Landscape Design Tips And Ideas For The Do It Yourselfer
Just about anyone knows a great looking landscape when they see one. Take a drive through any neighborhood and it's easy to spot the landscape that should receive the 'Yard of the Month Award', every month. Chances are, a professional landscape designer or someone who has the working knowledge of art elements and design principles designed it.

If you know very little about landscape design, and are trying to decide whether or not to design it yourself, this overview may help you to determine whether or not you want to tackle the job. At least we hope so.

Developing a Landscape Plan

It's difficult to visualize certain aspects of a landscape design without putting it to scale on paper. The designer should think with drawings or sketches and make the mistakes on paper and not on the landscape site.

Whether designing a landscape plan for a home foundation planting, or a full lot plan, you'll need to start by drawing a "plot plan". The plot plan should consist of:

  • Accurate size, dimensions and position of home and other major structures on the lot, including property lines
  • Accurate location, dimension and elevation of doors and windows
  • Existing and future planned driveways, walks, pools, ponds, play areas, outdoor living areas and other fixed structures or features

NOTE: It saves a lot of time if you can obtain an accurate plat of the house and property along with a home floor plan that shows outside dimensions. These plans may be secured from the builder, developer or county or city property records. Although the floor plan scale will probably be different from the scale you use, it will still be easier to convert the scale than to physically measure the house, lot, etc. In the absence of a plat, get the measuring tape out.

Once the position of the home on the lot has been determined, this should be drawn to a predetermined scale on paper. The most common scales used are 1" = 5' or 1" = 10', but you may choose another scale based upon your drawing equipment, size of paper and project dimensions.

Drawing Supplies You Might Need:
  • Drafting pencils
  • Drafting paper
  • T-square
  • Scaled rulers
  • Triangle tool (right angle tool)
  • Art gum eraser
  • Landscape design template with circles and/or plant and tree shapes. Available at most office supply stores.
  • The designer must have a firm, steady working surface.

Elements of Art in Landscape Design

Regarding landscape design, elements of art include but are not limited to color, line, form, texture and scale.

Color can be used to visually change distance perspective and to set a certain mood.

A color wheel is a diagramatic way of showing relationships between colors. Colors on the right side of the wheel are warm. Colors on the left side are cool. Colors adjacent to one another are analogous. Opposite colors are complementary.

What is important to gardeners, is how colors clash with or complement one another and the distinction between warm and cool colors.

Warm colors and light tints, such as red, orange, yellow and white, advance an object or area toward the observer. These colors and tints placed near the foundation of a house would make the house appear closer to the street.

Cool colors and deep shades like blue, green and black recede and can be used to make the house appear farther from the street. Cool colors are restful while warm colors express action and are best used in filtered light or against a green or dark background.


Line is related to eye movement or flow. In the overall landscape, line is inferred by bed arrangement and the way these beds fit or flow together. Straight lines tend to be forceful, structural and stable and direct the observer's eye to a point faster than curved lines. Curved or free-flowing lines are sometimes described as smooth, graceful or gentle and create a relaxing, progressive, moving and natural feeling. Bed lines often flow across hard-surfaced areas such as driveways and walkways.

Form and line are closely related. Line is considered usually in terms of the outline or bed edges, whereas form is more encompassing. The concept of form is related also to the size of an object or area. Form can be discussed in terms of individual plant growth habits or as the planting arrangement in a landscape. Plant forms include upright, oval, columnar, spreading, broad spreading, weeping, mounding, vase-shape, etc. Form is basically the shape and structure of a plant or mass of plants. Structures also have form and should be considered as such when designing the area around them. Make sure to combine various forms in the landscape design. For example, stagger low growing shrubs with a mounding form in front of taller shrubs or trees with an upright or vase shape.


Texture describes the surface quality of an object than can be seen or felt. Surfaces in the landscape includes buildings, walks, patios, groundcovers/mulch and plants. The texture of plants differs as the relationships between the leaves, twigs and branches differ. Coarse, medium or fine foliage could be used to describe texture but so could smooth, rough, glossy or dull. In a landscape design alternate large-leaved plants with small-leaved plants, or dull-leaved with shiny-leaved to create visually appealing contrast in texture.

Scale refers to the size of an object or objects in relation to the surroundings. Size refers to definite measurements while scale describes the size relationship between adjacent objects. The size of plantings and buildings compared on the human scale must be considered. If you are designing a landscape for a single level home on a 1/4 acre size lot large shade trees such as red oaks or elms should be substituted with smaller-growing shade trees such as the Japanese maples or crape myrtles.

Principles in Landscape Design

Design principles include unity, balance, transition, focalization, proportion, rhythm, repetition and simplicity. All these principles interact to yield the intended design.

