Design Series – Garden Design 101

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.

What is garden design?

To put it simply, garden design is the style and way the ‘pieces’ in your garden are laid out and presented to a viewer.

The ‘pieces’ obviously include your plants, but they can also be things like pots, or feature points like a water fountain.

Following a certain garden design style or theme will influence  the way these pieces are set out, but also influence the type of pieces you might want to use.

A cottage garden design theme like this uses plants with lots of colours and flowers

A cottage garden design theme like this uses plants with lots of colours and flowers so that there is always something happening in it. Using a plant that doesn’t match that style would just look out of place.

Certain plants lend themselves to certain garden design themes, as do a lot of feature points commonly used.

Sticking to a certain theme doesn’t necessarily mean that all other plants wont work, but it does mean you might need to refine a planting list if you’re chasing a specific look.

For example, imagine a cottage garden in your head…now, can you picture a 6 foot tall cactus matching? Probably not…

There are a lot of different design themes and concepts out there, and it’s not a one size fits all direction you’re following.

You want what is right for you, and your garden design should fit your style and maintenance preferences, and also match your gardening skill level as well as allow you to get what you want out of your garden.

Garden design or Landscape design?

This might sound like a confusing question, but it is important that we clarify the difference here.

Firstly, think about the term ‘Garden’ and what it means. A plot of land worked and planted with flowers, herbs or fruit and veg? A garden indicates a gardeners involvement and continued work to keep it in a certain style.

Now, lets think about the word ‘Landscape’. A landscape is an area as a whole, and encompasses everything within it’s boundaries, including gardens.

So then garden design involves the individual garden aspects, whereas landscape design involves the aspects and components of an entire area, including gardens!

landscape design involves the aspects and components of an entire area, including gardens

The landscape design here includes the rolling hills, meandering track, and the lake to draw the viewers eyes down towards the focal point of the bridge. The wooded garden area on the right provides a slight break so the eyes movement is more gentle, as well as acting as a ‘halfway’ destination for a visitor on the track. A bright elaborate garden here would have clashed with the theme and taken away from the landscape as a whole.

Why point out the difference though? It’s important to keep in mind the overall idea of your landscape design when planning out your individual gardens, because the two need to work together in the overall scheme.

Your landscape may only be a small backyard , but the gardens within it need to compliment each other and the whole space.

An uncomplimentary garden in landscape can leave your area looking disjointed and patchy.

Basic design concepts 

The gardens in front of this house are mirror images, and create balance when we look

The gardens in front of this house are mirror images, and create balance when we look. We’re drawn into taking in the whole facade of this house by a contrast of green and orange, which begins with the topiary balls in front of terracotta pots, which is repeated and moved upwards by the thin pines contrasting against the orange house.

The most basic concept of any garden design is this – To draw our attention.
Designing our gardens draws the attention of anyone who visits it to whatever we want them to see.

In whatever style we choose and whatever complementary pieces we use to do it…our design is trying to highlight something.

It can be multiple things at the one time, but we’re always trying to highlight what we feel are the best aspects of our garden.

This isn’t as confusing as it might seem, and if you think about it, you’re probably doing it already anyway.

The obscured end of the path makes us want to walk further in and see whats around the bend

This walkway is highlighted by the designed gardens beside it. The obscured end of the path makes us want to walk further in and see whats around the bend. 

It’s why we plant our smaller flowering plants in the front and bigger shrubs at the back; so that nothing is hidden from sight.

We plant dead straight hedges leading up to the front door of our house to lead the visitors eyes in, and we plant big feature trees in the front yard all on their own for everyone to see.

That’s the best bit of garden design! You can tweak it to suit what you want to highlight.

Most fundamental ways you can get the most out of your backyard garden is to have a sensible and effective garden design

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.

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.

Formal Garden 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.

These gardens follow very strict rules surrounding the aspects of the theme trying to be achieved.

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.

Informal Garden Design

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.

An informal design is a lot more relaxed in the plant choices, and puts less focus on rigid presentation

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

Balance Design

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. symmetrical designThis 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.

Balance is all about equality in your garden, and creating an image that doesn’t come across as cluttered or skewed

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

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

There’s a mismatch of plants,colours and textures, and the heights on the plants don’t interconnect very well.

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 focusing 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

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

An incredibly simple design that is still striking and enticing

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.

Complicated Concepts

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

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.

Line Concept

Line isn’t an overly complicated concept to grasp because it’s very physical, and this makes it actually quite easy to work with.

We’ve talked in previous issues about the way designs draw our eyes through a landscape, and this all really falls back to the concept of line.

It gets complicated in the way that it needs to be used with other concepts like balance to compliment them.

There’s the obvious line of garden beds, footpaths, tree rows and the like, and these are the easier ones to master, but line can also be achieved by subtler features like tree branches or shape pointing upwards or in the desired direction, or even through the heights of shrubs, say for example a gradual decrease of height across a landscape towards our focal point.

Straight lines are the most obvious lines we see in landscapes, through features like footpaths or a stairway. Our eyes are forced down a certain direction towards a certain point.

This is a very strict and efficient feeling design feature, and needs to be matched to an equally structured and formal theme. If it’s not, straight lines can make a relaxing garden setting feel restrained and out of whack.

Straight lines are the most obvious lines we see in landscapes, through features like footpaths or a stairway.

Perfect example of a dead straight lines impact our vision – we are forced to look straight through the landscape without wavering. Les Haines, Flikr.

Curved lines on the other hand are more natural and as opposed to straight lines, and they tend to invite you down a certain line rather than force. These are great for creating intrigue in your garden, particularly if the destination of the curved line is hidden from sight.

