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Aussie Green Thumb – Top Gardening Tips For Everyday People

Design Series, Part 2 – Basic design concepts

Here at Aussie green thumb we’re always trying to help you get the most out of your garden. We want you to have the best possible backyard you can, really!

One of the most fundamental ways you can get the most out of your backyard garden is to have a sensible and effective garden design. You don’t need to be a qualified landscape architect, but knowing some basics will definitely set you on the right path. Over the next few weeks we’ll be releasing a design series taking you through the basics of garden design all with the intention to make your outdoors area that much better.  Be sure to also check out our 5 Backyard Landscaping Secrets for some more tips.

In this part, we’ll be getting into some basic design concepts to help you on your way. Click here to check out part 1 if you missed it!

When it comes to garden design, things can get complicated very quickly. Trying to bite off more than you can chew is a common problem for novice garden designers, but here’s a couple of concepts that might simplify things a bit, starting off with formal and informal design.


A formal design revolves around what the word formal implies. These gardens follow very strict rules surrounding the aspects of the theme trying to be achieved. This generally means following a very strict plant species list, having a well planned out planting design, and usually requires some intense maintenance to keep hedges, borders and other issues in check. Formal gardens can come in any garden style and use most design concepts, it really just comes down to that really precise, proper and methodical presentation. Formal design is great if you’re into gardening or showing off the area and can dedicate the resources needed to achieve it, but if you can’t keep them looking top notch, then a formal design will fall flat and probably isn’t for you.

This is an example of formal garden design. The tidy topiary hedges and dead straight line of the footpath set the tone. The radiating pattern of the mown turf accentuate the fountain as the centre piece. “The Grounds of Tylney Hall”  Oliver Mallich. 


For every formal garden design out there, there can technically be an informal counterpart you can achieve. An informal design is a lot more relaxed in the plant choices, and puts less focus on rigid presentation. We should stress here that it isn’t so much a miss match of plants all thrown together, there is serious thought and planning behind the plantings, and other design concepts still need to be considered, plus, you’ll still need to work on the garden to keep it neat and tidy, but you achieve your theme with a softer touch and a more relaxed approach.


This is a good example of an informal design. There’s definite intent to the plantings and the placement of features like the pots and chairs, and there are also some rough shaped hedges in the background, but lacks the rigid structure and high maintenance of an informal garden, without appearing unkempt. “Garden” – Akuppa John Wigham



Whether you’re going for a formal or informal design style, balance is vital in a garden design. Balance is all about equality in your garden, and creating an image that doesn’t come across as cluttered or skewed. It can be a tricky concept for beginners, but here are two ways to think about it; Symmetrical and Asymmetrical.

Symmetrical balance involves having a garden that is a mirror image on either side of itself. Hedges, rows, plants and features are duplicated without exception throughout the garden. Nothing is just a ‘one off’, or if it is, it is used as a featured centre piece and either side of it is a mirror. This was a really popular style in French and Italian garden design around the 17th century and is used to build a sense of order and neatness to an area. It is also a very powerful design concept, illustrating a lot of authority through an unnatural manipulation of a garden. Formal gardens generally always utilise this concept, but symmetry can also be used in informal designs, just to a lesser extent.


The symmetrical design in this garden shows off how well balance can work in a design. Along the line of sight, we can see an almost identical image on either side, starting from the very first white flowering plant, all the way to the end door. The archway wall frames this image well, and really makes us want to enter that ‘room’ of the landscape. “Abbey House Gardens” SLR Jester


Asymmetrical balance is harder to explain and harder to put into practice. Basically, this involves the placement of all the different pieces of your garden in a way that creates a feeling of stability. Japanese and Chinese garden designs execute this really well, and in doing so create a calming area that doesn’t overwhelm us with bits and pieces all over the place.

An incredibly simple way to picture this is having taller trees at the back near a fence and smaller shrubs in the front, or taller trees close to the side of the house, moving down to smaller plants the further away. These layouts are pleasing to the eye and let our vision flow without the area feeling disjointed. You will definitely know when a garden doesn’t feel balanced! Where we place things in gardens is really important, but this is more of a personal perception concept than anything straight out of a text book.


This is a picture of an incredibly well designed and balanced Japanese garden. The flow from the building down to the sand area doesn’t feel cluttered or disjointed, and we could happily sit and feel calm in this landscape. Japenese Landscape afer the rain” Derek Winterburn



This garden on the other hand doesn’t feel balanced to me. There’s a mismatch of plants, colours and textures, and the heights on the plants don’t interconnect very well. Whilst it looks very neat and colourful, balance is severely lacking, and it just looks too ‘busy’. “Front Garden” jayscratch


Keeping it Simple

The validity of this concept can be argued, but if you’ve ever heard of the KISS policy (not the band), then you should know what I’m talking about. Keep It Simple Stupid.
In art and photography we don’t want our image cluttered with too many things that detract from the overall image. By focussing on quality over quantity, we can have a few stunning features, rather than a lot of mediocre ones. This idea translates really well to garden design. Sticking with same or complimentary colours, using only a few plant species, and using minimal feature pieces like pots or vases is a good way to start, and make your features ‘pop’ by keeping them irregular and few. If you’re still a bit unsure about this, imagine going to a florist and having the choice of 100 different flowers. It’s going to be tough finding the best one, but if you reduce it to 5 choices, the best one will most definitely stick out to you.


Simple formal design. Repeated shapes, colours and species. “Gardens” Neajjean.



An incredibly simple design that is still striking and enticing. Nothing here detracts from the feature wall and curved path. “The Cooper residence in Hamilton” brian nz



The AGT team hopes you’re finding these tips helpful, and we’re getting you well on your way to an amazing backyard design. That’s it for part 2 in this series, but click here to read on to part three.

Happy gardening.

About the author: Professional horticulturalist from NSW. Be sure to follow us on Instagram as well! Aussie_green_thumb.

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