Unity is obtained by the effective use of components in a design to express a main idea through consistent style. Unity is emphasized by consistency of character between units in the landscape. Use of elements to express a specific theme within units creates harmony. Unity can be achieved by using mass planting and repetition.

Unity means that all parts of the composition or landscape go together; they fit. A natural feeling evolves when each activity area belongs to and blends with the entire landscape. Everything selected for a landscape must complement the central scheme and must, above all, serve some functional purpose.


Balance, in landscape design, refers to the equilibrium or equality of visual attraction. Symmetrical balance is achieved when one side of the design is a mirror image of the other side. This principle is often used in foundation plantings by placing the same type of plants or trees on opposite corners of a home, or on each side of an entryway.

Asymmetrical balance uses different forms, colors and textures to obtain balance of visual attraction. These opposing compositions on either side of the central axis create equal attraction. For example, mass may be opposed by color or linear dimension by height. The designer must skillfully manipulate the design elements to create asymmetrical balance. The central axis must be predetermined and then developed by the elements of art and other principles of design discussed here. Asymmetrical balance in design is much more difficult to achieve by the novice designer. Design professionals can work for years to become skilled in this principle.


Transition is gradual change. Transition can be obtained by the arrangement of objects with varying colors, textures, forms, or sizes in a logical sequential order. For example, coarse to medium to fine textures, round to oval to linear structural forms, or cylindrical to globular to prostrate plants. An unlimited number of schemes exist by combining elements of various size, form, texture and color to create transition.

It is possible to use transition to extend visual dimensions beyond actual dimensions. For example, radical lines in the private area of the landscape can be used to enframe and/or focalize a lake scene. Transition of plant materials along these lines can make the scene in the distance become a part of the landscape. Transition from taller to shorter plants with textural changes from coarse to fine along focal lines emphasizes the beauty of a lake scene. Transition from shorter to taller plants and from fine to coarse textures would enframe the scene and make it appear closer, like a painting on a wall. Generally, transition assists in the gradual movement of a viewer's eye to the design and within it.


Proportion refers to the size of parts of the design in relation to each other and to the design as a whole. One large towering oak may compliment an office building but would probably dwarf a single story residence. A three-foot diameter garden pond would be lost in a large open lawn but would fit beautifully into a small private area. And of course, a colossal fountain would dominate a private garden but could enhance a large city plaza. Always keep size in mind when selecting plants, trees, structures, statuary and other features and elements.


Rhythm is achieved when the elements of a design create a feeling of motion which leads the viewer's eye through or even beyond the designed area. Tools like color schemes, line and form can be repeated to attain rhythm in landscape design. Rhythm reduces confusion in the design.


Focalization involves the leading of visual observation toward a feature, whether it be a plant, tree, structure, or an object such as a fountain or statue. Straight radial lines create a strong focalization when compared to curved lines. The viewer's eye is quickly forced along straight lines to a focal point. Generally, weaker or flowing lines of focalization are desirable in the residential landscape. Transition of plants or other objects along these lines can strengthen or weaken the focalization. Curved lines are stronger when curved toward each other than when curved outward. Indirect focalization is created by lines curved in the same direction. Focalization can be adjusted by plant materials along the lines to create symmetrical or asymmetrical focalization. Asymmetrical focalization is indirect while symmetrical focalization is more direct, creating stronger focalization.

Since focalization can be used to direct attention to a point, traffic in an area is usually directed to that point. Therefore, focalization could be used to direct traffic in a garden area. Guidance of view toward features of commercial, aesthetic or cultural value may attract the eye of the unaware without conscious effort. We often consider the front entrance to a home or building as the primary focal point and thus will design the landscape to point the viewers eye towards it.


Repetition refers to the repeated use of features like plants with identical shape, line, form, texture and/or color. Too much repetition creates monotony but when used effectively can lead to rhythm, focalization or emphasis. Unity can be achieved better by no other means than repetition. Think of repetition as not having too much variety in the design which creates a cluttered or busy appearance. Repetition is often used in front yard designs where a more formal, clean appearance is desired. However, in backyard designs we can often let go of this principle. The backyard is where you and your family and friends will spend most of your time relaxing outdoors - and more variety in plant material here can be a pleasant distraction and conversation piece for you and your guests.


Simplicity goes hand-in-hand with repetition and can be achieved by elimination of unnecessary detail. Too much detail, such as squiggly bed lines, creates confusion of perception to the passerby. Simplicity is the reduction of a design to its simplest, functional form, which avoids unnecessary cost and maintenance.

A Final Note...

If after reading this basic overview of landscape design seems overwhelming consider working with a reputable, local landscape designer who has extensive knowledge and experience working with the types of plants that grow best in your area. Better yet, meet and consult with three designers and pick the one you gel with the most. And, most importantly, remember to contact references before you hire anybody to do work on your property!

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