Do-It-Yourself Landscape Design

Learn to Balance Aesthetic, Practical Needs

Fence with shrub planting in front.
Hardscaping features such as fences provide structure for a landscape design. David Beaulieu

Of what does do-it-yourself landscape design work consist? To be sure, both "landscape" and "design" are common, everyday words -- not terms that would send you scurrying to a dictionary. But asking ourselves exactly what this sort of work entails is a useful exercise: By exploring all of its ins and outs, we may discover an aspect of this diverse field that we've been overlooking all this time.

Let's begin answering the question with a basic definition that considers both aesthetics and energy conservation. Further, let's call this a definition specifically of do-it-yourself landscape design, so as to keep our discussion distinct from professional concerns:


The definition of do-it-yourself landscape design is the art of arranging or modifying the features of the grounds around a home to improve the property from an aesthetic and/or practical standpoint.

This definition, however, raises the questions, "Aesthetic for whom?" and "Practical for whom?" The issue of aesthetics, in particular, is fraught with subjectivity. Frankly, what one person finds to be attractive landscape designs might not excite you at all. But this does not mean that nothing needs to be said about landscape aesthetics for the do-it-yourselfer.

You may have your own distinct tastes, but there are still useful guidelines to discuss that will help you achieve maximum aesthetic impact on your landscape. If your property is destined for the real estate market, please consult these ideas on home landscaping to learn specifically about sellers' guidelines; essentially, you will need to take into account the tastes of potential buyers. If, instead, you are landscaping simply to suit your own tastes, you'll want to keep in mind the general design guidelines for landscape aesthetics discussed in the following pages.

Practical Design Elements: Energy Conservation With Trees, Land Use

How will your yard be used? Do you have children who are active outdoors? Will you be landscaping with dogs? Do you, yourself plan on using your yard for exercise, sports, or entertaining? Answering these questions will help narrow down the possible landscape designs best suited to your needs. Extensive lawns are useful for homeowners interested in badminton, ball playing and hosting social barbecues. But if you are more interested in turning your yard into a retreat meant for serenity, solitude and contemplation, the role of turf grass may be reduced drastically in favor of trees, shrubs, garden beds, etc.

The various aspects of practical landscape design are too numerous and too complex to discuss at length here. Undoubtedly, however, one aspect that warrants inclusion in any introduction to landscape design is energy conservation. A well-planned incorporation of trees and shrubs in your yard, as in the following examples, is an effective means of energy conservation:

  • Deciduous trees can be planted to the south and west of a home to serve as shade trees, reducing summer air conditioning costs. Because such trees will drop their leaves in winter, they won't deprive your home of sunlight when you need it.
  • Evergreen trees planted to the north and west of a home can serve as windbreaks. By breaking the wind, such trees will reduce your heating costs in winter.
  • Likewise, shrubs used as foundation plantings can reduce heating costs, creating an insulating dead air space around the home. Plant the shrubs a few feet away from your foundation.

But after such practical concerns have been addressed, you'll still want to make your landscape design as aesthetically pleasing as possible. An introduction to aesthetics is as much a part of do-it-yourself landscape design study as is an introduction to its practical side. To that end, let's begin to lay some groundwork.

Aesthetic Considerations

Turning from functionality to the aesthetics of your landscape design, you first have some decisions to make regarding hardscaping (or "hardscape"), existing trees, and what you'll have as a view when you gaze out the window. Getting the hardscaping part of the project right will make implementing the softscape refinements relatively easy.

Two of the most labor-intensive hardscaping projects are the building of decks and patios. Yet as potentially large and beautiful outdoor living spaces, decks and patios are also two of the more common and rewarding hardscaping features. Other hardscaping features include:

  • Fences and walls
  • Stone or brick walkways
  • Gazebos and arbors
  • Statuary, water gardens and garden fountains

If you were giving a room a total makeover, you wouldn't start by hanging pictures and arranging knickknacks, would you? Of course not: such fragile refinements would get damaged as you did the heavier work, such as stripping the walls and moving furniture. The way to begin a landscape makeover is not so very different, in principle. You do your hardscaping first, saving the refinements for last.

