above). Symmetrical balance dominates this view: the water garden shape is rectangular, the Siberian irises on either side anchor the view, and the pair of simple containers on formal stone pedestals in the foreground complete the symmetry. The less-formal tree borders beyond the topiary and the less-formal arrangement of water lilies keep this garden from feeling stiff. The formal water garden actually helps the viewer make sense of the space, lending a feeling of calm and serenity.

There is one word of caution if you plan to use symmetrical balance to draw attention to part of a landscape. Maintenance is critical. A formally clipped hedge, for example, can become an eyesore if a section of it dies.

Focalization and line

Views must contain points of emphasis or they become monotonous. These points of interest might be benches, specimen trees, pools, full-flower plants within flower gardens, pieces of sculpture or other unique items that draw attention to themselves and help the viewer's eye rest and comprehend the scene before scanning the scene for details.

Kiftsgate Court, located in Gloucestershire, is perhaps best known as the home of the largest rose in England, Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate.’ Kiftsgate is memorable for its upper gardens with great color schemes, intensely planted hillside garden, and sheltered lower garden with a Mediterranean atmosphere. Along the way from one garden room to another, the visitor encounters a spectacular piece of sculpture (see photo on page Contractor 6). Simon Verity created this bench from two large headstones. In approaching this focal point, the visitor perceives it changing from sculpture to bench as it reveals its three dimensions. Nothing else is needed to make this bench a focal point — no supporting plantings or special lighting or pedestal.

If you want to use a unique item as a focal point but feel it is too weak to stand on its own, you can strengthen it with several techniques. You can use lines such as paths, walls or plantings to draw the eye toward the item. You can light the item or place it in a site where the sunlight highlights it. You can place it in a large space to make it the only thing that attracts attention. You can use color in several ways to strengthen an item. For example, a clump of white delphiniums would draw more attention if placed against dark evergreens. Or, a dark red flower would be a stronger focal point if it were surrounded by brighter red flowers.

Rhythm and repetition

Designs with too many elements become scavenger hunts for the viewer. You can tie a landscape together and give it a feeling of unity by repeating elements such as paving textures, flower colors and plant forms. Some of the most challenging parts of many landscapes are flower gardens and shrub borders. In an effort to create diversity, such plantings can become collections rather than gardens. Repeating just one or two major elements can make all the difference.

Hever Castle in Kent was the childhood home of Ann Boleyn. The magnificent gardens and the castle's renovation are the work of William Waldorf Astor, who bought the property in 1903. One of the features of the gardens is a 110-meter perennial border (see photo on page Contractor 4). Long borders can feel fragmented, but this one keeps its unity through very effective repetition of major focal point plantings. Shown here in June, the garden displays spectacular clumps of foxgloves, repeated in a rhythmic frequency down the border. These clumps are large enough to draw the viewer's eye the length of the garden, helping to create a sense of unity so that sections of the border can then be further inspected.

Repetition is easy to accomplish in a large garden, but in a small landscape it can be difficult. Remember that things don't have to be identical to be repetitive. You can create brick walkways by a brick house, plant containers with flowers of similar color to a building, and install paths whose lines echo the lines of the building or driveway.

Scale and proportion

Size relationships among landscape design elements are critical in making visitors feel comfortable. You've seen houses with foundation plantings that have grown too large, creating a sense that the house is being eaten. You've also seen plantings that are too small for the spaces they occupy, making them seem insignificant and ineffective.

Barnsley House in Gloucestershire is the home of the late Rosemary Verey, who was one of the world's most beloved gardeners. She created a friendly and intimate garden that was approachable to all visitors. In her later years, she turned the garden over to her son to manage. This is something many people face, yet gardening should last a lifetime. Large landscapes in large spaces demand a high level of physical energy, but small gardens are more manageable for older or physically limited gardeners. While Barnsley House's overall landscape is quite large, Mrs. Verey's last garden was a patio garden (see top photo, above), a small space with level flooring, containerized plants and a wall with bird feeders. The scale of all items in their space made it a welcoming, manageable, personal garden.

Create landscapes whose elements relate to each other in a way that one element doesn't dwarf another. Site these elements so that they leave spaces comfortable for the number of people who will frequent them. Use large elements in large spaces, and small elements in small spaces.


Every good garden design displays simplicity. This can be accomplished by keeping the number of objects in the landscape at a minimum, by massing similar plants rather than placing them individually throughout the landscape, and by using clean lines rather than contorted or complicated lines.

Iford Manor, in Wiltshire, is surrounded by a Harold Peto landscape dating from the era of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Peto designed the landscape in the Italianate tradition, with open space around the house, a terraced garden up a hillside, and a wooded area beyond. The terraced garden houses a collection of Italian relics, which form focal points along the borders. At various points along the long terrace, benches allow the visitor to pause and admire the relics and the plantings. Because the relics are the focal points, the benches can (and should) be simple (see bottom photo, left). They are functional, attractive and elegant, but they do not detract from the pieces of art. The teak bench in this view is a good example.

Simplicity does not mean simplistic. It does mean straightforward and comprehensible. Simplicity is achieved when one or two major ideas drive a design. Trying to incorporate too many ideas into one area causes a fragmented, complicated design, often with high maintenance requirements.

Every good design includes all of the design principles described above. If they are all functioning, these principles create a sense of unity and a good overall design. But if you're looking for something that will make your design special, try accentuating just one of the principles.

Lois Berg Stack is an extension specialist in ornamental horticulture at the University of Maine (Orono, Maine).

Want to use this article? Click here for options!
© 2020 Penton Media Inc.

Interactive Products

Equipment Blue Book

Used Equipment Valuation Guide

Riding mowers, lawn tractors, snow throwers, golf carts


Grounds Maintenance Jobs

search our jobs database, upload your resume