When used in a broader landscape, curved gentle lines can be used to gradually direct us to a focal point, creating a tranquil feel.

You can still use curved lines in a formal setting, and it’s actually a pretty impressive (and equally tricky) way to create juxtaposition in a design, as well as exhibiting absolute control of nature in a formal garden.

Curved gentle lines can be used to gradually direct us to a focal point, creating a tranquil feel

This curved line makes us want to enter this garden and follow that bridge. We don’t know where it goes, but I sure do want to find out! Jonesytheteacher, Flikr.

Repetition 

As you’ve probably guessed, repetition involves repeating certain aspects or features throughout a garden.

Now it’s important to realise that you don’t just do this because you like something so much you want more of it, you use repetition to achieve other aspects of design, like balance and line, to accentuate a formal or informal style, as well as highlight a single feature. It is also absolutely essential for maintaining continuity, but more on that later.

When repeating features in your garden, you need to keep in mind how much is too much. Like I said, this isn’t about putting your favourite thing in over and over, it is about using the same feature for a greater purpose and addressing the other concepts.

Too much of a good thing cheapens it, and make it less appealing. When repeating a base feature, like a grass clump, tree line or hedge, we can get away with more than when we repeat a more prominent feature like a vibrant flower or water feature.

It’s also good to consider clumping vs stand alone when repeating features. When we clump plants together, they can be considered as 1 whole feature rather than separate individuals.

Clumping is planting close enough where they look like they’re all together, opposed to spacing them out where they then become single features. This works well for smaller ground covers, grasses an shrubs, but is not good for trees or hard features (imagine a garden with 20 different water features and nothing else…yeah exactly).

Numbers wise, here is the general rule of thumb using a basic garden design to help you understand. –

1 is a feature, so make it stand out. In this picture, the fountain in the middle is a single feature. More would look strange.
2 are to be exact opposites, as a frame for a feature. The green trees in the front here are 2’s and frame our setting.
3 can be used to add weight to a side for balance and creating line,  or evenly spread to add formality. This is the both the red trees formalising the setting, as well as the flower groupings in the front.
4+  can be spread throughout the landscape, used in close groupings either side in a formal setting, or spread out evenly. You can also used 4+ plants to create larger groupings like the green trees in the rear, or for a structure like a hedge or tree lined avenue.

Repetition involves repeating certain aspects or features throughout a garden

A really basic garden design to show how repetition can be used to achieve balance and continuity in a design. Made by yours truly using this super nifty online design tool.

Continuity

This is the hardest, but most important feature of a garden or landscape design. It refers to the overall fell of the garden feeling finished, and correct, and not disjointed and confused.

This concept draws in all the other and how they work together in a design, and each need to be working in harmony for true continuity to occur.

If a garden has no balance continuity is instantly out, but it also comes down to the types of plants, design themes and features we use.

Packing a garden full of herbs and vegetables in raised garden beds, and then including a landscaped pool in the middle is going to feel off. Just like using small succulents in your English cottage garden design.

Even having tall plants in the front with smaller feature plants hidden behind can make a garden feel wrong. I’m not saying you can’t pull these off, but doing say would just feel off, and that is because the garden design lacks continuity.

The final say to sum this concept up, is to remember the keep it simple idea…don’t lose focus, and stick to your theme. Over complicating your ideas, usually makes for a poor garden design.

Over complicating your ideas, usually makes for a poor garden design
This garden lacks continuity. Different heights in the shrubs, different foliage textures, and even different sized mulch rings. You can clearly see a lack of obvious theme or intent in the design. Lee Ruk, Flikr.

5 Backyard Landscaping Secrets

Landscaping a backyard can be as easy or complex as the homeowner wants to make it, but there are some landscaping rules of thumb that help to create masterpieces in a backyard of any size.

Include the house as part of the design

The house and backyard should complement each other in terms of style, scale, colours and materials. For example, use trees to frame a house rather than barricade it.

Plant flowers and shrubs to line the approach to your front door, and in garden beds create layers of plants to give the garden a more three-dimensional feel.

Install garden lights

Make lighting an integral feature of your paths, deck, patio and garden beds. Lights enhance the value of your garden by bringing it to life at night.

There’s almost an infinite variety of lighting available and there is sure to be something that matches your style. Some can even be installed without an electrician, such as the solar-powered LED lights that store power during the day and release it at night to light your garden.

Make an impressive entrance

The landscape begins at the edge of your property, not the edge of your house.

Professionals and some keen amateur gardeners often use a supportive design element such as a gate, an arch, a hedge or a border garden to create an impressive sense of entrance to the property.

While not cheap, the effect can be stunning if designed and maintained with care.

Diagnose and treat problems quickly

When problems such as weeds, spots and holes suddenly appear on your lawn or plants, waste no time in identifying the source of the problem.

Examining soil conditions, amount and intensity of sunlight, watering frequency, fertilisation, mowing, pests and diseases will likely shed light on the problem.

If you’re unsure of the problem, contact your local nursery or gardening expert for advice, and don’t leave the problem to fester.

It might cost you a key element of your beautiful landscape.

Make the most of your space

If you look at your yard at different times of day and from different angles and in different weather conditions, you might notice vast variations in your garden’s appearance.

Take pictures to help you remember what it looks like. Keep track of where the sunlight strikes from hour to hour and as the seasons change.

Also, make sure to keep note of shaded areas and where rain pools. While a balanced mix of plants is good and looks impressive, selecting plants adapted to your yard’s conditions, such as natives, will help your landscape to thrive.

This strategy will work no matter how large or small your garden is.

That’s all from our design series. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and learnt some new tips and ideas to help you on your way to designing the best possible garden you can!