Hardscaping will constitute the heavier work in a landscape makeover, forming the backbone for your landscape aesthetics. Leave such icing on the cake as the planting of beds of perennial flowers for last -- they'll just be in your way during the hardscaping phase. Some basic guidelines follow for getting your landscape design project underway.

Unity, Vistas, Privacy Fences

  • Your landscape should be in harmony with your home, to ensure unity in the overall appearance of the property. One consideration influencing unity is proportion. Large trees are in proportion with large homes, but are out of proportion with smaller homes. When in doubt, however, leave the tree in place -- provided that it doesn't pose a safety hazard.
  • Accentuate desirable views. If you live on a rural hillside with the potential for panoramic views of a valley and surrounding hills, you probably won't want your home to be entirely encased in trees that will obstruct your view. Don't cut down all the trees, though. Determine what your finest vistas are, clear the trees in just those areas, and use the remaining trees to frame those nice views. When set off like a picture by grand trees to the left and right, nice views become truly spectacular views.
  • By contrast, you'll want to block out undesirable views. A suburban home with close neighbors is an ideal candidate for some sort of privacy fence. Privacy can be achieved via either inanimate fencing (i.e., hardscaping) or "living" fences. If you prefer living fences (composed of shrubs), your main decision is between planting a hedge or a loose border as a privacy fence.

    If you prefer hardscaping to screen out prying eyes, some of the options for privacy fences include the following hardscaping features:

    With the hardscaping already in place, it will be easier later to integrate the softscape with it in a seamless fashion. In the case of some hardscape features, complementary softscape elements are so commonly used in conjunction with them as to come to mind immediately. Let's look at these briefly.

    Integration of Hardscape and Softscape

    Water gardens, particularly those with fountains or statuary, can supply your landscape design with a focal point. Because such a water feature is, by itself, so impressive, the softscape needed to make it a true "garden" is rather minimal. A few container-held aquatic plants would be sufficient to supplement your hardscaping. But certainly more elaborate softscape treatments are possible as well.

    Similarly, in installing gazebos, arbors, decks and patios you are laying the groundwork to display your softscape elements in a more favorable light than would be possible without hardscaping. A vine on a well-located arbor becomes more than just a vine: It becomes a festive garland beckoning us to pass under its arch. Nor is building a garden arbor all that difficult. Gazebos, patios and decks are all excellent choices for showcasing window boxes and potted specimen plants. For more on patio construction, please see this article on building brick patios. For an introduction to deck construction, read these essential steps in building decks.

    Now that the hardscaping is in place, you have a firm structure on which to build. Let's shed some light on the next step -- literally.

    Outdoor Lighting

    Using outdoor garden lighting extends the time that you may appreciate hardscape and softscape features -- namely, after the sun goes down. Christmas lights are a great way to spruce up your winter landscape design, winter being the toughest time of year to keep the landscape interesting. Not only are there fewer daylight hours in winter, but there is also inherently less visual interest on the landscape -- so you have to make the most of everything at your disposal.

    As long as you avoid colored bulbs, there is also no reason why your strings of Christmas lights cannot double as lighting for a deck or patio during the summertime. Nor do you have to restrict yourself to Christmas lights, per se. A simple spotlight can do wonders. Picture a spruce tree, rising up out of a blanket of pristine snow, with a stone wall as a backdrop. By throwing a spotlight at night on this scene to highlight it, you create a winter wonderland.

    Outdoor Garden Lighting Without Power

    Of course, you'll want outdoor garden lighting during the summer months, too. But in some cases you'll probably want more subtle, decorative lights rather than spotlights. The idea here is to be able to enjoy your garden more fully, rather than to show it off to others. You'll want to install a garden bench and enjoy the ambiance while dining outdoors.

