Elements of Garden Design

Pulling the features of your garden together

There are many garden design rules, but no garden police to come and enforce them. So have some fun in your garden and give it your own personal touch. The only person you really have to please is yourself. Often our gardens are created in a haphazard fashion, with whatever plants are at hand or strike our fancy. When your garden starts to feel chaotic, or if you'd like to avoid having it get that way, there are some key elements that make a garden feel more cohesive. Things like repetition and focal points and colors that don't compete with one another are often easier in theory than in practice, but consider the following ideas as pieces of a puzzle and mull over how best to incorporate them into your garden.

  • 01 of 05

    Garden Bones

    Using Evergreens as the Bones of the Garden
    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Of all the garden design elements, garden bones are the hardest to incorporate after the fact. Like a building or a story, you need a solid structure before you start filling in the details. If you've ever looked at a garden where all the plants were a similar size or height, you were looking at a garden with no bones. Small trees and shrubs are often used to provide the bones of a garden and evergreens are classic. You may not be able to have a hedge of evergreens as a backdrop for your small border, but dwarf evergreens will do very nicely, for creating a centering and a sense of permanence. They also do wonders for adding winter interest and for inducing birds into your garden.

  • 02 of 05


    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Color is the biggest stumbling block for novice garden designers. We hate to limit our color palettes and usually wind up with every color under the sun. It's interesting how many people can tell you if they look good in blueish-reds or orange-reds, but most cannot tell the difference between red flowers. If you have a preference for certain colors or an abhorrence of orange or yellow in your garden, you may already be on your way to a pleasing color palette. If you're the type to impulse buy or to buy one of this and one of that, take heart. You can still use all the colors you like, you just might need to create more garden beds to keep them separated. This article on combining colors will help you see the relationships between complementary colors, like blue and yellow, that make their opposites appear more vibrant, harmonious colors, like yellow and green, that seem to gently shift in shades and even how to throw caution to the wind and stick with a polychromatic palette - and love it.

  • 03 of 05

    Focal Points

    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    When we work in our gardens, our attention is on the small details, like the slug damage on the Hostas and weeds that sprang up overnight. Many of us don't step back and view our gardens the way a new visitor would. Ideally, a garden should not be able to be taken in at one glance. It should be a leisurely discovery. An easy way to accomplish that is to include focal points in your garden. Focal points can be large plants, structures or ornaments and their function is to grab the eye's attention and then direct to the surrounding plants. Don't think your garden is too small to have a focal point. Even containers need a focal point to anchor them.

  • 04 of 05


    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    The same way a sleek silk blouse is highlighted next to a nubby, tweed skirt, plants with different textures spotlight the key attributes of each other. You may love soft, billowy plants but an entire garden of them will look like a blur. You need the contract of coarser leaves or wide, bold foliage. It's the contrast that gives your garden a crisper definition and keeps it from looking two dimensional. Luckily, the texture is one of the easiest garden design elements to conquer.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05


    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Sound is probably not at the top of the list when you think about things to include in your garden design. But sound is what breathes life into a garden. Whether it's the wind rustling plants, the sound of gravel crunching underfoot, bird songs or trickling water, the sound should be considered and planned for. It can be as easy as using plants with seeds for the birds or as complicated as a series of waterfalls. Your time in the garden is often solitary and some captivating sound will make you feel all the more a part of the garden you create.​