    Here in the 21st century, we tend to assume that outdoor garden lighting means electric lights or solar-powered gizmos. Laboring under this assumption, many people of modest means forgo the pleasures of outdoor garden lighting altogether; hiring an electrical contractor for the installation is just not in the budget. And most of us are sufficiently wary of the mysterious powers of electricity to deter us from undertaking such a project ourselves. But all is not lost. Don't forget that our ancestors lit up the night for millennia before electric lights were developed. Don't laugh, but have you ever considered candlelight?

    In an age surrounded by electric, the luxury of candlelight has taken on overtones of romance and serenity. This is just the sort of mood you're looking to create with outdoor garden lighting. Yes, you do have to take safety precautions when using candles outdoors. You don't want the wind knocking your candle over and starting a fire. But decorative glass candle holders are available on the market for just this purpose. Mexican tin candle holders are also sold for your outdoor garden lighting needs, and they're a great fit into a Southwestern theme. For an Oriental, meditative flavor, Chinese lanterns can be purchased in various colors (not to be confused with Chinese lantern plants). For safety's sake, never leave flame unattended!

    Any of this outdoor garden lighting can be hung from shepherd's hooks, available at most nurseries. Simply insert votive candles and close up the lantern securely. A few of these placed strategically around your favorite garden patch will light the area sufficiently to make for an ideal spot for a late-night snack in the spring or fall. For dining in the summer garden, add a few stakes armed with citronella candles for natural mosquito control.

    Speaking of gardens, you have a decision to make in landscape design concerning how much space should be devoted to gardens, as opposed to lawn areas. This also raises the issue of the various garden styles. Now that your structural elements are in place and lit up, it is time to turn your attention to the softscape, and especially to garden designs. Typically, your softscape will include at least some lawn. But the percentage of your softscape to be taken up by lawn will depend partly on practical considerations, as discussed above, as well as on aesthetic attitudes. If a flat expanse of grass just isn't inherently interesting enough for your tastes, you'll probably want flowering trees in your softscape, and you'll probably derive a great deal of satisfaction from choosing between the different garden designs to be considered.

    A Cornucopia of Garden Designs for Your Softscape

    • There are, of course, vegetable gardens, which are eminently practical. But do not underestimate the aesthetic potential of vegetable gardens. Evenly planted rows of leafy vegetables, for instance, can be very attractive. Cucumber plants can be trained up a trellis or over an arbor just as any other vine can.
    • Another garden type that can yield aesthetic as well as culinary delights is the herb garden. The knot garden, pleasing to the eye for those who enjoy geometric patterns, is often composed of herbs.
    • Cottage gardens typically rely heavily on perennial flowers. Evocative of the traditional English countryside of the peasants, cottage gardens represent the informal design style.
    • The formal landscape design style has traditionally relied heavily on shrubs tightly organized into hedges, forming geometric patterns.
    • Water gardens have already been mentioned. Other garden styles that rely heavily on a natural element other than plants are the rock garden and alpine garden, the latter being a rock garden planted with alpine plants.
    • Westerners have become increasingly interested in Japanese gardens. Exotic Japanese gardens rely heavily on both rocks and water, as well as wooden elements.

    The Principles That Underlie Garden Designs

    Regardless of garden style, let yourself be guided by the principles that underlie all garden designs. It is easy to overlook one or more of these principles, then look at other people's garden designs and wonder, "Why do these garden styles look so much better than mine, even though similar plants have been used?" Very likely, the answer to this question lies in the adherence (or lack thereof) to the principles of design. For a full treatment of landscape or garden design principles, please consult this article on landscape design theory for beginners. The basic elements that underlie the principles of garden designs, which are defined in that article, are as follows:

    • Color
    • Form
    • Line
    • Scale
    • Texture

    Supplied with an understanding of these elements, one is then able to utilize the more advanced principles used in garden designs, which include:

    • Proportion
    • Transition
    • Unity
    • Rhythm
    • Balance
    • Focalization